Tuesday, 16 November 2010

“Decision Points”, by George W. Bush (Virgin Books)

Bush-DecisionPoints

A Controversial President, a Run-of-the-Mill Memoir

Since leaving the Oval Office, President Bush has given virtually no interviews or public speeches about his presidency. Instead, he has spent almost every day writing Decision Points, a strikingly personal and candid account revealing how and why he made the defining decisions in his consequential presidency and personal life.

In gripping, never-before-heard detail, President Bush brings readers inside the Texas Governor’s Mansion on the night of the hotly contested 2000 election; aboard Air Force One on 9/11 in the gripping hours after America’s most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor; inside the Situation Room in the moments before launching the war in Iraq; and behind the Oval Office desk for his historic and controversial decisions on the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues that have shaped the first decade of the 21st century.

The former President offers intimate, unprecedented details about his decision to quit drinking, his discovery of faith, and his relationships with his family. He writes honestly and directly about his flaws and mistakes, as well as his historic achievements in reforming education, providing life-saving treatments for HIV/AIDS and malaria for millions of people in Africa, safeguarding the country from another terrorist attack, and other areas.

Decision Points was always going to be a difficult book to review. First, as someone who was never a fan of Bush, I knew my opinion would be biased from the get-go. Second, many didn’t have high hopes of it being more than a puff-piece, or as one reviewer described it, “The rehabilitation of George W Bush starts here”. I, on the other hand, did have high hopes that President Bush would take the opportunity to explain properly how and why certain policies were pursued and implemented, in addition to addressing the criticisms that were levelled at the time and since. Sadly, the former president has not met my hopes.

Bush’s writing style is breezy and accessible, making this certainly one of the easier presidential (auto)biographies I’ve encountered. There are amusing anecdotes that will raise the occasional smile, and one thing that comes across loudest of all is his affection for his family. All of the main hot-topics are addressed, at varying levels of detail: his two presidential campaigns, Medicare reform, Social Security, immigration reform, the prescription drug benefit, his AIDS policies, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Surge, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and a handful of other issues. Bush accepts that certain events and policies are forgotten, on purpose, in order to structure the book around the specific, “most consequential” decisions of his presidency.

One ‘revelatory’ chapter in the book deals with Bush’s decision to stop drinking. He deserves credit for not turning what is, ultimately, a rather mundane decision, into something grander than it was – he himself admits that he wasn’t chemically dependent on alcohol, he just seemed to find himself in situations when drinking was acceptable and perhaps expected. He begins the book with this decision because, as he puts it, no further decision or success would have been possible without quitting drinking.

Even though the book clocks in at over 450 pages, Decision Points is more a summarised description of the Bush presidency than actual memoir. I felt that I’d read everything in here already, in one form or another, making the reading experience rather unsatisfying. I was expecting far more self-analysis and explanation of why, not just a summary of what.

GWOT, Afghanistan, Iraq & the Surge

Bush offers semi-detailed descriptions of the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq which are good and easily digested. However, if someone really wanted to know what went on, I’d recommend Bob Woodward’s Bush At War series – they’re infinitely better written, and far more detailed. I didn’t feel that there was much new here, and therefore Bush’s accounts add very little to the picture readers will probably already have from journalism and other books. It’s not that he’s presenting an opposing perspective, there’s just simply nothing new here.

Except for the comments he’s made on waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques. These have been mentioned quite widely in the media, but I thought I’d include them here. It’s a subject Bush shows the most passionate defence of, so it’s one area where the book offers some considerable value. In the wake of 9/11, Bush “grappled with three of the most critical decisions I would make in the war on terror” – specifically, where to hold captured terrorists, how to determine their legal status, and how best to learn what they knew about other plans and potential attacks. When the CIA presented him with enhanced interrogation briefings, he recalls,

“the choice between security and values was real. Had I not authorized waterboarding on senior al Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk I was unwilling to take. My most solemn responsibility as president was to protect the country. I approved the use of the interrogation techniques.”

The techniques were “highly effective”, Bush writes (he offers a few pages of examples of high-value targets who were caught or killed through waterboard-interrogations), and he is utterly unrepentant for approving them. One interesting statement he makes, is his assertion that only three captives were subjected to waterboarding – this is considerably different to the impression given by almost everyone else who’s written on the subject, but I was unable to confirm this in any greater detail.

“The CIA interrogation program saved lives. Had we captured more al Qaeda operatives with significant intelligence value, I would have used the program for them as well.”

