Defining a president’s legacy is a difficult task. There are two reasons for this.
First, the economic and political repercussions of a president’s decisions are rarely evident during his or her tenure. Second, a president’s legacy is often the product of a collective of decision makers around him. Their decisions on what to leave out or include in their briefings to a leader plays an important role in his or her decision.
That is why most presidents have a mixed record on policy decisions. Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. In hindsight, that action seems like a terrible mistake and sets him on the wrong side of history. Yet, he was also responsible for some of the most economically prosperous years in America’s history. Similarly, President Obama navigated America out of a perilous recession. At the same time, his record is tarnished by charges of race-baiting and a less-than-stellar record on ending human rights abuses. Personal foibles, such as Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes or Obama’s nice guy demeanor (that is ill-suited to the rough and tumble of Washington politics), have made these leaders approachable.
It is hard to find a similarly redemptive account of the Bush presidency.
He took over from Clinton at a time when America was peaceful and prosperous. By the end of his tenure, the nation’s record read like a roll-call of natural and man made disasters. In 2009, America was involved in two wars of its own making abroad. It had suffered an enormous natural disaster at home and was wracked by a financial crisis, the likes of which it had not witnessed since the Great Depression.
Bush’s tenure also set the tone for much of the political discourse and debate occurring across the world today. His binary worldview of “us versus them” and “good versus evil” birthed and fanned the flames of Islamophobia. “Personal diplomacy” won Bush friends like Tony Blair (who, incidentally, has been excoriated similarly by the British media). But they also ended up alienating the country across the globe. America’s moral standing took a precipitous hit abroad in no small part due to Bush’s “Texas swagger” on the world stage.
That swagger itself has become the butt of jokes. A cursory search for Bush Jr. on Youtube yields a slew of videos which catalog his gaffes and are littered with derisive comments about his intellectual capabilities. For a long time, George Bush’s website was the top result in response to a Google search for “a miserable failure.” If one were to judge Bush purely on the basis of public comments, the overwhelming portrait is that of a man who was unfit for Presidency.
And, yet, it did not seem that way in 2000, when Bush became president for the first time.
Bush may have lacked the professorial gravitas of Obama or Clinton’s charm but he was a man who “got things done.” (These were words that Bush used to describe himself).
He came to the President’s office as a “compassionate conservative.” He was (and continues to be) empathetic to the plight of immigrants and (continues to) advocated for immigration reform. This image of a compassionate conservatism also won him 90% of the Muslim vote during the 2000 election. While campaigning at the stump, he said “we don’t believe in discrimination against anybody.”
So what happened during his years in presidency to change his stance? I read two books – Jean Edward Smith’s Bush and Bush’s own description of his years in office Decision Points – to find out the answer.
Smith, who had earlier written a critically acclaimed biography of Dwight Eisenhower, does not pull any punches in “Bush.” “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” he writes in the book’s first sentence. There is a theory that Bush was influenced by the war hawks surrounding him. Notably, this list included vice president Dick Cheney, who had earlier served under Bush Sr. and advocated for an invasion of Iraq back then, and Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Defense Secretary.
But Smith makes short work of this theory in the preface. He writes that Bush was the “decider,” (Again, to use a word that Bush used to describe himself).
Smith’s main charge against Bush is that he “personalized” the presidency by surrounding himself with acolytes. Unlike past presidents, he showed an unwillingness to confer and counsel with people who were opposed to his worldview. Condoleezza Rice, who served as Secretary of State under him, was referred to as an “accelerator” because she reinforced his impulses by simplifying complexity to make it digestible to Bush. This practice led to his being trapped in a bubble of his own making and ended up with disastrous consequences for the country and the world at large.
George W. Bush does himself no favors in his presidency memoir “Decision Points.” It is an exercise in blame-shifting and a book of short sentences and equally short explanations. While it does not provide a comprehensive explanation of Bush’s motives, it’s main utility lies in providing us with a glimpse (and, by that, I mean just a glimpse since Bush is famous for his aversion to “absurd psychobabble”) into the man’s thinking.
