The war on terrorism isn't over, and the primary threat that President Barack Obama will face is another attack on U.S. soil. At least, that's according to his predecessor. "There's still an enemy out there that would like to inflict damage on America," President George W. Bush told reporters Monday in what is expected to be his valedictory presidential press conference. "That will be the major threat."
Framing his presidency in response to the challenge of terrorism is a smart move for a leader leaving office with the economy in perhaps its worst shape in more than a half-century. Bush's tenure was molded by the 9/11 attacks that occurred less than a year into his presidency, and he used them as a lever to launch two wars that have killed nearly 5,000 U.S. troops and cost the nation close to $1 trillion so far. His departing message to the American people seems to be that the terrorist threat has been his overriding priority, and even if he was unable to prevent or slow the slide into the economic abyss, at least the nation hasn't been attacked again on his watch. (See TIME's Person of the Year, People Who Mattered and more.)
That's a fair point, although it may have little to do with the war in Iraq and more with improved intelligence efforts in cooperation with allies abroad and a tightening up, at staggering cost, of domestic security in public spaces, transit systems and private industry.
And Bush was not about to indulge the notion, embraced by Obama, that Iraq and Bush's war-on-terrorism policies, including the creation of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay and the sanctioning of interrogation techniques that many regard as torture, have diminished the U.S.'s standing in the world. "I disagree with this assessment that, you know, that people view America in a dim light," Bush said. He did acknowledge that "not finding weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment" following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He added that his victory-lap flight onto an aircraft carrier two months after the war started was in error. "Clearly, putting 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," Bush said.
The President believes that he will be vindicated when his successor is forced to respond to the same challenges, which Bush says will persist for the foreseeable future. "The most urgent threat that [Obama] will have to deal with and other Presidents after him will have to deal with is an attack on our homeland," Bush said. Yet less than a week ago, the State Department's top counterterrorism official delivered a more measured assessment of the most dangerous terrorist group's remaining clout. "We see al-Qaeda, in a centralized role, [as being] totally controlled," Dell Dailey said last Tuesday over breakfast with reporters. "Most terrorism is kind of regionally focused now." He offered a much different message than Bush: "[Osama] bin Laden can't get an operational effort off the ground without it being detected ahead of time and being thwarted," Dailey said. "Their ability to reach is nonexistent." Of course, Dailey, a Bush political appointee and former Army lieutenant general, doesn't have a legacy to burnish.