The day I became president – but George W Bush still got his way on invading Iraq
The new presidential Library in Dallas offers an interactive experience of life in the Oval Office. David Usborne takes the hotseat
I invaded Iraq today. I also made an awful hash of the 2008 financial crisis. How to explain myself? First of all, when I took my hot seat in the Decision Points Theatre at the George W Bush Library here in Dallas there were 23 other guests reliving the trickiest dilemmas of the 43rd President. We acted by majority vote; I got steamrolled. And the pressure! A ticking clock... Four minutes to choose. Welcome to the set of Who Wants to be a Tony Blair?
There is no calling a friend, but information on the topic at hand you get plenty of, some of it even before you reach Decision Points, the niftiest of several interactive exhibits at the new museum.
I am among the initial wave of guests (let’s not call it a surge) pushing through the doors on the first day that it is open to the public. We are all excited, not least the schoolchildren who are just ahead with a special guide. Yes, Dubya himself has showed up to take them round. Inside a cacophony awaits. “You want to be President for a day, do you?’ a chirpy guide inquires. “The Oval Office is this way”. (It’s convincing, even if a construction site outside doesn’t quite conjure the Rose Garden.)
A repeating video in one alcove shows Mr Bush recalling that Mr Blair was his first guest at Camp David. It’s that “special relationship” thing again. From another corner comes Condoleezza Rice, opining that America escaped other attacks after 9/11 because of the “difficult decisions” made by President Bush. She means Iraq and Afghanistan, too.
Of course the highlight is the Decision Points Theatre. It’s why we are here. I have already seen the loudspeaker Mr Bush used to rally America at Ground Zero days after 9/11. I was there. But here at my touch-screen monitor I have the chance to rewrite history. I am in a commander-in-chief simulator and briefly I have the world’s fate in my hands. Or the 24 of us do. For the next four minutes we will be showered with competing intelligence and advice, as he was.
First, we must collectively choose which of Mr Bush’s favourite four crises we want to tackle: what to do about Saddam Hussein, how to respond to the financial meltdown, whether to order the Iraqi surge or how to handle Hurricane Katrina. We go for Saddam.
The countdown begins. We must decide whether to “lead an international coalition” to topple Saddam, seek a new UN resolution, or take no action. The gameshow music is interrupted only by the occasional burst of breaking news: Saddam has tested a missile! It flies beyond the 93-mile UN limit!
And so to our advisers, who come in the form of more tabs on my screen. Let’s try “Iraqi academic”. (Uh-oh, you know what’s coming.) “The Iraqi people will support the removal of Saddam Hussein,” declares a man of very serious mien, who is really just an actor.
Let’s try the CIA; surely they will be more measured. “Intelligence suggests that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. And don’t forget during the Gulf War we discovered that Saddam was much further along in developing nuclear weapons than anyone knew.” This is not going well. We must each move a cursor from “Agree” to “Disagree” as each so-called expert speaks. Moving graph lines on the main screen ahead show which way the crowd is leaning. So I tried, honestly. I barged my cursor to disagree when the official from the Pentagon told me that not invading now would “make America look weak”. I did the same when some alleged UN person said that seeking more resolutions that Saddam would only ignore would ruin the world body’s credibility.
Time’s up, vote now! The figure of Andy Card appears on the main screen, Bush’s Chief of Staff from 2001 to 2006. We have collectively made our choice. We were leading a coalition. Presumably of the willing, but count me out of that.
But I am not asking for my money back. This was not really about rewriting history but rather corroborating it in Mr Bush’s favour. Those folk who queued with me to be the first inside his post-presidency shrine were never going to press the “take no action” tab.
Even if there were any waverers, a certain amount of brainwashing was administered before any of us even reached the Decision Points game. We had to navigate the large column, for instance, spelling out the “Bush Doctrine”. “Take the fight to the Enemy,” it said blandly. “Advance Freedom.”
Also helping to move the needle was the “Defending Freedom Table”. Its entire surface is a touch-screen playground designed to walk you through everything Mr Bush faced in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. Videos and photographs swarm the surface when prompted, like the image of a bearded, Satanic Saddam shortly after he is dragged from his underground bunker. Play on this table for long enough and you will learn how things were in Iraq and Afghanistan by the time Mr Bush ended his second term. In short, better.
So, the game show was a fix. But when I returned for a second time, the chosen topic was the financial meltdown. Presumably, my fellow players would do as Mr Bush did – enact a taxpayer-funded bailout of the big banks. But before I know it I am party to another policy disaster: we decide to let the banks fail. Damn, if I wasn’t outvoted again.
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