First, the Basics
George Walker Bush was born on 6 July, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut to George Prescott Bush and Barbara Bush. Bush Sr. had just returned from World War II duty and was enrolled at Yale University. Although he was born in Connecticut, Bush Jr. was very much a Texas kid. He grew up in Midland, Texas in an “imposing custom-built three thousand square foot home with the first residential swimming pool in the city.” After completing the initial part of his schooling in Texas, Bush Jr. followed family tradition and completed his schooling at the prestigious Andover Academy in Massachusetts and college at Yale. He also completed an MBA at Harvard Business School. At all three places, Bush was an unexceptional student academically and was popular with fellow students.
According to Smith, Bush’s experience at Yale led him to disdain “intellectual snobbery,” a trait that he carried over to the White House. At B-school, his classmates considered him a clown because he was “exceptionally opinionated” and “dynamically ignorant.” Bush left Harvard with 53 job interviews but was rejected in every single one of them.
He moved back to Midland and started an oil prospecting firm, which was acquired by another company and went public in the early 1980s. Eventually, it was absorbed into Harken Oil & Gas Exploration. During this period, Bush met and married Laura Bush, a fellow Texan from Midland, who became a calming presence in his life, and fathered twin daughters.
After years of hard partying, he also became sober. His moment of epiphany occurred after a raucous 40th birthday celebration during which he and his friends took over an entire restaurant. He’d already been thinking about quitting alcohol after conversations with evangelical preacher Rev. Billy Graham. The hangover after his 40th birthday provided him with the necessary impetus and he resolved never to touch a drop of drink again.
About these years, Smith says that Bush was a child of privilege and that he benefitted from this position in society at each turn. For example, he got into the National Guard even though it had a waiting list of over 100,000 men. According to a later testimony by Thomas Bishop, who was overall Commander of the National Guard at that time, a place was found for Bush in spite of there being “no vacancies in the Texas Guard.”
Smith also writes that the list of investors for Bush’s first company – Arbusto – “reads like the roster of George H.W. Bush’s A team of campaign contributors,” Harken Oil & Gas exploration, the company which eventually absorbed Arbusto, liked to attach itself to “stars.” With a father who was Vice President at that time, Bush Jr. was more than a star.
In 1993, Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards to become the governor of Texas. His record as governor was impressive and included securing bipartisan support for a complete overhaul of the Texas educational system (the first such overhaul in 50 years), and welfare and tort reform. That the demands of his job were not excessive helped matters.
“The governorship is all hat and no cattle, as a Texan would say. George W. Bush thrived in that setting,” writes Smith. He even details Bush’s schedule: arrive at the office at 8 am, go for a three to five mile at 11:40 am, return after lunch at 1:30 pm, play computer solitaire or video golf till 3 pm, when the workday ended.
The Presidency And 9/11
Smith spends a chapter exclusively outlining details of that night and how Bush won the election against a stiff Al Gore. Despite the drama surrounding his election, Bush came to the presidency with vigor and spent the first couple of months in office pushing the No Child Left Behind act.
And then 9/11 happened.
On that day, as has been recounted several times, Bush was in Florida at a school reading. The sequence of events that occurred after the reading can be said to have shaped Bush’s thinking and strategy regarding the war on terror. In “Decision Points,” Bush refers to these events as “the fog of war.” (Remember, he did not know at that point of time, whether this was, indeed, war).
As an essay on Politico detailed recently, Bush spent eight hours up in the air after the attacks. He was stopped from returning to Washington D.C. by his Chief of Staff and Secret Service that day. Instead, he landed in Louisiana at the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force. Here he received briefings from top brass and then directed his vice president Cheney to follow orders. (Smith claims that this was a contravention of authority of command).
Bush returned to Washington that evening and addressed the nation in a “dreadful” and “stilted” delivery, writes Smith. In “Decision Points,” Bush writes that his first instinct that day was to tell the American people that “we were at war.” But he decided to wait one day. Instead, he gave a speech in which he declared that “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
At night, Bush was asked to sleep in the White House bunker for safety by the Secret Service. But he overruled that request. He was woken up in the middle of the nigh by Secret Service agents, who said an unidentified plane had been spotted flying towards the White House. The president and his wife were forced to run downstairs in the middle of the night to the bunker. Bush was in his running shorts and Laura was in her robe. Later an enlisted man walked in and said “matter-of-factly” that the plane heading towards the White House was “one of ours.”
