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.
What could be more forthcoming, plainspoken, or manful than that? It’s a temptation to let Bush have the last word on how we got into the war. But something doesn’t add up in this portrayal of a commander in chief weighed down by the full gravity of a portentous decision he felt he had to make. It’s hard to forget that this same George Bush ended the first war council meeting six days after the September 11 attacks by telling his advisers, according to the first volume of Bob Woodward’s war trilogy, that planning should begin for military action in Iraq: “I believe Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have the evidence at this point.”
The idea that there had to be a phase two—a projection of American power into the Arab Middle East following a police action in remote Afghanistan—was thus planted at the outset. Also planted was a sense that “evidence” would be needed to support belief. This same George Bush, too, readily acknowledges in this volume that his immediate response to the horror of the attacks on America was no different from that of most of his countrymen. “My blood was boiling,” he writes. “We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.” And this same president was quoted by Colin Powell as telling his secretary of state, in no uncertain terms, a week after he wrote to his daughters about his prayers for peace: “I really think I’m going to have to take this guy out.”
Now here’s Bush recounting that same exchange in his memoir:
While I was still hopeful diplomacy would work, I told Colin it was possible that we would reach the point where war was the only option left. Neither of us wanted war, but I asked whether he would support military action as a last resort.
One version rings truer than the other. It isn’t the one in this book.
A note of candor is struck regularly in Decision Points. Sometimes it seems real enough; other times, it must be said, candor seems to have been laid on as a veneer. Three times Bush admits to having been “blindsided” by developments that a more inquisitive and demanding executive might have seen coming. Saying he was blindsided is his way of sidestepping, if not shrugging off, responsibility. The three occasions were the release of the pictures of American troops humiliating Iraqi prisoners by acting out their own pornographic fantasies at Abu Ghraib; the eleventh-hour Justice Department refusal to bow to an executive order Bush had signed extending the warrantless surveillance program; and the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble on Wall Street, threatening the collapse of the nation’s biggest banks.
The Pentagon had received the Abu Ghraib photographs in January 2004 and had launched its own secret investigation by a two-star general. Rumsfeld had mentioned this little difficulty to the President but had apparently not described the pictures in any detail, nor dwelled on their significance; and, staying in character, Bush had not asked to see them. So he saw them for the first time, in April, hours before they were shown on CBS. Rumsfeld offered to resign—twice—and Bush considered letting him go. The problem was, “There was no obvious replacement for Don.”
Two full years pass. Bush has even toyed with the idea of making Condoleezza Rice the first female secretary of defense. He’s “still considering a personnel change” at the Pentagon but doesn’t want it to appear that he has allowed himself to be bullied by retired generals and admirals now calling for Rumsfeld’s replacement. Then an old friend from Midland, Texas, mentions a chat he has had with Robert Gates, the former director of central intelligence. It’s a eureka moment. “Why hadn’t I thought of Bob?” Bush asks.
“I felt comfortable around Bob,” he goes on, spelling out what appears to have been a crucial qualification for the job, a reason, perhaps, that the desultory executive search he recounts had to take two and a half years. One of Rice’s strengths was her ability to “read my mind and my moods.”
The story of the first blindsiding is told in the context of a discussion of knotty personnel problems he had to face in the White House. It’s isolated from Bush’s discussion of the Iraq war or the enhanced interrogation program he authorized, as if these were unrelated matters; and out of chronological order with his account of the second blindsiding over the resistance to the surveillance order (deemed to have been illegal by the men who might have been considered his “most senior legal officers”), which had actually played out in secret just a month before the Abu Ghraib story finally broke. Both stories are told in isolation from the fact that 2004 was an election year, so Karl Rove, a minor character in this book but his leading adviser on such matters, is consigned to the background. It’s hard to imagine him not being consulted.
Saved for yet another chapter is the story of Cheney offering to leave the ticket in advance of the coming election. Bush says this happened in mid-2003; in other words, at the point that it was becoming clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq. Only the chronology, not Bush, hints at a possible connection between Cheney’s offer and that outcome. This time Bush acknowledges having consulted his political consigliere and others. He implies that some of these advisers worried that Cheney might weaken the ticket. The discussions went on for a few weeks, enough time, presumably, to do some polling on what the effect of dropping the vice president might be. Finally Bush lets Cheney know he won’t need to jettison him. Iraq, he seems to have concluded, would be manageable as a campaign issue.