After discussing the impact of 9/11, the government’s and his own response, he moves on to the invasion of Afghanistan. Most accept the necessity of going into Afghanistan, but there was one thing that struck me: “We were acting out of necessity and self-defence, not revenge.” While the first bit may well be true, I think it is disingenuous to claim there was no element of revenge involved. It would be impossible for a country to go through such an attack and not want revenge – even Bush’s words later in the chapter paint a picture of a Congress rather eager for some form of revenge. Ultimately, Bush was intent on showing to the world that the US would not shrink from confronting terrorism, as it had in the past.

“Dropping expensive weapons on sparsely populated camps would not break the Taliban’s hold on the country or destroy al Qaeda’s sanctuary. It would only reinforce the terrorists’ belief that they could strike us without paying a price. This time we would put boots on the ground, and keep them there until the Taliban and al Qaeda were driven out and a free society could emerge.”

Bush concedes that the administration’s plans in Afghanistan required a considerable break with his promises during the campaign, specifically those involving his strong opposition to nation building.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.”

The president also accepts minor responsibility for the mess that followed – although, it’s half-hearted and comes across as perfunctory.

“in retrospect, our rapid success with low troop levels created false comfort, and our desire to maintain a light military footprint left us short of the resources we needed. It would take several years for these shortcomings to become clear.”

I think unintentionally, Bush vindicates Colin Powell’s recommendations by acknowledging where the administration’s strategies went wrong – particularly in the case of Powell’s insistence on overwhelming force as opposed to Rumsfeld’s stripped-down, shock-and-awe strategy. Also, just to pick up on the “several years” before shortcomings became clear – concerns were raised very quickly (again by Powell, but also by many others within and outside of government).

After detailing both the frustrations (specifically the role of Pakistan) and the under-reported successes of Afghanistan, Bush moves on to Iraq. For those who relish any signs of conspiracy behind the decisions to go into Iraq, you might be disappointed. In the scenes describing the Afghanistan strategy meetings, Bush indicates that Paul Wolfowitz posited going after Saddam, but pretty much everyone else (save Rumsfeld) was opposed to this idea. Colin Powell, in particular, made it very clear that the US didn’t “have linkage” to 9/11 and any move against Iraq “would be viewed as bait and switch” which would lead to an evaporation of support. CIA Director George Tenet agreed that “It would be a mistake”. Even Cheney, everyone’s favourite Bush administration bogeyman, was opposed to going after Saddam at that point.

In the wake of 9/11, Bush writes, “we had to take a fresh look at every threat in the world”. This conveys a rather slippery-slope attitude to the international environment – one attack (with no significant follow-up) should not have resulted in the fortress-mentality that rose from the ashes of 9/11. Bush offers a description and explanation of how bad Saddam’s regime was – something that nobody doubts. But he seems to not fully grasp why people opposed the invasion. He has a genuine complaint against those who supported it until it was politically expedient not to, but he seems to be unaware of (or perhaps uninterested in) the legitimate concerns about opening up a second major warfront at that time. The way he writes it, I am led to believe the post-9/11 environment was perfectly suited to others planting the seed of invasion in a president whose mind was entirely open to the idea.

Two elements of the chapter bothered me. First, his frequent insistence that he wanted diplomacy to work, without putting much presidential heft behind this apparent desire. The impression one gets from most other sources is that while the diplomatic track was supported by some (again, my favourite Bush appointee, Powell), for the main it was considered a nuisance to be dispensed with as soon as possible. Second, his frequent mention that he didn’t want to deploy troops – in either Afghanistan or Iraq – and yet he gives no indication of ever having seriously considered other options.

There are occasional comments that make perfect sense, even if they are written in a rather smug or smart-ass way. He’s right that opposing the Iraq invasion on grounds of human rights was perhaps myopic, as the intention was to stop Saddam’s long list of human rights abuses – which Bush includes in the chapter.

“With diplomacy faltering, our military planning sessions had increasingly focused on what would happen after the removal of Saddam. In later years, some critics would charge that we failed to prepare for the postwar period. That sure isn’t how I remember it.”

In response to which, the only conclusion to be drawn is that those Bush employed to find and implement solutions were utterly incompetent. (See Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.) He addresses some of the fumbles Bremmer’s CPA made while running Iraq, and includes a handful of excuses – none of which change the debate or will likely change the reader’s mind. Eventually, the administration was set on toppling Saddam’s regime, and Bush remembers Cheney asking him in late 2002, “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?”

