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 at the helm after September 11, 2001, thanks, he’d have us believe, to tough decisions he made to go on the offensive and fight the bad guys where they live rather than wait for them to come to us.
It’s a claim that must be taken seriously, especially since he contends that things would have turned out differently had he not had the fortitude to green-light “enhanced interrogation methods,” notably waterboarding, for a small number of captured al-Qaeda operatives including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, known as KSM. Asked by the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, whether this technique of “simulated drowning” could be used on KSM, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11 carnage, the President replies, by his own account: “Damn right.”
“I thought about my duty to protect the country from another act of terror,” says the former Texas governor who, after all, had been down this road before, having embraced a similar line of moral reasoning for approving the executions of 152 condemned criminals. (He says there were two other interrogation methods he’d considered and rejected because he “felt [they] went too far, even if they were legal.” Imagining what these might have been, the mind boggles; one that has surfaced as a possibility was burial alive.)
“Simulated drowning,” we’re assured, had the desired effect: other operatives were rounded up and hundreds of lives saved. If this is true, we’re all beneficiaries and therefore in some measure complicit. The argument that “enhanced” methods paid off can be viewed skeptically but not easily refuted without access to classified files. Bush doesn’t acknowledge second thoughts or a course correction but, as far as we know, he authorized no waterboardings in his second term and the practice has since been barred by his successor. So there has been no use of the “technique” for five or six years—and, miraculously, no attacks. What does that say, it can reasonably be asked, about its necessity when it was used?
Since Decision Points hit the bookstores and Kindles, the Internet has crackled with contentions by legal scholars that the former president had admitted to a crime: violating the international Convention Against Torture, which the United States made part and parcel of our law. In fact, he’s very sparing in his use of the word “torture,” all along having relied on a legal sophistry that redefined it to mean the use of coercion that did lasting harm, resulting in the sort of pain associated with death or organ failure. “Medical experts would be on-site,” he was assured, “to guarantee that the detainee was not physically or mentally harmed.” Therefore, according to this theory, it could not be torture. He says as much: “I had asked the most senior legal officers in the US government to review the interrogation methods, and they had assured me they did not constitute torture.”
Bush never considers in these pages the strenuous efforts made by his White House to shape the legal memoranda and intelligence reports that landed on his desk as his “decision points” loomed. Names such as David Addington and John Yoo don’t show up in the index of his memoir. Addington, chief counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney and later his chief of staff, has long since been shown to have played a pivotal part in shaping the key policy papers touching on executive power and the handling of presumed terrorists, labeled “enemy combatants,” in what was billed as a Global War on Terror.
It was Addington who wrote the document dismissing the Geneva Conventions as “obsolete” and “quaint,” though it went out over the signature of White House Counsel (later Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales, and it was he who shaped the reasoning that rationalized the program of warrantless surveillance. Yoo was the Justice Department attorney who concocted what came to be known as the “torture memos” to the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department, designed to give their interrogators the widest latitude—and strongest defense, should they ever be accused of going too far. In Bush’s breezy presentation, this amounted to “a careful legal review.”
On the intelligence side, he relies on the same kind of careful review to justify his decision to go into Iraq, never acknowledging the unsuccessful efforts made by his White House—again, in the person of Cheney—and by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon to find evidence discarded or overlooked by the CIA of a link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks, or anything to suggest that Iraq had the potential or motive to supply al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices. You won’t read here about the notorious “Curveball,” a discredited Iraqi defector who was the source of the administration’s unfounded allegations about Saddam’s stockpile of biological weapons. Nor will you find any mention of the Vice President’s repeated forays across the Potomac to CIA headquarters in which he pressed for interpretations more in keeping with the immediate need of the White House to justify a course of action on which it was already set. Understandably, the former president also doesn’t find it necessary to grapple with a question posed retrospectively by Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector whose work was cut short by Bush’s decision to start bombing: “Could there be 100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge about their location?”
“One thing was clear to me,” Bush says here, staying on message—the old one. “Iraq was a serious threat growing more dangerous by the day.”
Still, he had his own nagging doubts about the strength of the case his administration was presenting to the international community. Late in 2002, he asked for a briefing from the CIA on Saddam’s weapons programs. “It was not very convincing,” he writes.
“Surely we can do a better job of explaining the evidence against Saddam,” he quotes himself as having said to Tenet at that session, evoking the director’s infamous response: “It’s a slam dunk.” Here, as elsewhere, he presses not for stronger evidence to help him make a difficult decision about bombing and sending troops into combat but a more persuasive case to lay before other nations and his own. The politician is preoccupied by demands of his trade, the public relations of the moment. His own judgment that the case he’d just heard was “not very convincing” is no occasion for a rethink.
In these pages, Bush is determined, nevertheless, to present himself as a reluctant warrior. It’s a moot question whom he wants most to persuade: his readers, posterity, or himself. He quotes a letter he wrote to his twin daughters Barbara and Jenna at the start of 2003: “I am working hard to keep the peace and avoid a war. I pray that the man in Iraq will disarm in a peaceful way.” He describes an impatient Cheney pressing him at one of their weekly lunches: “Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?’” In his own self-portrait, he still clung to the hope that war might be avoided. But that decision he had farmed out to Saddam Hussein. In order not to be toppled, the dictator would have to produce stockpiles that he didn’t have. When finally Bush goes to the meeting of the National Security Council in March at which he is to give the attack order, he calls it “a meeting I had hoped would not be necessary.”
By this account, he had every right to be incensed when critics questioned not only his judgment but his honesty over the case that was presented at his direction for the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Here is his ultimate defense:
Nobody was lying. We were all wrong…. The reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false…. 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.