Bush’s explanation of why he felt “blindsided” in the case of the warrantless surveillance order can be read, like his reaction to the Abu Ghraib pictures, as an illustration of personal traits bordering on fecklessness—a reluctance to hear bad news, a disinclination to revisit snap decisions, a lofty indifference to details. He blames his subordinates but by his own account, he blindsided himself. He was told that the executive order required the signature of the attorney general and that John Ashcroft was in the hospital. He writes that Ashcroft was “recovering” from gallbladder surgery. In fact, he was still in critical condition with pancreatitis.
That nuance escaped Bush. He also didn’t pursue the matter far enough to learn that Ashcroft was so sick, he’d formally handed over his responsibilities to his deputy, James Comey. Instead the President personally called the sick man and said he was sending his chief of staff, Andrew Card, and Gonzales to the hospital on “an urgent matter.” Ashcroft, in an extraordinary act of conscience that has been insufficiently heralded, could hardly lift his head but gave the President’s emissaries a tongue-lashing. (The scene is well described in Barton Gellman’s study of the Cheney vice-presidency, Angler.) Bush here merely says that “Ashcroft hadn’t signed,” without going into the reasons, so he had “to override the Justice Department’s objection…based on my authority as head of the executive branch.” By the next morning he was facing the resignations of James Comey, a dozen other Justice lawyers, and Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only then did he agree to meet the Justice Department’s objections to the overreaching exemplified by his order.
This selective, anodyne account of a president feeling “blindsided” really illustrates Bush’s willfulness—quite apart from Cheney’s. The former president’s rationalization here is that he was attending to national security. What’s also apparent is that he was impatient, if not irate, over having been thwarted. On the other hand, his acknowledgment that he was “blindsided by a financial crisis that had been more than a decade in the making” is a proposition no one could challenge; if he heard warnings about a dangerous housing bubble, they didn’t register. He “loathed” the idea of the federal government buying up chunks of banks but if he had to choose between being Hoover or Roosevelt, he was not going to be Hoover. “This was one ugly way to end the presidency,” he writes.
A president can’t know everything that goes on in his name but this one sometimes seems to know less than most or to have a hard time relating one thing he knows to another that might be deemed relevant. Thus he praises as “superb” Rumsfeld’s effort to “transform” the military so that the country will be able to fight short, high-tech wars requiring much less manpower than was deemed necessary under what was called the Powell Doctrine, in his father’s time. He repeats the theory that our forces would thus leave a smaller “footprint” and not be seen as occupiers. Usually he fails to relate the small footprint to the messy outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, told Congress that a bigger force would be required to stabilize Iraq, he was fired.
Bush sticks to the story that it was a “false impression” that he was fired over “policy disagreements.” He doesn’t say what that disagreement was supposed to have been. Later he’s “appalled” by TV coverage of looters carrying ancient artifacts out of the national museum in Baghdad. “Why isn’t anybody stopping these looters?” he asks the National Security Council. Told that there’s “a manpower shortage,” he doesn’t (at least in these pages) think back to the Shinseki case, or the theory of the lighter footprint, or a warning on troop strength he’d received from General Powell.
Such disconnects leave you wondering whether they were deliberate or a true reflection of his mental processes. There are conspicuous omissions from his account of his presidency that have to be deliberate. For instance, he never mentions that he lost the popular vote in 2000 to Al Gore. He barely mentions Bush v. Gore and dances around the details of what happened at Tora Bora. (If he had known “for sure” that Osama bin Laden was there, he’d “have moved heaven and earth to bring him to justice.”) He fails to acknowledge that his principled stand on immigration was torpedoed by his own party. He never cites the number of civilian deaths or refugees or missing persons in his “liberated” Iraq. He regrets partisanship but doesn’t mention his administration’s purge of United States attorneys. He says his friend Tony Blair reminded him of Winston Churchill, but never refers to Blair’s efforts to press him on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He says his tax cuts were justified in the light of the surplus that was then projected; the increase in the deficit, he argues, was only “in the short term.” He gives the issue of climate change exactly one paragraph in nearly five hundred pages, which is not disproportionate to the amount of attention he gave it in office.