Just before going off to bed, Bush dictated this sentence into his recording machine: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century took place today.” But Smith writes that comparison is erroneous. 9/11 was different from World War II, Smith writes, when armed forces of multiple nations were on march to grab territory. That said, it cannot be denied that 9/11 was the single largest loss of human lives on American lives since World War II.
Bush, however, believed in this description. In subsequent days, he received several intelligence briefings from security agencies and met 9/11 survivors and relatives of those who had been killed. The effect of information combined with the trauma of poignant meetings must have been overwhelming. And it showed in his actions.
Bush designated Iran, North Korea, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” He commenced a war against Iraq and Afghanistan. In the run up to the war, Bush adopted an aggressive and often bellicose tone against the international comity.
At home, he put in place measures and laws that have hard a far-reaching effect on privacy and security. For example, the NSA’s overreach is a legacy of Bush’s directives to the agency.
These directives were achieved by personalizing power into the President’s office. Bush overrode the authority of command and subverted the Constitution and international agreements to achieve his goal, according to Smith.
After a premature celebration (during which he gave a speech with a “Mission Accomplished” backdrop), he contributed to the subsequent mess in Iraq by choosing leaders without any cultural understanding of the country. These leaders were chosen on the basis of recommendations from colleagues or from a roster of his personal and school contacts.
For example, General Tommy Franks, who planned and executed the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq was also from Midland Texas. Paul Bremer, who was the presidential envoy to Baghdad, came recommended from Donald Rumsfeld. Bremer de-Baathified Iraq. Smith argues that Saddam Hussein’s party was the secular force binding the country’s hostile sects together. Breaking it up unleashed a civil war between Sunnis and Shias.
As I mentioned earlier, Bush’s version of events does him no favors.
For example, Bush writes that he selected Bob Gates as his defense adviser during the Iraq war after a high school and college friend “whom I had appointed to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board” suggested his name.
“Why hadn’t I thought of Bob?” Bush muses in the book.
The reader ponders the same question along with Bush. The 43rd President chose his National Security Adviser (and Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice after being introduced to her at his family retreat. He finalized on Dick Cheney as vice president based on a recommendation from his father. And the list goes on.
In addition to a dismembered Iraq, Bush’s most lasting and controversial legacy is the establishment of a torture and surveillance apparatus. The images of soldiers being tortured at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay sparked the rise of extreme factions within Islam.
But Bush seems unrepentant about his decision. He writes that the establishment of a surveillance agency was “necessary.” He was assured that the inadvertent interception of domestic communications under the Terrorist Surveillance Program would be reported to the Justice Department. That, as we know now, never happened. Instead surveillance has become a part of the fabric of American society.
In establishing torture tribunals, Bush was assisted by the Office of Legal Counsel, an agency responsible for advising the President on Constitutional matters. For example, John Yoo, a constitutional scholar with the OLC, provided the White House with a 35-page opinion that the President had “inherent authority” as Commander-in-Chief to establish military commissions. In doing so, he overrode objections from the United States military (which argued correctly that it might be harmful to the U.S. military’s image abroad), the State Department, and the National Security Council. For his part, Bush categorized Al Qaeda as “unlawful combatants who do not have rights under Geneva Conventions.”
Bush’s explanations for the establishment of a torture and surveillance apparatus are weak in “Decision Points.” Time and again, he asserts that the country warded off a number of threats in his book thanks to the apparatus he put in place. But he provides little evidence or explanation to support his assertions. His disingenuous and simplistic reasoning does not help matters.
For example, he explains away Al Qaeda’s operational chief Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding by claiming that it was necessary to reach the limits of his belief. “His understanding of Islam was that he had to resist interrogation only up to a certain point. Waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold,” writes Bush. But we are left clueless about the quality and extent of intelligence provided by Zubaydah’s revelations after waterboarding ended.
We only have Bush’s word. (And that is not saying much since U.S. intelligence was wrong about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.)
Bush also seems oblivious to the connection between cause and effect in memoirs. He admits to being concerned about the backlash against Muslims and Arab-Americans. (Key members of the Bin Laden family were secretly airlifted out of the country after 9/11). Yet he did little to assuage these concerns in his public pronouncements. Smith writes that, after 9/11, Bush met with senior Congressional leaders and told them that “they (the attack’s perpetrators) hate Christianity. They hate Judaism. They hate everything that is not them. Other nations will have to choose.”
