On September 11, George W. Bush failed. But the failure, of course, was not his alone. Two successive administrations failed to treat al-Qaeda as an enemy capable of inflicting catastrophic damage in America’s cities. Two successive administrations initiated and maintained policies that, quite obviously, failed to deter al-Qaeda, detect its specific plans, or locate its individual terrorists. Yes, there were ample warnings that al-Qaeda was a deadly foe — the 1998 embassy bombings and the 2000 near-sinking of the U.S.S. Cole raised alarm bells throughout the national-security establishment — but when the extent of the damage on September 11 surprised even Osama bin Laden, it’s safe to say that American leaders did not comprehend our true peril.
So when Donald Trump disputes Jeb Bush’s characterization that his brother “kept us safe,” he’s simply stating facts. The American civilian death toll to terrorism was higher under George W. Bush than for any American president before or since. George W. Bush no more “kept us safe” than Franklin Roosevelt kept America secure on December 7, 1941, when we suffered arguably our most catastrophic military defeat, losing most of the surface striking power of the U.S. Pacific fleet in one devastating surprise attack.