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March 13, 2011

Book Review - Decision Points

A short note to my readers: Because of several projects I have taken on I have not been able to blog nearly as often as usual. I will get back to it, but am just not sure when, In the meantime, this review of George W Bush's autobiography should provide food for thought. Thank you

The most honest book by a politician I've ever read was Standing Firm by Dan Quayle. He doesn't sugar-coat the treatment he got from the press, or make excuses for some of his own bad decisions. He knows that it was much of what he did that generated the press. He defends himself to the extent of telling the full story behind the infamous "potatoe" spelling incident, but admits that if he had handled the situation better it would not have been the story it was.

I gained a lot of respect for Dan Quayle while reading that book.

George W Bush's Decision Points is a pretty honest book, as books by politicians go. Nothing he writes will satisfy many on the left. But many on the right will also be disappointed if they are expecting apologies for No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug bill, the attempt at immigration "reform," or increasing the deficit through higher domestic spending.

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Bush defends the decisions he thinks are right regardless of who may be upset. He's not quite as critical of himself as he should be, I think, so the book doesn't match up to Standing Firm. But few, if any, politicians are as honest as Dan Quayle.

Book Summary

Drinking and Faith

One thing about George W Bush; he's not afraid to write about his personal failing with alcohol. While others may see it as an embarrassing chapter in their lives best avoided, he deals with it squarely in the first sentence of the book: "It was a simple question. "Can you remember the last day you didn't have a drink?" Laura asked in her calm, soothing voice." At first indignant, he realized that in fact he couldn't. Admitting he has a habitual personality, he had once smoked cigarettes but at least got that down to cigars. Alcohol was something else, and quitting that was one of the toughest decisions he made. But determined man that he is, once he makes a decision he sticks with it.

Bush also details his conversion experience. As with many people, before he accepted Christ he wasn't totally godless, religion just wasn't really a big deal to him. Meeting the great evangelist Billy Graham changed all that. In 1985 his dad had invited Graham to their home for dinner, which was followed by a Q and A session. There was no on-the-spot bolt of lightning, but Graham planted a seed which grew slowly over the next few years.

Bush says that he "could not have quit drinking without faith." and "I also don't think my faith would be as strong if I hadn't quit drinking." He was still a drinker when he met Graham, but says that God "helped open my eyes" and saw him through. An awful lot of Christians share those sentiments.

Texas Air National Guard


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From Baseball to Politics

Bush doesn't spend a lot of time on his childhood or young adulthood, moving rapidly to young middle age, where in 1989 he became a part owner of the Texas Rangers. It was his experience as owner that built the political skills that would later catapult him to the governor's mansion and then the White House. As owner he had to hold press conferences and take often-hostile questions from the press. It also sharpened his management skills.

Obviously his father and grandfathers' involvement in politics played a role in his decision to run for congress in 1978 and the governorship of Texas in 1994. Interestingly, although he lost the congressional race, his opponent, incumbent Democrat Kent Hance would eventually switch to the Republican party and become a supporter of his.

Incumbent governor Ann Richards was popular, and many people, including his own mother, advised Bush that he couldn't win. And Richards proved tough, and more than a little mean-spirited. Bush Bush won, and Richards was put out of a job.

On To Washington

A popular governor who had won reelection, many people had been telling him he ought to run for president. There would be no incumbent in 2000, and running for an open seat is always much easier. But he didn't take his final decision to run until listening to a sermon one day. The pastor told of how Moses had doubts until God reassured him. Bush, too, felt the same way.

Bush almost lost the 2000 election when the press discovered his previously unrevealed DUI only three days before the election. The reason he didn't reveal it earlier, he says is that he felt it would have undermined his lectures to his daughters about the dangers of drinking and driving. In his autobiography, Courage and Consequence says that he tried to get Bush to release it earlier and regrets that he didn't try harder.

In mid 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney told Bush that if he wanted to pick someone else as VP for the 2004 race he would understand, and "no hard feelings." No health issues, or political ones, drove his offer, Cheney said. He just thought the president should not feel obligated. In a capital full of power-hungry politicians, that was one of the biggest acts of loyalty any politician had ever seen.'

Leading up to the 2004 election, Bush was fine with his vice president, but not his national security team. Squabbling between State and Defense was natural, but it intensified over Iraq to the point where he felt he needed to make changes. He told Powell and Rumsfeld to cool it, but nothing he did seemed to work.

Don Rumsfeld submitted his resignation when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, but Bush refused the offer. The offer was not a formality, the offer was real. But that was not the time.

In 2004, though, Bush had had enough of the fighting between State and Defense. Fortunately, Powell made the decision easy by offering to resign himself.

In 2006, as the situation in Iraq worsened, Bush decided he needed a new Secretary of Defense. A long search ended with the selection of Robert Gates. The other person who he replaced was Chief of Staff Andy Card, who like Rumsfeld had offered to resign before Bush actually made the decision. Josh Bolton was chosen to replace Card.

A Bad Decision and a Good One

Some of the most painful reading was where Bush tried to justify bad decisions like appointing Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. This decision was ill-considered and in truth was the result of a personal friendship and reward for loyalty than based on qualifications. To most conservatives, this appointment fell into the category of "you gotta be kidding." Thankfully she withdrew when it became clear that she was not going to be confirmed.

