Virgin Books, £25, 512pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Decision Points, By George W Bush
Friday 12 November 2010
For the best summary of what made his ill-starred presidency tick, you must persevere almost to the end of this tome of breezy self-justification. George W Bush is reflecting on the final set of crises that crashed around his administration in the autumn of 2008. Russia has invaded and occupied Georgia, Hurricane Ike is battering his beloved Texas, America is fighting costly, seemingly interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US financial system is imploding in the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. All in all, it was "one ugly way to end the presidency."
But then again, being the most powerful man in the world is not for the faint-hearted. You play the hand you're dealt, the author declares. "I didn't feel sorry for myself. I knew there would be tough days. Self-pity is a pathetic quality in a leader. It sends such demoralising signals to the team and the country." In any case, "the Good Lord wouldn't give a believer a burden he couldn't handle."
To even casual students of the 43rd president, the picture that emerges from Decision Points, Bush's attempt to write the history of his eight years in office before the professional historians do their worst, is familiar. He is a stubborn but basically cheerful man, not given to introspection and second guessing. He is convinced that, whatever happens, he is doing God's work. Along the way, you win some and you lose some.
And the self-portrait offers traits to admire. He is genuinely not given to self-pity. His folksiness, in small doses, can be engaging. Bush bears few grudges and has conspicously resisted the temptation to criticise either his predecessor or successor in the White House, even though they were of the opposite party. The villains of this piece are duplicitous foreigners: Yasser Arafat, Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and of course, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and all the other bad guys in the war on terror.
Above all, Bush prides himself on his ability to make the tough calls. As the title of his memoir suggests, this is not a conventional autobiography. Instead he tells his story through the prism of 14 decisions, starting with the one when he turned 40 to stop drinking, through Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending with his acceptance, despite his dislike of government intervention, that in September 2008 there was no alternative to bailing out an undeserving Wall Street.
The real problem, however, lies not so much in the decisions themselves as in how they came about - and of this latter process readers will find little in this volume. Bush was a graduate of Harvard Business school, where he learnt about management, particularly "the importance of setting clear goals for an organisation, delegating tasks and holding people to account." On the first two scores, he succeeded too well. On the third, he failed resoundingly.
No one could ever doubt Bush's goals in the wake of 9/11, of protecting America, defeating terrorism and spreading democracy to the four corners of the earth. But having set them, he stayed above the fray. In this book you do not read of real arguments between him and his advisers.
In the case of toppling Saddam – the most momentous decision of all – one top State Department policy maker recently claimed there never was a real discussion of the pros and cons of invasion. Either ignorant or incurious, Bush seems not to have grasped, nor not to have asked about, the perils of ancient Sunni-Shia rivalries in the region, or the possibility that the biggest beneficiary of the US adventure might be Iran, a far more powerful adversary than Saddam ever was. Yet precisely that happened.
Bush the CEO signally failed to prevent repeated boardroom battles between Colin Powell, his Secretary of State, and the tandem of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and Dick Cheney, the most influential vice-president of modern times. The triumph of the latter sealed the primacy of military force over diplomacy in Bush's approach to the world. It brought about a weakening of the State Department that is only now being corrected.
Repeatedly, the former president claims to have been "blindsided," most notably over the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and over the gathering crisis in the banking system. "From the perch of the presidency," he writes of ructions in 2006 within the White House, "it was hard to judge whether the gripes were petty grievances or evidence of a serious problem." In business, a CEO with a similar record of being out of the loop would surely have been kicked from his perch long before.
Certainly, a president can err in the opposite direction – the cerebral and hyper-analytical Barack Obama may be a case in point. But it is undeniable that at crucial moments, Bush simply didn't do his homework, relying instead on gut instinct and instant judgement of people, even (as he famously put it to the journalist Bob Woodward) the guidance of "a higher father."
As for holding people accountable, two instances suffice: the "Heck of a job, Brownie" praise for Michael Brown, the hapless chief of the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina, and his refusal to sack Rumsfeld after Abu Ghraib. Indeed, Bush's clinging on to to his unpopular Defence Secretary until 8 November 2006 may have cost the Republicans control of Congress in the mid-term election the previous day.
Where Decision Points breaks unsuspected ground is over Bush's relationship not with a higher father, but with his biological one. In many respects he is his mother's boy. "I have a feisty and irreverent streak courtesy of Barbara Bush," he writes – even if most of us remember mainly the cockiness and the smirk. There has been much pop-psychologising over his supposed rivalry with the first president Bush, including a suggestion that the son's decision to "take out Saddam" was to prove his wimpish father wrong for not doing so in the 1991 Gulf war.
But throughout the book, "Son" has nothing but tender words for "Dad", while in a private chat during the family's Christmas gathering in 2002, Bush senior tells Bush junior that "if the man won't comply [with the UN], you have no choice" but to go to war. We also learn, incidentally, that the younger Bush acquired his trademark taste for giving people nicknames not from his mother, but his father.
Now Iraq has set the Bush presidential reputations on very different trajectories. The father's stock is rising. He is regarded increasingly as a wise international statesman who knew how to build alliances, and when to stop. "Dubya", however, found it hard to do either. He is generally regarded as a failure in the White House. The 43rd president professes to have no fear of history, which is just as well. Despite the best efforts of Decision Points, its verdict is unlikely to be kind.
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