Monday 5 September 2016

The Obsessions of George W. Bush: Jean Edward Smith’s Bush

This review that originally appeared on September 4th in Critics at Large is reproduced on this website because That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) contains several chapters on the Iraq war that Bush initiated.
( r. Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld)

“I am the commander. I don’t need to explain. That’s the interesting thing about being president. I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

- George W. Bush

In the first full-fledged biography of the forty-third President, Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first sentence of the preface, reads: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The reader may well ask who is the author and is he credible. Jean Edward Smith is not a left-wing critic of Bush but a respected scholar who has written several well-received biographies of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay (the military governor of occupied Germany after World War II and hero of the Berlin airlift), and John Marshall, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the early nineteenth century, an oeuvre that inspired the conservative pundit, George F. Will, to describe Smith as “America’s greatest living biographer.”

Given these distinguished credentials, I was intrigued to read Smith’s hefty volume at eight hundred pages. Besides, I had spent months years ago reading and writing about Bush’s responses to 9/11, his invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq and I did wonder whether I got it right. Based on Smith’s exhaustively researched and fluidly written biography, I did feel affirmed. If anything Smith’s judgments on “Asleep at the Switch” – the chapter title for Bush’s lack of attention to security before September 11 – his overreaction to that tragic day by his decisions to invade two countries, the erosion of civil liberties and “The Torture Trail” – another snappy chapter heading for which Smith excels – constitute a more devastating critique of Bush’s years, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Yet there are surprises as Smith credits Bush with a number of achievements. By mining the important secondary sources, the memoirs of the historical actors, numerous periodicals, government records, and speeches, and – apart from Bush himself – several interviews with key participants, Smith has skillfully synthesized them into a three-dimensional portrait of Bush.

Reading Smith, it is possible to imagine a very different Bush 43 presidency had 9/11 not happened. In the 2000 election, according to Smith, Bush ran a better campaign than Al Gore who often conveyed a sense of entitlement and condescension alienating voters. Running as a compassionate conservative, a political philosophy with which the Republican base was never comfortable, Smith applauds Bush’s interest in education reform and stem-cell-research regulation. During his second term of office, he secured passage of prescription-drug benefits for seniors, he made a sincere if fruitless attempt to reform immigration policy and most importantly, he championed a dramatic increase in funding to better treat and prevent AIDS in Africa. And what is often forgotten, Bush, despite his ideological inclinations not to intervene in the market place, deserves credit for being pragmatic during the 2008 economic meltdown. Given the magnitude of the crisis, he shepherded through Congress legislation that rescued Wall Street and the domestic auto industry, thereby avoiding a full-blown depression. Finally, Smith reveals a gracious Bush by assisting Obama in a seamless transfer of power.

But eliminating the cataclysmic effects of that awful day in September, 2001 is not possible and Smith devotes the bulk of his book to exploring how the attacks not only affected foreign policy but also had domestic repercussions, and influenced the character and presidential style of Bush. The President had shown no interest in foreign affairs, which perhaps explains why he never attended the National Security Council meetings in the seven months prior to September 11, 2001. Instead, Bush relied on his national–security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, whom he completely trusted to feed him reports and she basically told him what he wanted to hear. Throughout his eight years, Bush looked to sycophantic aides and marginalized dissenting voices within his administrations by disregarding their advice, even when it came from cabinet officials like his first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That dismissal was most in evidence when Bush decided to “kiss ass,” and blithely violated the Geneva Conventions by instituting “enhanced interrogation” techniques when questioning detainees or permitted the rendition of prisoners to torture-friendly governments. Generals Tommy Franks and Richard Myers, along with Powell, insisted that any skirting of international law put American fighters at a retaliatory risk of the same treatment. Yet Bush had no qualms about using Powell’s prestige and respect when the retired general made the case at the UN for invading Iraq, something he later regretted. The Patriot Act, the centrepiece of his domestic legislation to fight the war on terror, Smith contends, was a “direct assault on the civil liberties that Americans enjoy, particularly the right to privacy.” Smith forcefully argues that in the foreign and domestic responses to the 9/11 attacks, Bush made every decision; he was not manipulated by Cheney or anyone else. He was the commander-in chief and he revelled in his power.