When finally his trip down memory lane brings him to Hurricane Katrina, he writes that a “serious mistake” he made had led to a “perception problem” he could not overcome. Three days after the storm breaches the levees in New Orleans, he decides to fly back to Washington from Crawford, Texas. The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have implored him not to land in the stricken area because a presidential visit at that stage would draw personnel from rescue efforts. If he couldn’t land, he figures, he could at least get a sense of the devastation from the sky. So he has Air Force One fly low enough for him to see the submerged neighborhoods, collapsed bridges, floating cars, “a landscape…like something out of a horror movie.” While he peers out the window, photos are snapped of him “hovering over the damage [suggesting] I was detached from the suffering on the ground. That wasn’t how I felt. But once the public impression was formed, I couldn’t change it.”
For Bush, it’s another problem of public relations. But readers who have followed him this far may well see the image of an out-of-touch president gazing down from on high as a metaphor for his presidency. This particular frozen moment may have resonated because it made manifest an impression that had been forming over months and years, a form of rough justice in a media age. In yet another sense, it’s a metaphor for any presidency in which a frozen moment on camera can come to seem more significant than a policy failure or success on a complex, urgent matter.
The former president understands this. By the fall of 2006, he writes, “Many Americans were tired of my presidency.” But he’s not himself played out. Nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq, he finally cuts Rumsfeld loose and with him the strategy of the light footprint, placing his bet on a new commander, General David Petraeus, who asks for more troops and gets them. This is “the surge” that finally reverses the spirals of sectarian violence that had seemed irreversible, leaving what we see today, a heaving, smoking semblance of stasis that can’t possibly be mistaken for peace. Bush, who claims to have read fourteen books on Lincoln during his White House years, likens his choice of a new commander to Lincoln’s discovery of Grant.
He doesn’t, it must be said, routinely shrink from admitting mistakes. Where necessary, he goes about it briskly, usually in one or two sentences, often beginning with the words, “In retrospect,” and containing the words “should have.” For instance, “In retrospect, of course, we all should have pushed harder on the intelligence and revisited our assumptions,” he says of the vexed question of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, omitting mention of Hans Blix’s request to continue inspections. Of L. Paul Bremer’s orders to disband the Iraqi army and dismiss former members of the Baath Party from government posts, he says, “In retrospect, I should have insisted on more debates on Jerry’s orders.” Bush only gets haughty when referring to “the left,” by which he usually means congressional Democrats.
Between the lines, he shows himself, in what he does and doesn’t say, to be sensitive about the way his relationships with two older men—his vice-president and his father—have been depicted. In Cheney’s case, he treats as laughable the idea that this most powerful vice-president in history was functioning more as a prime minister than an adviser. But he says little to suggest that he was fully aware of the manner in which Cheney’s office had seized control over national security debates, brushing aside Rice, Powell, and Ashcroft but not Rumsfeld. “One myth was that Dick was actually running the White House,” he writes. “Everyone inside the building, including the vice president, knew that was not true.” He underscores a few instances in which he overruled Cheney—on following the diplomatic track to the UN on Iraq, on dismissing Rumsfeld, on a pardon for “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s aide—but otherwise sheds little light on how their relationship actually worked. Does he know even now?
On his even more intriguing relationship to his dad, his way of dealing with the idea that he went to Baghdad because his father didn’t is to write off any notion that there could be an enduring undercurrent of tension between father and son. “The simple truth is that I adore him,” he says winningly, as if that closes the subject. As war clouds gathered in the summer of 2002, the elder Bush’s close adviser Brent Scowcroft published a piece in The Wall Street Journal that questioned the rush, urging a diplomatic fix. Bush 43, mindful that this would be seen as a signal from his father, angrily phoned Bush 41 whom he quotes as saying, “Son, Brent is a friend.”
“Of all people, Dad understood the stakes,” he then comments. “If he thought I was handling Iraq wrong, he damn sure would have told me himself.” Hadn’t he just done so?
When the son finally gives the order for the troops to enter Iraq, he sits down and writes his father a note by hand. A tender handwritten note comes back from Houston offering fatherly reassurance. “It is right to worry about the loss of innocent life be it Iraqi or American,” it says. “But you have done that which you had to do.” The son’s note had expressed the hope that few lives would be lost without specifying Iraqi lives. The father’s quiet emphasis makes a point. We’re left to wonder whether it registered.
January 13, 2011