He’d do it all again
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Decision Points, by George W Bush, Virgin Books RRP£25, 497 pages
In spring 2001, the White House invited me to join a group of four experts to brief President George W Bush before his inaugural trip to Europe. The president was both impish and serious, firing off questions with his trademark Texan twang. Midway through our two-hour session, the conversation turned to his forthcoming meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“I’m gonna look into Putin’s soul,” Bush declared solemnly. To which one of the Russia experts responded: “Mr President, I would be careful. You may not see much more than a block of ice.”
I was reminded of the exchange while reading Bush’s memoir, a sometimes candid but on balance carefully massaged account of presidential decision-making in times of crisis, from the September 11 terror attacks to the financial meltdown in 2007. As with the Putin episode, Bush is shown to rely heavily on personal chemistry and the power of faith rather than reason and realpolitik. His go-with-the-gut instincts are especially evident after 9/11 when he launched a “Freedom Agenda” to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East.
In the book, Bush uses this promotion of democracy, irrespective of culture, ethnicity and geography, to cast himself on the right side of history, alongside other great presidents such as Lincoln, Roosevelt and Truman. (He says he read 14 Lincoln biographies during his eight years at the White House, drawing inspiration from Honest Abe’s travails as commander-in-chief in the civil war.) To those who would accuse him of self-delusion, Bush has a cocksure riposte: “I believe it will be impossible to reach definitive conclusions about my presidency – or any recent presidency, for that matter – for several decades.”
By now Bush’s life story is well known. By his own admission, he was a lippy, rowdy brat who coasted through his youth on ample amounts of beer and bourbon. He owed much to his father’s connections: a place at Yale, a slot at the Texas Air National Guard, thereby avoiding combat duty in Vietnam, and an entree into the oil business in west Texas, where he made a small fortune.
There he met Laura, found God, gave up the booze, and followed his father into politics, winning two terms as governor of Texas and two as US president. From the most unpromising of starts, he ended up with a far more impressive record, at least in electoral terms, than George H W Bush.
Decision Points covers important decisions such as Bush’s qualified support for stem cell research and his administration’s far-sighted funding of anti-Aids and malaria programmes in Africa, which was conditional on governments signing up to anti-corruption. Inevitably, though, the focus is on the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His account of 9/11 itself is the most gripping and revealing passage in the book. “My blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this and kick ass,” he writes.
Bush’s initial decision-making was crisp and effective: keep the terrorists from striking again, make clear to the American people and the rest of the world that the US had embarked on a new kind of war, and make sure that the terrorists did not paralyse the economy or divide the country. His rhetoric was resolute at a still smoking Ground Zero, inspiring at a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington.
Bush correctly reminds us that Americans were traumatised by the collapse of the twin towers in New York but also by the dispatch of envelopes containing deadly anthrax to addresses in Connecticut, Florida and New York. Nine years later, the author was identified as a US government scientist who later committed suicide. That there was no repeat terrorist attack on the US for the rest of his time in office was, in Bush’s estimation, “my most meaningful accomplishment as president”.
Yet the very concept of the “War on Terror” was flawed. A quotable slogan to mobilise public opinion turned into an open-ended pledge to use force, including questionable interrogation methods bordering on torture against individuals deemed to be terrorists, and armed action against countries harbouring or sponsoring terrorists. At the time, General Brent Scowcroft, formerly national security adviser to Bush Sr, urged the administration to focus on police and intelligence operations rather than on military force alone. But he was in a minority, as he was later when he warned against ousting Saddam Hussein, an old-fashioned dictator who, he argued, could be bottled up through containment.
Bush is adamant that waterboarding of a handful of al-Qaeda operatives produced intelligence that saved hundreds of lives, and he would do the same again, whatever the constitutional niceties. He also reveals he was furious when Scowcroft went public with his opposition to the Iraq invasion. He feared people would suspect his father harboured similar reservations, which he insists was not the case.
Yet Bush Sr had used artful diplomacy to achieve German unification, ended the cold war without a shot fired in anger, and pursued only limited objectives in his own Gulf war, namely the liberation of Kuwait rather than a march on Baghdad. Bush Jr is far too quick to brush off the damage done by his adoption of another rhetorical slogan – the “Axis of Evil” – which lumped together Iran, Iraq and North Korea as potential targets for military attack and encouraged the view that the US had become a rogue nation.
Like Tony Blair, painted in the book as a fervent supporter of the invasion of Iraq, Bush is a moralist. Like Blair, Bush insists all the major intelligence agencies thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and the threat of WMD falling into terrorist hands was too great to bear. Like Blair, he cannot understand why more people still do not accept the moral argument for removing Saddam. “I didn’t see how anyone could deny that liberating Iraq advanced human rights,” he writes.
On the Iraq decision-making itself, Bush concedes some mistakes were made. Troop levels should have been higher. Postwar planning was imperfect. The order to disband Iraqi security forces was rushed and contributed to the descent into chaos that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of US soldiers. More space is devoted to his admittedly courageous decision to order the “surge”, the successful counter-offensive led by General David Petraeus which, he argues, has given the fledgling Iraqi democracy hope.
Bush congratulates himself on finding Gen Petraeus and his successor General Raymond Odierno, as well as Robert Gates, the successor to Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary. Like Lincoln, he writes, he took time to find the right men for the task. His excuse for not firing Rumsfeld earlier, despite the latter’s manifest arrogance and catalogue of errors, is lame.
Bush fails to recognise the fundamental contradiction between his “Freedom Agenda” which requires sustained commitment to nation building and the instinctive reluctance of the US military (supported by Rumsfeld) to make such a commitment. Their preference was to deploy overwhelming force, declare victory, and move out.
This contradiction still plagues the US operation in Afghanistan today. It also speaks to the divisions within Bush’s own national security team, a feature of his first term to which he all too briefly alludes. The question is whether he was well served or whether he allowed others, notably Karl Rove, his Machiavellian campaign adviser, undue influence. Rove thought Bush as “war president” was the safest ticket to a second term. Yet what played well at home, even at the expense of polarisation, played terribly abroad.
Towards the end of Decision Points, Bush reviews progress on his “Freedom Agenda”. On the plus side, aside from Iraq, he notes Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons programme, the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the eruption of a protest movement in Iran, modest moves towards democracy in the Gulf states, and his own support for a Palestinian state, although that was overshadowed at the time by his decision to line up behind Israel and call for the removal of Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader. This prompted a call from Barbara, his no-nonsense mother: “How’s the first Jewish American president doing?”
On the negative side of the “Freedom Agenda”, Bush acknowledges the increase of Russian influence in neighbouring Ukraine and in the Caucasus at the expense of Georgia; Iran’s ongoing efforts to develop nuclear capability; North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons programme; the consolidation of Hamas in Gaza and the failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; as well as other “outposts of tyranny” in Belarus, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Bush believes that history’s verdict on his presidency will be far kinder than contemporary assessments, that the precipitate collapse in the standing of the US will be temporary, and that the sacrifice of blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq will prove worthwhile. Now that Americans are tiring of his more cerebral successor Barack Obama, he may be right.
The more likely judgment is that Bush’s two terms marked the moment when US power peaked and he over-reached, with execrable consequences.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT