Published January 13, 2015
Dead or alive.
President Bush said he didn't care how terrorism architect Usama bin Laden was brought to justice.
"We'll smoke him out of his cave and we'll get him eventually," Bush said confidently.
That was back in 2001 when the U.S. reeled in shock and horror after 19 men hijacked four airliners and turned them into guided missiles. The jets slammed into New York's World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, killing nearly 3,000 people in the deadliest attack in history on U.S. soil.
It was the beginning of a new era of anxiety and vulnerability for the country after only a few years of post-Cold War comfort. Americans suddenly woke up to the chilling threat of terrorism — not in the Middle East or somewhere else around the world, but here, at home.
It was a turning point, too, for Bush, an inexperienced, little-traveled president who had shown marginal interest in world affairs.
Before Sept. 11, Bush was best known for winning his office in a controversial Supreme Court decision and then cajoling Congress into passing one of the largest tax cuts in history and enacting a major education bill.
After Sept. 11, Bush declared himself a wartime president. He denounced "evildoers" and launched a global war on terrorism. He rallied the nation and the world; his approval ratings soared into the stratosphere.
Now, on the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, Bush winds down his presidency with those attacks and the aftermath standing as the defining events of his time in office.
"You have to view this as the seminal event of his presidency," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "It transformed him, it focused him and gave a sense of purpose to his presidency that really had not existed before."
Suddenly, Ornstein said, Bush's mission was clear: "Fight a war against terror and win it."
The president laid the groundwork for two wars in close succession, in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Today, he still is carrying the burden of those wars, still not won, and a tarnished U.S. image around the globe. Critics blame him for allowing people to be tortured, for domestic spying and for abuses of executive power.
Bush sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, to strike Al Qaeda training camps and remove the Taliban rulers who harbored bin Laden. The Taliban fell quickly. Bin Laden slipped away.
Many key lieutenants, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, were captured. Others were killed.
On March 19, 2003, with solid support from Congress, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. The decision was justified largely on grounds — later proved false — that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction that, Bush said, "could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly sought to link Saddam to the Sept. 11 attacks. But the independent Sept. 11 commission concluded there was no such relationship. Bush eventually stopped making that connection, but still cast Saddam as a terrorist threat.
In an Oval Office speech on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Bush said, "I am often asked why we are in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. After 9/11, Saddam's regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take."
The war at first was popular, when it looked like a relatively easy victory. Bush made protecting the U.S. the central theme of his re-election campaign and staged the 2004 Republican convention in New York, a reminder of the attacks.
On the seventh anniversary this year, Bush will mark the day simply by going to the Pentagon for the unveiling of a Sept. 11 memorial.
History will judge his presidency on the war in Iraq, which Bush decreed the central front in the war against Islamic extremists. It has lasted longer than the Civil War, World War I and World War II. It has claimed the lives of more than 4,100 Americans and cost about $653 billion.
Many people already have come to a decision.
A Gallup Poll in March 2008 found that 54 percent of Americans believe Iraq will be remembered as a failure and that 59 percent think it was a mistake to send U.S. troops there in the first place.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama calls the war "one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in our history" and says "Al Qaeda's leadership is stronger than ever because we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan" to invade Iraq.
Republican John McCain is emphasizing the same national security theme in his campaign that the Bush White House won with four years ago. McCain also distances himself from Bush, saying the incumbent mishandled the war until he adopted the combat troop increase strategy last year that has led to a sharp reduction in the violence.
As security in Iraq has grown in the past year, however, it has deteriorated in Afghanistan. Bush says Afghanistan is a central front, too. More than 500 U.S. troops have died there or in neighboring Pakistan and Uzbekistan since 2001, and the Taliban is regrouping. More American troops died in Afghanistan in July than in Iraq, for the first time since the Iraq war started.
Seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's vow to get bin Laden remains unfulfilled. From time to time, bin Laden taunts Bush with Internet insults and threats taped in his hide-out, presumed somewhere in the lawless border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Bush says he does not think much about bin Laden, that his influence has been diminished.
Still, U.S. intelligence officials worry Al Qaeda is establishing cells in other countries and training for attacks in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa and the United States.
"Al Qaeda remains the pre-eminent threat against the United States," Mike McConnell, the national intelligence director, told Congress this year. FBI Director Robert Mueller said Al Qaeda continues to present a "critical threat to the homeland" and warned that "homegrown terrorists" inspired by Al Qaeda's propaganda on the Internet posed a threat as well.
So far, the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack, though some allies have. Bush says the U.S. and its allies have thwarted some major plots.
"I vowed that day that I would not rest, so long as I was the president, in protecting the people," Bush remarked after a briefing in 2006 at the U.S. Central Command, the military command that oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "So a lot of my decision-making is based upon the attack."
Each workday at 8 a.m., McConnell and an intelligence briefer sit down with Bush in the Oval Office to update him on threat assessments, turmoil and problems around the globe.
As the wars have gone better and worse, so has the look of Bush's legacy.
"The Bush presidency has been more of a roller coaster presidency than anything I've seen in my lifetime," said Lee Edwards, a historian of the American conservative movement at the Heritage Foundation. "No one has soared higher or dipped lower than George W. Bush."
Today, his approval ratings are low. But Lee said that just as history changed its initially dim view of Harry Truman's decision to send U.S. forces to Korea, it will conclude over time that Bush made the right move in Iraq.
Ornstein says the jury is still out. "We don't know what history is going to say about this until it shakes down in a number of years."
Bush said he worries Americans will lose patience with the fight against terrorism, lulled into a false feeling of safety. But he says he does not worry about his legacy.
"Oh, I don't know," Bush told an interviewer recently. "I'll be dead when they finally figure it out."