Bush addresses a number of events that arose from his two wars. For example, the botched PR stunt that focussed on the premature ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the deck of an aircraft carrier:

“My speech made clear that our work was far from done. But all the explaining in the world could not reverse the perception. Our stagecraft had gone awry. It was a big mistake.”

And also the frequent, oft-shrill accusations of administration lying:

“Nobody was lying. We were all wrong. The absence of WMD stockpiles did not change the fact that Saddam was a threat.”

Unfortunately, President Bush does not acknowledge that the lack of WMD seriously changed the nature of the actual threat that Saddam presented, and certainly the urgency of this threat. Realising this may well have made Iraq a deferrable problem for a future administration, when it could have been done right, possibly (and preferably) without a concurrent war in Afghanistan.

About the lack of WMD, Bush has plenty to say:

“When Saddam didn’t use WMD on our troops, I was relieved. When we didn’t discover the stockpile soon after the fall of Baghdad, I was surprised. When the whole summer passed without finding any, I was alarmed… No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”

Bush’s account of the Surge and the decision processes involved is concise and readable, but again, there’s basically nothing new here. I would recommend Bob Woodward’s account, Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends, and also Thomas Rick’s The Gamble.

Bush says a great regret is that “we did not respond more quickly or aggressively when the security situation started to deteriorate after Saddam’s regime fell”, in part a result of the draw-down in troops (which was one reason for approving the Surge).

“the other error was the intelligence failure on Iraq’s WMD. Almost a decade later, it is hard to describe how widespread an assumption it was that Saddam had WMD. Supporters of the war believed it; opponents of the war believed it; even members of Saddam’s own regime believed it.”

One interesting inclusion, for students of American foreign policy, is an explanation of the Bush Doctrine in the man’s own words:

“First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them – and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at home. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.”

Historical References

Bush frequently makes reference to former presidents – particularly Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. I’m not sure if this was intended to make readers locate Bush in the same ranks, but this is not what it does. It’s too leading, and unconvincing, and will probably have the opposite effect.

“Leading”

I thought this chapter was quite good, but it really could have done with expansion. All too often, anything written about the Bush administration focuses on Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not entirely surprisingly, of course, but it does mean that other events and issues of the Bush presidency are forgotten. The chapter is broad in scope, somewhat episodic, as it looks at Bush’s successes in No Child Left Behind, faith-based initiatives, the prescription drug benefit and Medicare reform – all of which he writes of fondly, and you really get the sense that he is proud of these achievements. Bush brings up the fact that some of his policies have been lambasted by both sides of the aisle, and certainly he was unafraid to add expensive programs, despite his conservative anti-deficit mentality. (The chapter on the financial crisis addresses the surplus he inherited, and in my opinion does not manage to defend his extravagant tax cuts.) He also addresses his failure to get immigration and Social Security reform passed – he puts almost all the blame on politics and the media, which was disappointingly shallow, but in some ways understandable. Bush also (rather smugly) comments on the 2004 campaign and Kerry’s gaffes and mistakes.

Political Naïveté?

There are a couple of passages in Decision Points that really rang false for me. Both of them are comments Bush makes about political tactics.

“I was skeptical of politicians who touted religion as a way to get votes.”

He writes this, with apparently no realisation that the Republican party has been running as the ‘religious party’ for years, and takes any opportunity to tout the religion of its candidates (including George W Bush). This extends into the ‘culture war’ issues that are so frequently fired up around election time. He states that he couldn’t care less about Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation – I believe him entirely, but then why did he sit back while Republican operatives used homosexuality as a wedge issue? He’s right to admonish both Kerry and his running mate Edwards for bringing her sexuality up in the debates – it’s very bad form.

At another point in the book, Bush discusses the PATRIOT Act’s name, and how he never liked it, because it suggested that those who voted against it were unpatriotic. Again, I must point to a Republican Party strategy – which Bush fully benefited from, and never did anything to stop – which painted the Democrats as the unpatriotic party.

Katrina

This is actually another very good chapter. Again, it doesn’t really contain anything new, but President Bush does address some of the ‘gaffes’ and misunderstandings of the time – particularly his feelings when Air Force One flew over the devastation and he was portrayed (unfairly, I’ve always thought) of being detached and disinterested in the plight of those below. The response to Katrina was bungled, there’s no other way of looking at it – that New Orleans is (oh-so) slowly coming alive again is more testament to those who live there and those who have helped with rebuilding.

