What would it take for George W. Bush to admit a mistake? At an April 13 press conference, the president was asked to name the biggest mistake he’d made since 9/11 and what lessons he’d learned from it. In a rare moment of candor, Bush fumbled a bit before saying that he was “sure something will pop into my head,” but he couldn’t think of one. Even the president’s supporters could probably come up with a few: justifying the invasion of Iraq with bogus intelligence emanating from the likes of Ahmed Chalabi; failing to have a realistic postwar plan before allowing U.S. troops to become an occupying army; and not reacting more quickly and decisively to the horrific abuse of Iraqi prisoners. But as George Packer points out in his column (“Like a Rock”), the president is apparently constitutionally incapable of admitting he is wrong. Perhaps Bush’s much vaunted steadfastness is little more than classic overcompensation — after a life of “unearned successes and unpaid-for failures,” as Packer notes, the president simply lacks the maturity and true self-confidence of great leaders like Roosevelt or Churchill, who acknowledged their mistakes and then moved on.
Perhaps no American president has ever made a bigger mistake than George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. And as Peter Bergen details in his cover story (“Backdraft”), the most disturbing, long-term impact of that decision is that it strengthened Al Qaeda and inflamed global terrorism. Few Western journalists understand the workings of Al Qaeda better than Bergen. He’s been covering jihadist terrorism since the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and, as a CNN producer, took a news crew to Afghanistan to conduct the first television interview with Osama bin Laden, in which the Al Qaeda leader announced plans for a jihad against the United States. For his story in this issue, Bergen tapped into his network of sources — including former and current U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence officials, most of them Republicans — and found that virtually all agreed that far from striking a blow against Al Qaeda, as the administration claims, the Iraq war has actually “extended world terrorism indefinitely into the future.” The invasion and occupation of Iraq convinced Muslims in many parts of the world that the war on terrorism is part of a war on Islam, Bergen notes, justifying a “defensive” jihad that many now see as legitimate. That is in marked contrast to the reaction to the U.S. strikes against the Taliban, which many Muslims considered justified after 9/11. “It’s hard to think of anything we could have done,” Bergen says of the Iraq war, “that could have been more counterproductive.” A different kind of president might even call it a mistake. —Roger Cohn