Smith also makes note of Bush’s extensive use of signing statements to nullify Congress’s legislation that allowed torture to continue at Abu Ghraib, paved the way for wiretaps of the American public, and disabled whistle-blower protection for federal employees. “Not only was he intruding on the power of Congress to legislate, he was usurping the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitution,” writes Smith.
With chapter titles such as “Don’t Mess Around With Texas,” Smith’s book often feels like a hatchet job on Bush. That seems a bit unfair when you consider that the stage for the crisis was set by the previous administration. For example, the Iraq Liberation Act was passed under Clinton’s watch. Similarly, his predecessor’s administration was responsible for repealing the Glass Steagall Act that set aside the distinction between the commercial and investment arms of a bank. Including context about developments during the Clinton regime would have provided more detail about Bush’s intelligence. While he does an excellent job assembling quotes and research to make his case, Smith fails in one vital area: he fails to explain the rationale behind Bush’s decision-making process. We are left with Smith’s conclusions and acidic prose, such as this: “Bush’s response to the financial crisis was similar to his response to Hurricane Katrina. He watched it happen.” This makes for entertaining reading but does not tell us why and how the transformation from a “compassionate conservative” to a war-mongering and unreasonable president took place. (Bush also vetoed gay marriage and was criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina).
Bush’s memoirs of his years as president are equally opaque about how he arrived at decisions. Too frequently, Bush writes that he felt “sickened” or “shocked” by press revelations about matters that his administration should have been aware of, such as torture trails or the financial crisis. It is impossible for the reader to gauge whether Bush was really ignorant or quietly complicit in the mess.
And Smith also does not touch upon the all-important question of the motives for going to war. The reasoning may have been geopolitical but the benefits were economic. As of 2013, Iraq had already cost $800 billion in reconstruction. Much of that money was wasted in corruption. Vice president Cheney’s former employer Halliburton Company has been a major beneficiary of reconstruction efforts.
Several cronies of the Bush administration also made off with riches. International Oil Trading Co., a Florida-based Pentagon contractor, also minted money. The firm was started by Marty Martin, who advised Bush on terrorism for two years after 9/11. It won contracts worth $2.1 billion from the Bush administration to supply fuel from Jordan to Iraqi forces. Later, it was embroiled in a corruption and bribery lawsuit filed by the younger brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah. In effect, the military industrial complex swooped in to destroy and reconstruct a country under the pretext of bringing democracy to that part of the world. (That its neighbor Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, is a monarchy did not seem to bother the U.S. administration).
To be sure, Bush’s tenure, or at least the initial part, was a continuation of the Clinton era of economic prosperity. And when the country was on the edge of a financial crisis, Bush’s decision to bail out important institutions was critical in limiting the impact of the financial crisis. He also started the fight against AIDS in Africa and continues to regularly visit the continent to expand on his work. While its results have been mixed, the No Child Left Behind Act was a genuine attempt at reforming education funding and standards.
President Obama, who rode on a swell of anti-Bush sentiment to office in 2008, promised an end to divisive politics and Guantanamo Bay. But his tenure has seen differences sharpen and Guantanamo Bay continues to remain open for business. If anything, Obama has had his own intelligence failure moment, when he underestimated the ISIS threat back in 2014 and referred to them as supporting cast in the Iraqi war for independence. He is also referred to as the drone president because his tenure has seen an increase in killings due to the unmanned aerial vehicles.
Being the president of the most powerful nation on earth is not an easy job. In interviews, Bush has often said that history is better judge of actions rather than the present. In Decision Points, he points to Truman, who left presidency with the lowest ever ratings but is now considered one of the best presidents in history, as an example.
But history is also often written by victors. In the immediate short term, Bush seems to have lost the Iraq war. As a result, the history of his presidency is being written by journalists and activists critical of his policies.
Perhaps, Bush was influenced by his coterie of advisors. Perhaps, he was a stubborn and self-willed man who manipulated events and people to get his own way. Given conflicting accounts and the breakdown of intelligence, we shall never know.
Bush’s only chance of redemption seems to be a victory in the Iraq war or some semblance of stability in the country. And that does not seem to be happening anytime soon.