- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2002

One year ago, President Bush was widely derided as a foreign policy lightweight who couldn't even remember the names of fellow world leaders.
Foreign leaders called him a reckless, unilateralist cowboy. Many Americans, even in the first hours after September 11, still complained that Vice President Richard B. Cheney was the presidential one.
But now Mr. Bush is seen as a formidable player on the world stage, whose speech tomorrow at the United Nations could stiffen international resolve to face down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The president seemed to find his voice in the crucible of September 11 as he rallied the nation and a coalition of other countries against the terrorists sheltered in Afghanistan, beginning with stirring remarks at the Washington National Cathedral and at ground zero in Manhattan.
"We will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail," Mr. Bush declared Sept. 20 in a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress, drawing a thunderous standing ovation.
Even the president's fiercest foes in Hollywood cheered when he cast the fight in biblical terms of good and evil.
But such largely uncritical acclaim cooled after the rout of the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists, and in the reality of the long haul and low visibility of the war on global terror. Some bemoaned an apparent loss of focus. And the charge of "unilateralism" arose again as Mr. Bush fixed his eyes on the threat posed by Iraq under Saddam.
Those closest to the president, starting with his wife, insist he was not fundamentally transformed by September 11. The qualities that came to the fore decency, firmness, resolve, patience already formed his character, they say.
"I think the American people had a chance to see what those characteristics were," first lady Laura Bush said this week in an interview with Brit Hume of Fox News Channel. "The discipline that he has, and the way he's very deliberate.
"And he's very just and he's patient, which is one of the characteristics he says he has to work on the most," she said. "And then how much he empathizes with the way people are and the way people hurt after September 11."
Mr. Bush, notoriously wary of public introspection, chafed three months into the war in Afghanistan when The Washington Times asked whether the terrorist attacks changed him.
"I'll give you a hint," the president told this reporter at his Texas ranch in late December. "I liked coming to the ranch before September the 11th; I like coming to the ranch after September 11th."
White House aides privately say the president, like most Americans, was deeply affected and showed it. But these aides dismiss talk of fundamental transformation as the rationalization of critics who underestimated Mr. Bush's ability to lead and don't want to admit they were wrong.
"I don't think anyone, regardless of their skill as statesman or communicator, could help but be transformed by an event like 9/11," says Democrat Scot Segal, a former political strategist who works closely with the administration as a lawyer for Bracewell & Patterson of Texas.
"But we've also seen some major transformation in the office of the president," Mr. Segal says. "You have seen more flexibility in the presidency in issues upon which the president felt he could comfortably lead obviously homeland security, but in many different areas as well, like energy."
The president's efforts to enact a national energy policy prior to September 11 were hampered by Democrats who portrayed him as a tool of Big Oil. Although the Democrat-controlled Senate has yet to pass an energy bill, Mr. Bush now can cast the debate in terms of national security.
September 11, Mr. Segal argues, "moved our shared goals to the right, in the sense that we now all agreed the country needs to be protected, that national security's an important goal, that energy security is important."
It would have been impossible to imagine a year and a day ago that Mr. Bush's presidency would be defined by foreign policy, Republican strategist Rich Galen says. Democrats now see it as such a Bush strength that they want to steer the national debate back to the economy and other domestic issues.
"The difference is that the Democrats are now complaining that the White House has kind of maneuvered things so that Iraq is on the agenda in the run-up to the midterm elections," says Mr. Galen, publisher of the political Web site mullings.com.
And even as friends and foes here and abroad argue or equivocate over the need to topple Saddam, Mr. Bush's persistence forced the United Nations to consider taking stronger measures.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly proved to be the most loyal of allies. Over the weekend, Mr. Blair curtly dismissed renewed European criticism of the president's stance as "a parody of the George Bush that I know and work with."
The sneak attacks and the president's increasingly sure-footed response erased questions of legitimacy and competence that partisans hung on him in the bitter aftermath of the 2000 election, Mr. Galen says.
"What September 11th did was it helped people strip away Florida and take a look at Bush with fresh eyes," Mr. Galen says. "And they said: 'You know what? He's not so bad.'
"They got to start with a clean sheet of paper and draw the portrait themselves, based on what they were actually looking at. It turned out to be a much more flattering portrait."
"The president expresses a moral clarity that resonates with the American people," presidential historian Marshall Wittmann said early this year. "That is his greatest strength."
The rush of events allowed Americans to see the real George W. Bush without the usual media filter, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer says. The networks showed unedited footage of unguarded moments, as when Mr. Bush teared up in the Oval Office while discussing the families of those killed.
The president's job-approval ratings skyrocketed from a low of 51 percent just before the attacks to 90 percent days later the highest level recorded by Gallup since it began conducting such polls in 1938. Nearly a year later, the president's approval rating is still a strong 66 percent.
"He's doing swell," Mr. Galen says.
The president's sustained popularity mitigated criticism of some foreign policy initiatives.
His abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union prompted little outrage and did not spark the new arms race predicted by Democrats and the press. Indeed, Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to slash nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over the next decade.
Similarly, there was little outcry when Mr. Bush condemned the vast powers of the International Criminal Court and vowed to protect American soldiers and diplomats from the tribunal's reach. Mr. Clinton had signed on to the court, and a U.S. reversal was considered controversial prior to September 11.
Perhaps the accusation of being a unilateralist clung most stubbornly. During two visits to Europe just before the terrorist attacks, the president was ridiculed by editorial writers as a reckless Texan who relished trashing international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
The charge resurfaced when critics said Mr. Bush had not done enough to convince the world that Saddam is a threat not only to the United States but to other nations.
Tomorrow, Mr. Bush is expected to use his address to the United Nations General Assembly to make his most forceful case yet for Saddam's removal.
"He hopes they'll pay careful attention," Mr. Fleischer says.


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