Bush is quick to say how disappointed he was with the response and reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Much of the fault cannot be laid at Bush’s feet – under federal law, the governor of an afflicted state must request assistance before the president can order in the National Guard. There are a couple of laws that can supplant this (the Insurrection Act, for example), but Louisiana Governor Blanco was insistent that they could handle the response themselves. Where Bush is at fault, is his praise and belief in what turned out to be incompetent appointees – the same problem as in Iraq. If proper plans were made, they got lost or distorted on the way down from the White House and through the bureaucracy.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable.”

Bush accepts some of the blame for the difficult aftermath:

“I should have recognised the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

One could argue, of course, that deciding to leave things to the states was a wrong decision, as was his dithering over whether or not to send government resources into the region.

This chapter is one of the few in which Bush’s character really comes through. He does come across as genuinely concerned about the plight of New Orleans, and he takes particular offence at the accusation of racism that followed quickly in the hurricane’s wake – particularly from Kanye West, Jesse Jackson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“the suggestion that I was a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low. I told Laura at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency. I feel the same way today.”

Impressions

Friends and colleagues have asked me why I expected any more from a President Bush memoir. I guess I was hoping he’d take the opportunity to explain what he did for those who weren’t there, and for those who don’t understand his rationale; to show us why his decisions were the right ones. Instead, the book seems to frequently offer the mere fact of a decision being made as justification for it being right. This, frankly, is not good enough.

Decision Points is disappointing because it fails to reveal as much about the president and his decision-making as one might have hoped. I was never expecting a tell-all piece, filled with gossip or revelations (we have plenty of other books for that), but this memoir is almost not even a memoir: President Bush gives us a run-down of certain events from his presidency, with most of which we are already familiar from the wealth of published material and journalism already in existence. There are some glaring omissions in the book, and these usually revolve around Bush’s decisions to run for president. We simply don’t get a decent explanation of why Bush wanted to be president in the first place, for example. (Jacob Weisberg has written a good book on this subject.) Without dwelling on this, even for a short while, we don’t really get a sense of his driving force – he’s not a president who came into power with a specific agenda, or wrong that he needed to right. More detailed accounts of his two electoral campaigns – a not to mention defense or condemnation of some of the tactics that were used in 2000 and 2004 (we get the slightest comment about the South Carolina tactics used against Republican primary challenger John McCain; and no mention at all about the Swift Boating of John Kerry). Some major foreign policy decisions are ignored (the India nuclear deal, for example), and while he mentions a couple in the epilogue (only positive foreign policies), this is not enough. On a personal note, I think the four pages he spends on China is inexcusable – considering the events that took place between 2000 and 2008, and especially the integral part China plays in the international system and particularly its role in funding American debt. I do not know why Bush thought it was preferable to ignore these issues, but one can’t help wonder if he just wasn’t interested.

Explanations of decisions feel incomplete – there’s very little passion, actually, which is a considerable failing of the book. Only when discussing his family, meeting with wounded veterans, and Katrina does the former president evince much passion or emotion. This might also account for the rather flighty structure – clear chapter titles will be followed by clear introductions before the chapter veers off into random segues. For example, the ‘Stem Cells’ chapter wanders off into Bush’s account of how he decorated the Oval Office and some of its history.

Supporters and loyal employees are mentioned and thanked, but often opponents go nameless – this seems rather petty, and was certainly irritating. Opposition to Bush’s policies or proposals is frequently put down solely to politics or, in a rather Palin-esque way, the influence of the liberal media. Paul O’Neill, the Treasury Secretary who was a considerable source for Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, is given a short mention and quickly dismissed, with clear animosity and not even a vague attempt to address what Suskind (and many others since) wrote about.

More a thank you note to supporters, and a letter of love to family, Decision Points could have been so much more. Sadly, however, I feel it falls short of what President Bush could have produced and perhaps should have written – as someone who so frequently suggests future historians will redeem him, it is disappointing that he gave them so little to work with. A proper account of his perspective would have been invaluable to students of American history, the presidency, the early 2000s, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To sum up, there are better books to read on the Bush presidency – from both positive and negative perspectives – all of which offer more and greater understanding of George W Bush’s eight years in office.

These include:

Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (2004); Bob Woodward, Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006), The War Within (2008); Thomas Ricks, The Gamble (2008); Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends (2007)

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