George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by John Springs

Prominent in the daily grind of the contemporary White House, no matter whose name attaches to the administration, is the need to shape the discussion of national politics, one short, brutish news cycle after another. A recently retired president, setting out to write his memoirs, is already hemmed in; he can’t easily stray from hundreds of briefing books that were fine-tuned in bygone daily struggles for maximum plausibility and minimum damage. Yet by the time he writes, much information that once went unacknowledged will have leaked into the public domain in the self-justifying disclosures of his associates and others. Steering through these shoals, the best he can do is to sound mellow, above the partisan fray, disappointed that not everything worked out exactly as planned, but unbowed.

Essentially this is how George W. Bush means to come across in the pages of Decision Points. When we consider that he left the White House in the midst of two wars and the worst financial collapse in eight decades, it’s no small feat that he (along with a former speechwriter named Chris Michel who assisted him) manages to sustain his sense of himself as a decisive, well-meaning commander in chief in a time of crisis. Big surprise: Bush 43 isn’t into remorse. He also isn’t given to brooding or wondering about what might have happened had he chosen other policies or advisers. So he never allows himself to ask what he’d have done had he been gifted with foresight and understood from the start the real costs of his intervention in Iraq: a conflict lasting not months as he was originally assured but the better part of a decade, with more than 4,400 Americans killed in action and 30,000 wounded, many grievously; 100,000 or more Iraqi civilian casualties; several million refugees; and an overall cost to American taxpayers approaching $1 trillion.

Instead, he clings to a wisp of a hope that he will be seen to have bequeathed a stable democracy in the Middle East as Paul Wolfowitz and other neocon dreamers once promised. Democracy is on the rise in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, he suggests. The three countries have “the potential to serve as the foundation of a free and peaceful region.” As they say thereabouts, Inshallah! What we have here is an alibi. If history fails to take the surprising turn that was charted for it by the self-proclaimed “decider,” it won’t be his fault.

Put more generously, the theme of President Bush’s book is that good intentions count for a lot, whatever the results. Its tone, on the whole, is measured, even affable; the book is given, like its author, to humorous asides. The major result he claims—in his words, “my most meaningful accomplishment as president”—is that “the homeland” suffered no large terrorist attack in the seven years, four months, one week, and two days that remained of his time…

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