President Obama this weekend released five senior Taliban leaders from the Gauntanamo Bay detention facility in exchange for an American prisoner of war that deserted his post. Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden next to the father of that deserter, who spoke Pashto and praised Allah. It was a singularly bizarre and offensive moment. Obama spoke in his remarks about his commitment to winding down the war in Afghanistan and closing Gitmo.
But he never mentioned 9/11.
The Taliban leaders were released to the custody of the government of Qatar, but they will be free to roam the planet in one year’s time. Obama’s administration claimed that it did what it needed to do to bring an American soldier home. The administration had been considering for some time the choice to release the so-called “Taliban Five” in accordance with Taliban demands, so that America can negotiate with the group that harbored Osama bin Laden for peace in a country where we’re only keeping 9,800 troops. A Taliban spokesman said that the organization does not respect the peace process. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, meanwhile, claimed victory.
Obama oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden, which should not be discounted in historical analysis of his presidency. But in his second term, he is also trying as hard as he can to end George W. Bush’s wars and to change the enemies that Bush identified in 2001. Al Qaeda-affiliated militants, seizing on Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops and the incompetence of the current Iraqi prime minister, recently took control of Fallujah, where U.S. Marines under Bush won perhaps their most important Iraq War victory. Arms and aid are being sent to Islamist rebels in Syria fighting Bashar al-Assad with al-Qaeda waiting in the wings to take control of that country. Obama blamed an al-Qaeda attack and the killing of our ambassador on a YouTube video and tried to garner goodwill with the Muslim world by condemning some obscure Internet movie. John Kerry struck a deal to lift sanctions on Iran, part of Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” with no clause that the Iranians would shut down their nuclear program. Bush made grave mistakes during his presidency, and Obama is designing himself to be the president that corrects them.
But he still doesn’t talk about 9/11.
I wonder what would happen if we could go back in time to Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, where Bush inspired the world by throwing the ceremonial first pitch from the mound and landing a strike right down the middle of the plate. If we could go on the JumboTron and tell New Yorkers that in thirteen years we would be releasing the Taliban and standing by as al-Qaeda gains strength across the Middle East and Africa. How would the crowd have reacted?
In a political sense, that’s why Obama didn’t mention 9/11 in the Rose Garden.
I remember the months after 9/11. Our own civilians had been senselessly killed. Icons of our free-market system and national defense had been destroyed. We knew who did it: Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, which was being harbored in Afghanistan by the Taliban government. We vowed not to let the crime go unpunished.
Our citizens were unified in a cross-denominational American character. Rudy Giuliani led by an example of toughness. Billy Joel played “New York State of Mind” for cheering first responders and their families at Madison Square Garden’s Concert for New York City. The crowd erupted in applause when the piano man barked “We’re not going anywhere.” An NYPD officer proclaimed, “Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass” to one of the most deserved and refreshing ovations I’d ever heard. Movie actor Richard Gere, meanwhile, advocated on stage for no military action, and was roundly booed.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, 90 percent of America supported President Bush, whose virility made him the country’s ideal spokesman on the world stage. We supported his righteous, though practically flawed, small-scale invasion of Afghanistan, his successful temporary overthrow of the Taliban and his shuttering of al-Qaeda training camps. We had shared purpose and a leader determined to wage the War on Terror with conviction.
President Obama doesn’t talk now about the early months of the War on Terror, when we came together to tell Osama bin Laden to kiss our royal (insert any ethnicity here and it would have been fine with all of us) ass. He doesn’t want us to think about 9/11 when he announces that he’s freeing the Taliban. He wants us to think about everything else that happened after that first triumphant phase of the War on Terror without acknowledging that everything about the last thirteen years started with the attacks on New York and Washington.
What happened in those subsequent years that allows Obama to do this, that allows our president to whitewash any mention of 9/11 when he talks about freeing the Taliban? What happened in those years that allows him to stand next to a father praising Allah to celebrate the return of a son — fifteen years old on 9/11 — who said he was ashamed of his country and deserted his post in the midst of battle? Why does Obama want us to forget the patriotic mood of late 2001? We have to start, sadly, at the point where Obama wants us to start.
Most of us believed him when he told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that our campaign against terrorism must next go through Iraq. We watched as U.S. troops tore down the statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, and saw footage of Iraqi citizens greeting our tanks as liberators. But in May 2003, we tossed out plainspoken Iraq manager Jay Garner, who first told reporters, upon his arrival in Baghdad, “I’m not the ruler of anything.” In came the “president’s man,” a besuited preppie named Jerry Bremer, to manage the Iraqi transition effort. Saddam’s police force was fired – to the surprise of even Bush himself – as part of Bremer’s plan to de-Saddamize the country. Spurned ex-Iraqi military officials, denied their $20 stipends from Bremer, organized themselves into an infant insurgency that carried out the war’s first car bombing in Baghdad. We discovered that Saddam did not have any weapons of mass destruction.