Posted: May 9, 2011
A review of Decision Points, by George W. Bush
good presidential autobiography is not an easy book to write. Anticipating a large readership with only a limited appetite for the details of Washington politics and policymaking, the author is inevitably tempted to favor color over substance, personalities over policy. Though it is important to write while the experience of the presidency is still relatively fresh, it is challenging to judge personal performances with any frankness while many of the players are still on the stage. Nor is it possible to discuss many sensitive matters because of the unavailability of the classified documentary record (at any rate, before the era of Wikileaks!). George W. Bush seems aware of these difficulties, and does his best not to raise our expectations—hardly surprising given the humble man he so clearly is. Decision Points never pretends to be a comprehensive or definitive account of the Bush presidency (or for that matter of Bush's earlier life, though this does feature a little), nor is it organized as a continuous narrative of his years in the White House. Instead, it focuses thematically on a limited number of key areas of presidential decisionmaking. This approach has its disadvantages, but works surprisingly well as an introduction to presidential leadership and how one should think about it.
One can agree with Bush when he says, "I believe it will be impossible to reach definitive conclusions about my presidency—or any recent presidency, for that matter—for several decades. The passage of time allows passions to cool, results to clarify, and scholars to compare different approaches." This is particularly true in his case. A great many Americans, not to mention ill-wishers of this country abroad, developed a passionate loathing for George W. Bush and all his works over the course of his eight years in office. American historians currently rank him, according to polls, as the fifth or sixth worst president. It will take some time for these passions to cool; yet cool they undoubtedly will.
Besides, in an important sense the Bush presidency is not over yet. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, events show that the verdict on democracy promotion is far from conclusive. The global war on terror may be unmentionable under the current administration, yet it continues with no end in sight. The war in Afghanistan is in its tenth year, with an outcome that remains highly uncertain. The Iraq war is winding down, and the picture there is in many ways encouraging; but the stability of Iraqi politics remains a major question. And the other two members of Bush's "axis of evil" remain active if not entirely well—a reminder that a president can be remembered, in the words of the prayer book, for things left undone as well as things done.
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Decision Points contains few major revelations or surprises. Though Bush had help with the research and writing (Chris Michel, a former Bush speechwriter, is credited), the book retains his distinctive voice. It is straightforward and workmanlike, with flashes of wry humor. Perhaps surprisingly, the author has little to say about American politics, though there are brief, interesting discussions of his presidential rivals—John McCain as well as Al Gore and John Kerry. His two Supreme Court appointments receive perfunctory attention, and his judicial philosophy and the various legal battles his administration had to fight in the war on terror, even less—though he gives no ground on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. By contrast, he deals at length with several domestic topics that some may find surprising: there are separate chapters on stem-cell research, Hurricane Katrina, the administration's campaign against AIDS in Africa, and the 2008 financial crisis. He is particularly proud—and for good reason—of his administration's humanitarian record in Africa, something for which he has gotten grudging credit at best from his legion of critics.
Beltway aficionados are likely to be most interested in the chapter on "personnel," which provides thumbnail sketches of the Bush cabinet and other senior officials. Some reading between the lines is clearly required here. Sometimes the praise is faint, but the president drops no dimes—except for one on Paul O'Neill, his first secretary of the treasury. Bush complains that O'Neill "belittled" his tax cuts and otherwise "didn't gain my confidence" or that of "the financial community, Congress, or his colleagues in the administration," and did a poor job of advancing the administration's economic policies in speeches and on TV. In a particularly hard jab, Bush tells us O'Neill "used his meetings in the Oval Office to talk about tangential topics, like his plan to improve workplace safety at the U.S. Mint." When Bush decided to fire him, however, Lawrence Lindsey, chairman of the National Economic Council, was also shown the door. The president has nothing but praise for Lindsey, a brilliant conservative economist, claiming only that for the change in his economic team to be "credible," it "had to be sweeping." There was in fact more to it. Lindsey had made an incautious public statement about the projected costs of the Iraq War; one surmises that he, too, had lost the president's confidence.