Most significant than any other factor in explaining Bush’s world view was his born-again religious faith that defined geopolitics in terms of good and evil. His Evangelical Christianity, characterized by Smith as “sanctimonious religiosity,” largely contributed to his being doubt-free, unprepared and unwilling to listen to more experienced foreign advisors, some of whom were from his father’s, George H. W. Bush, Presidency. The younger Bush hated complexity and ambiguity: “I don’t do nuance,” he once said. Unlike his successor, Barack Obama, Bush abhorred lengthy meetings, disdained extended analysis and generally was not self-reflective. Smith’s judgement is stark: “Believing he was the agent of God’s will, and acting with divine guidance, George W. Bush would lead the nation into two disastrous wars of aggression.” Later on Smith writes: “The decision to invade Iraq will likely go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American President. That error was compounded when he unilaterally decided to bring democracy to Iraq.”

author Jean Edward Smith

I am a little surprised by Smith’s assertion that the invasion of Afghanistan was initially disastrous since the Taliban was sheltering the Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11. Afghanistan was never occupied and Allied troops were there at the pleasure of a sovereign government. Where Bush could be sharply criticized is for precipitously pivoting into Iraq and failing to stabilize Afghanistan allowing the Taliban to regroup. The invasion, however, of Iraq was predicated on baseless claims that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and that a close relationship existed between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. I would have liked Smith to have devoted more space to the latter specious claim. Worse, contends Smith, is the second error – to democratize Iraq – because it meant turning America from a liberator into an occupier, a disaster for which the military was not prepared. Smith quotes from the memoirs of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s first Secretary of Defense, who remarked that the decision to turn Iraq into a democratic state festered into “a long and heavy-handed occupation.” He was right; the occupation gave birth to an insurgency, enormous casualties, the squandering of resources, sectarian conflict, the destabilization of Iraq and the region, and the birth of ISIS. Bush’s ongoing obsession with Iraq badly skewed his vision resulting in his bungled and perfunctory responses to the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina that caused eighteen hundred plus people to die, property damage to exceed $108 billion and the largest diaspora in American history. The political fallout was disastrous. Bush’s failures caused a steep decline in his support from which he never recovered. Smith quotes the head of FEMA, who remarked that if Katrina had resulted from terrorism, the federal response would have been dramatically different.

As an historian, Smith assesses the man and his policies through the prism of previous presidents and generals, and Bush often comes up short. (I mention generals because Bush reveled in the appellation, ‘commander-in-chief.’) Among them is Bush’s assertion, “I am the war president,” earning the rebuke: “Neither Dwight Eisenhower nor Harry Truman would have called themselves ‘the war president,’ even though a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could at any moment have taken 150 million lives in a few hours.” Clergymen informed Lincoln and Bush that God was on their side, but Lincoln’s response was tinged with skepticism and pragmatism: “I hope to have God on my side, Reverend, but what I must have is Kentucky.” If FDR wanted to banish fear, Bush wanted to reinforce fear. Even though Lyndon Johnson was preoccupied with Vietnam, his on-the-ground response during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 provides a stark contrast with Bush’s thirty-five minute flyover of the ravaged areas. Perhaps most telling is the comparison with General Eisenhower who was determined that the Allies only liberate and not occupy France; that responsibility was left to General De Gaulle. But when Eisenhower reached Germany, he immediately occupied the Russian-free zones. That kind of distinction was never undertaken in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.

The passages that I have quoted in this review – and there are many more that I could have – may appear unduly harsh coming from an eminent biographer. Nonetheless, Smith marshals his evidence carefully; I never had the impression he would have omitted something if it might have vitiated his thesis. On the last page, Smith comments that Bush “may not have been America’s worst president.’’ As I contemplate with trepidation the unlikely but possible election of the 2016 Republican nominee, I strongly concur. For all of Bush’s shortcomings – his arrogance, naivety and his messianic certitude – he possessed certain strengths. He was not afraid to acknowledge his mistakes, he recognized that other people took different positions from his and he was not vindictive toward his critics. Yet I think that Smith’s assessment of his two terms in office is spot-on. His will not be the definitive biography as not enough time has lapsed and we must wait for future scholars to mine the archival material not available to Smith such as the internal documents from the Bush White House. In the meantime, Bush is an important biography and a valuable resource for future research on George W. Bush.

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