“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.”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.”– George W. Bush
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.
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|
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.
|(photo by Keith Penner)|