Bush's choice of Colin Powell as secretary of state was "easy," he tells us. "I believed Colin could be the second coming of George Marshall, a soldier turned statesman." Donald Rumsfeld, his second choice for secretary of defense (Rumsfeld was apparently originally considered for the CIA), was "knowledgeable, articulate, and confident. As a former secretary of defense, he had the strength and experience to bring major changes to the Pentagon. He would run the bureaucracy, not let it run him." Several pages later, however, Bush says that as the 2004 election approached, he grew concerned about the growing discord between the State and Defense departments over Iraq. "Colin and Don were always respectful to each other in my presence. Over time I realized they were like a pair of old duelers who kept their own pistols in their holsters, but let their seconds and thirds fire away."
In spite of repeated presidential scoldings and behind-the-scenes diplomacy by Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and her deputy Steve Hadley, "[n]othing worked." After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Rumsfeld submitted his resignation, and Bush claims he seriously considered accepting it but was dissuaded by the absence of an obvious successor. Finally, though, the president "concluded that the animosity was so deeply embedded that the only solution was to change the entire national security team after the 2004 election."
As it turned out, Powell notified the president later in the spring that he wanted to leave, providing him a graceful out. Bush then adds: "I admired Colin, but it sometimes seemed like the State Department he led wasn't fully on board with my philosophy and policies. It was important to me that there be no daylight between the president and the secretary of state"—implying clearly that such daylight existed between Bush and Powell. So much for the second coming of General Marshall! As for Rumsfeld, Bush planned for him to move on as well, but apparently with less urgency. He considered as possible replacements not only Condi Rice and Senator Joseph Lieberman, but former secretary of state James Baker (this I believe is a surprise). Bush has much more to say in praise of Rumsfeld than Powell. He had "valuable experience and shared my view of the war on terror as a long-term ideological struggle" (implicitly denying this, it would seem, for Powell), and he was doing "a superb job transforming the military, the mission that initially attracted me to him," mentioning among other particulars Rumsfeld's innovations in the area of unmanned aerial vehicles, his overhaul of the U.S. global basing posture, and his improvements in U.S. special operations forces.
He also notes, however, that at times "Don frustrated me with his abruptness toward military leaders and members of my staff." The latter appears to be a reference to Rice in particular. As for Rumsfeld's notoriously fraught relationship with the uniformed military, Bush reveals that he kept the defense secretary on longer than originally anticipated because of open criticisms by a group of retired generals. "There was no way I was going to let a group of retired officers bully me into pushing out the civilian secretary of defense. It would have looked like a military coup and would have set a disastrous precedent." On this he is absolutely right. It is disappointing that Bush does not have more to say about the apparently growing problems in the American civil-military relationship during his tenure. On all of these bureaucratic issues, Bush's memoir needs to be supplemented with Douglas Feith's carefully crafted, well-documented War and Decision (2008)—the best insider account of the Bush Administration's personal and interagency squabbling over Iraq-related matters, as well as an able defense of the Pentagon's much criticized role.
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One other personnel item is worth commenting on. Bush calls it "the most emotional personnel decision I had to make," and it was on the last day of his presidency: the issue of a pardon for Scooter Libby. The chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, Libby had been indicted by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald for perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements in the matter of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative he supposedly "outed" to journalist Bob Novak as part of an alleged administration vendetta against her husband, Joseph Wilson. (Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later admitted to tipping Novak to Plame.) In June 2007, Libby was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Though Cheney and others "pushed aggressively" for a full presidential pardon for his aide, Bush agreed only to a commutation of Libby's sentence. "I decided it would send a bad message to pardon a former staff member convicted of obstructing justice, especially after I had instructed the staff to cooperate with the investigation." He also claims that "most advisers" believed the verdict was correct. Although noting that the protracted investigation had already caused "personal, professional, and financial damage for Scooter and his family," he doesn't add that letting the conviction stand resulted in Libby's disbarment and hence the loss of his primary livelihood. He also fails to make clear the partisan inspiration of the media feeding frenzy Libby was subjected to throughout, or the dubious methods and judgment of the notoriously aggressive and self-dealing Fitzgerald.
In the final days of the administration, Cheney took another run at Bush on behalf of a pardon for Libby. Bush claims he then asked "two trusted lawyers" to review the case again; both told him they could find no justification for a pardon. When he informed the vice president of this, Cheney
stared at me with an intense look. "I can't believe you're going to leave a soldier on the battlefield," he said. The comment stung. In eight years, I had never seen Dick like this, or even close to this. I worried that the friendship we had built was about to be severely strained, at best.
Bush should at least be given credit for telling this story on himself. But Cheney was right.