Book Review: Decision Points by George W. Bush
Cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure of the execution of the Iraq war,” admits President George W. Bush in his impressive and highly readable autobiography. “Ultimately, we adapted our strategy and fixed the problems, despite almost universal pressure to abandon Iraq. It took four painful, costly years to do so. At the time, progress felt excruciatingly slow. But history’s perspective is broader. If Iraq is a functioning democracy 50 years from now, those four hard years might look a lot different.” History’s perspective is indeed much broader, and this contribution to the record will weigh heavily with historians when they come to reconsider Bush’s presidency.
Decision Points puts a cogent and persuasive case for the vigorous prosecution of the War Against Terror, using intelligence material not hitherto publicly available. It is also a very human book, written with verve and humour and the occasional mea culpa like the one quoted above, very unlike the ruck of normal political memoirs. Whether you supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — as I did and still do — or think of them as disastrous, I suspect you will like Bush’s personality by the end of this book. You might perhaps feel a twinge of guilt for having believed the viciously unfair caricature of him hawked about by the liberalmedia, anti-war movement and left-wing politicians, cartoonists, comedians and propagandists.
How Bush has retained his breezy good nature through the most prolonged and systematic character assassination for a generation is anyone’s guess, but he has. He even tells gags against himself that he must know will be picked up and used by his enemies. Writing of his attendance as a baby at his father’s university commencement ceremony, for example, he writes: “It wouldn’t be the last time I slept through a Yale lecture.” Of his last Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, he writes: “He had a distinct way of speaking that could be hard to follow. Some say his brain was moving too fast for his mouth to keep up. That didn’t bother me. People accused me of having the same problem.” Of dresses featuring his face that were worn by hundreds of Tanzanian women during his visit to Dar es Salaam, Bush jokes: “For some reason, these didn’t catch on back home.”
The reason that he blithely gives hostages to fortune in this book is that he genuinely feels relaxed about the way that the fullness of time will rehabilitate him and his role. “Self-pity is a pathetic quality in a leader,” he writes. “It sends such demoralising signals to the team and the country. As well, I was comforted by my conviction that the Good Lord wouldn’t give a believer a burden he couldn’t handle.” I recently asked President Bush what the Almighty could possibly have had against him personally by sending him such mistakable signs of His displeasure as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Osama bin Laden staying at large. This led to a theological discussion in which it became quite clear that Bush was a believer in human free will, while also believing in occasional divine intervention. The references to the Almighty in this book might unnerve secular Britons, but as his fascinating chapter on stem-cell research reveals, he never allowed his faith to overcome reason and logic.
“I hadn’t spent a lifetime planning to run for president,” Bush states. “If I had, I probably would have done a few things differently when I was younger.” His frank admission to having had a “habitual” personality regarding alcohol fits in well with the American confessional autobiographical tradition, not least because it gives him an opportunity to discuss the looming importance of Christianity in his life after his wild twenties and thirties. His delightful wife Laura, the Almighty and sobriety all came into his life at roughly the same time. When mixed with the onset of political ambition, it produced a combination that was to propel him — with the help of the brilliant Karl Rove, whom he describes as “like a political mad scientist” — into the White House.
For all that, he didn’t spend a lifetime planning for his presidential bid. Once his father lost the 1992 election, the younger Bush’s thoughts naturally gravitated in that direction, especially once he had proved a good, bipartisan governor of Texas. The death penalty aside, Bush’s policies were pretty analogous to those of David Cameron’s coalition today. If Bush had not coined the phrase “compassionate conservatism”, one could be certain that Cameron would have. Some of this book is concerned with the educational, social security, immigration and healthcare reforms that Bush tried to institute, with varying degrees of success but with an almost Boy Scout zeal to improve the lot of the underprivileged, in a classically “Tory Wet” way. The caricature of Bush as a hard man of the Right is absurd — indeed the Tea Party often lump him with President Barack Obama as a neo-Keynesian. (This book makes every effort not to criticise his successor, even attributing the swiftly-disproven view that the surge would actually increase sectarian violence in Iraq to “a freshman senator”, thereby avoiding identifying Obama by name.)
All of the tough issues — the lack of WMDs in Iraq, the Scooter Libby affair, Hurricane Katrina, the criticisms of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, waterboarding, Wall Street “greed” and so on — are discussed with total candour. Bush emerges as someone who tended to make the same decisions that any sensible, well-informed, patriotic person would have made, faced with the same circumstances. He is on occasion unable or unwilling to delve into the psyches of some of his interlocutors without evidence — why on earth didn’t the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco agree immediately to federalise the Katrina response, for example, and why didn’t Saddam back down when 240,000 Coalition troops arrived on his borders in 2003? — but frankly his guess wouldn’t be that much better than ours, so instead he just gives us the facts.
On occasion, the normally pachydermatous Bush can be remarkably thin-skinned. Why on earth did he feel “disgusted” and “deeply insulted” when the rapper Kanye West said on TV during Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”? That’s just the kind of moronic remark that self-promoting pop stars make all the time, and Bush’s record for helping minorities in the US spoke for itself.
In the case of waterboarding, which was used against a grand total of three people — all of them very senior al-Qaeda leaders with extensive knowledge of operations intended to kill large numbers of people — Bush is understandably unrepentant. Even if it hadn’t been a successful technique, he was under a moral obligation to protect Americans, but thankfully it was highly successful. Anyhow, if waterboarding was torture along the lines of thumbscrews or the rack — as the human rights industry still tries to make out — how is it that one detainee was able to endure it 180 times? It has to be one thing or the other — either a terrible, vicious torture, or something that can be endured 180 times: it cannot be both.
As for the ludicrous conspiracy theory that the Bush administration — and by extension, the Blair government too — knew that there were no WMDs in Iraq before the invasion, Bush poses the succinct question: “If I wanted to mislead the country into war, why would I pick an allegation that was certain to be disproved publicly shortly after we invaded the country?” At least a dozen postwar conflicts have cost more lives than Iraq. It is a symptom of Acute Bush Derangement Syndrome, a psychological disorder commonly found in academia and left-wing literary journals, to obsess about the outbreak of this one in the way that people still do. One hopes the present Iraq Inquiry will finally lay these conspiracy theories to rest.
History’s perspective is indeed broader than the overwhelmingly negative one that the 24/7 news cycle has so far allowed Bush. It will rate him decades from now as a very good president, who protected his people after 9/11, initiated two wars that eventually ended in victory — unless his successor cuts and runs in Afghanistan — and perhaps also began the process by which the Middle East started to drag its institutions out of the 17th century. At the very least, Bush destroyed one of the world’s most evil tyrants, drove a mass murderer into a cave for the rest of his life, allowed millions of Afghan girls to receive an education, launched a $15 billion programme to combat HIV/Aids in Africa and behaved in a personally honourable and dignified way in the Oval Office, in stark contrast to his predecessor. Decision Points is the first step along a long road to complete rehabilitation. I just hope the end of that road is reached in Bush’s own lifetime.