Reassessing George Bush
No matter how you re-tell the story, the ending is still unhappy
Nov 11th 2010
LIKE his great friend Tony Blair, who was elected three times, George Bush, who was elected twice, left office with his reputation in tatters. Did he not invade Iraq on trumped-up charges, bend America’s laws and values to permit the torture of prisoners, and leave his successor the worst economic crisis since the 1930s? “Decision Points”, the former president’s memoirs, published this week, will not change the minds of the detractors who think so. The book brims not only with the self-exculpation you might expect but also with a good deal of self-congratulation which, in the circumstances, you might not. Even so, the former president’s emergence from the silence he imposed on himself after the election of Barack Obama does invite a reassessment of a much-maligned presidency.
Mr Bush did not shape his presidency just as he pleased. When Mr Obama was elected two years ago, a herd of editorialists argued that inheriting the in-box from hell should be weighed against his subsequent performance. The same editorialists have started to forget that soon after becoming president Mr Bush was struck by a calamity which also affected everything that followed, and should be taken into account by his judges. The attacks of 9/11 seemed at the time at least as frightening as the financial crisis that greeted Mr Obama. Mr Bush recalls waking on September 12th, 2001 to a changed America. Commercial aircraft had been grounded, armed vehicles patrolled the streets of Washington, a side of the Pentagon had been reduced to rubble, the twin towers were gone and the New York Stock Exchange was closed. The focus of his presidency, which he had expected to be domestic policy, “was now war”.
The war on terror, and those in Afghanistan and Iraq, cost America a decade of progress on other fronts. Mr Bush says he once asked Hu Jintao what kept him awake at night. Creating 25m new jobs a year, was the Chinese president’s answer. Mr Bush’s own chief worry was another terrorist attack, and he says now that his main accomplishment as president was that after September 11th America went another seven-and-a-half years without one. His critics sometimes appear to believe that this was pre-ordained, as if the felling of the twin towers was a one-time strike to which Mr Bush needlessly over-reacted. He argues more plausibly that al-Qaeda was held at bay by counter-actions, including the eviction of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan, enhanced homeland security and the vigorous gathering of intelligence, including legally questionable surveillance at home.
As to regrets, Mr Bush has quite a few. He says he should have deployed troops earlier to restore order after Hurricane Katrina smote New Orleans. He was wrong to trust Vladimir Putin on the strength of looking into his eyes. He wonders whether he could have foreseen the financial crisis. Lulled by early success, he sent too few troops to Afghanistan. As for Iraq, it was a mistake to stand in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner on board the Abraham Lincoln. It was a mistake to keep too few troops on the ground to ensure order after the fall of Baghdad. He is sorry he did not think harder before agreeing to disband the Iraqi army. And “no one was more shocked and angry” than he when no weapons of mass destruction showed up. “That was a massive blow to our credibility—my credibility—that would shake the confidence of the American people.”
Too true. And yet Mr Bush does not allow his list of regrets to tarnish a jaunty self-assessment. He flatly denies that he and Mr Blair used false intelligence as a pretext and intended to invade come what may. He recalls, correctly, that even opponents of the war assumed in 2003 that Saddam possessed such weapons. With justice, he claims credit for ordering the “surge” in 2007, when most Americans thought the war was lost. And he still says that it was right to invade, because it scared other would-be proliferators and turned Iraq into a peaceful democracy.
That is, to put it mildly, a rosy way of looking at things. Iraq may blossom into a democracy one day but is not yet peaceful. Invading the country may have persuaded Libya to give up its own amateurish illicit nuclear programme, but North Korea went nuclear while Mr Bush was president, and neither sanctions nor the example of Iraq has yet stopped Iran’s nuclear programme.
As the title of his memoir implies, Mr Bush is proud of being a “decider”. But he has a habit of glossing over the consequences of his decisions. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was after all a war of choice, and yet he seems almost indecently untroubled by its cost, which included the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. He applies the same insouciance to other dubious choices. Citing the war on terrorism as an all-purpose alibi, he denies breaking the letter or spirit of any law. If he had not permitted waterboarding, he argues, terrorists such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would not have yielded the vital information he says they gave up. He points out that his lawyers told him that waterboarding was not torture. But you do not have to be a president to know that it was wrong.
Overall, “Decision Points” is a disappointment. Although Mr Bush talks openly about his alcoholism and religiosity, the book feels oddly flat and impersonal. It contains a few new disclosures, such as Israel’s request to America to bomb a secret Syrian reactor (when Mr Bush said no, Israel did it alone), but no fresh detail on how, when and by whom the fateful decision to invade Iraq was taken. It will not restore his reputation. Invading Iraq was not the act of a war criminal or a buffoon, as his critics allege, but it was a controversial war that went badly wrong and made America, the victim of 9/11, look like an aggressor. He can certainly plead mitigation, but he did not cover himself with glory.