On the other hand, some of the best reading was about his decision to ban funding for research on embryonic stem cells. Bush spent quite a bit of time researching the issue and listening to people on all sides of the debate. His decision was well-informed, and I think correct. But however you come down, the proponents of "anything goes" have done themselves a disservice through their dishonesty. The standard claim is that Bush (and those evil conservative Christians) want to "ban stem cell research that will save lives." They never mention that there are two types of stem cells, and no one has any objection to research on adult stem cells. It also seems apparent that the possible benefits have been overblown.

Sept 11 and the War on Terror

It's no surprise that Bush spends an entire chapter on September 11, 2001, and the days that immediately followed. It was, after all, the most important day of his presidency, and one of if not the most important days in our history since December 7, 1941. It makes for interesting reading. Most of it, though, is unremarkable in that all of this has been told elsewhere. One story did stick out though: Arlene Howard, mother of George Howard, a police officer who had been slain on 9-11, gave Bush her son's badge when he visited New York a few days after the attack. He kept it on his person every single day of the rest of his presidency.

For the past few years the Democrats have attacked the Patriot Act as at best undermining our freedoms and at worst a turn toward fascism, but Bush quotes Democrat after Democrat who at the time praising the legislation and saying how necessary it was. This would be repeated in a few years when the war in Iraq turned south. And for all of Obama's campaign promises, neither he nor the Democrats in Congress have removed its major provisions.

It was the same with the "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Nancy Pelosi was informed about them, including waterboarding, and approved of their use, and then in 2010 lied about it. Others have "forgotten" that they, too, knew about and approved of measures their party has since come to oppose. Bush goes through the issue in some detail and explains his decision to approve such measures. It is easy to Monday-morning-quarterback this one, as all too many have.

Truth be told, the question of what to do with captured terrorists is a tough one and reasonable people can disagree. What's important to remember is that the decisions Bush made were not rash and poorly thought out ones, but decisions taken after much consultation and reflection. More, they have kept us safe. Those who object imply that had we not kept terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and used waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques things would have still turned out the same; i.e. no more attacks. This is a logical fallacy.

"History can debate the decisions I made, the policies I chose, and the tools i left behind. But there can be no debate about one fact: after the nightmare of September 11, America went seven and a half years without another successful terrorist attack on our soil. if i had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it."

Given the spate of follow-on attacks everyone expected, that is one heck of an accomplishment indeed.

Afghanistan

Bush writes about the strategy at the beginning of the war, and how it seemed to work because, after all, they did route the Taliban in a month or so. We won with a relatively small number of troops, and so we thought we didn't need to add many more to finish the job. As Bush says, "our rapid success with low troop levels created false comfort, and our desire to maintain a light military footprint left us short of the resources we needed. It would take several years for these shortcomings to become clear."

We're told that Afghanistan is the war that "everyone" supported, and it was Iraq that caused all the problems. But as Bush points out, the Europeans reneged on their promise to send a sufficient number of troops to Afghanistan right from the start. And when they did send troops, they came with so many restrictions that there were not of much use. The British and Canadians were the exception to the rule.

Iraq and the Surge

Although Saddam Hussein did not know about the attacks of 9-11 before the occurred, they did change the calculus regarding his regime. Before 9-11 we thought of Saddam as a problem, albeit a difficult one, but one we could manage. The terrorist attacks on our homeland, however, made Bush and many others in this country realize that could happen if Saddam or someone like him gave WMD to terrorists. While some would say this is implausible, we know that Saddam did hatch a plot to kill former President George H. W. Bush on his visit to Kuwait in April of 1993.

Critics charge that Bush "rushed to war." This ignores the diplomacy and sanctions used by both Presidents Clinton and Bush after Saddam stopped allowing inspections in 1998. Diplomacy and sanctions could have been allowed to go on forever, but there is no evidence that waiting any longer would have made an evidence. Further, while there were risks to invasion, not invading was risky too, something the critics usually ignore.

Of all the criticisms, the "Bush Lied" about WMD is particularly inane. It's really on a par with 9-11 Trutherism (that's me, not W, making the comparison, but it's true). The fact is that all intelligence agencies around the world thought Saddam had the stuff, and the Democrats in Congress thought he did too. For that matter, up until the day he left office on January 20, 2001, President Clinton was convinced he was stockpiling WMD as well.

Obviously mistakes were made after the invasion. Bush writes about two critical ones that he and his team made. The first was that they did not respond quickly enough to the insurgency. No one was sure if it would last or was just a few "dead enders," and Bush and his team worried that an overly strong response would be counterproductive with the population. The other mistake, of course, was in getting the WMD wrong.

George Casey, our commanding general in Iraq in 2006, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid all thought that our troop presence fueled the insurgency and that adding more troops would be counterproductive. Bush accepted that analysis for a time, but by the end of that year came to believe it was wrong. The critical moment came in June, when Casey was briefing him Operation Together Forward, a lost-ditch effort to secure Baghdad. Casey told Bush his strategy was "Clear, Hold, Build," but at the same time had been telling the President we needed to reduce our troop presence. The contradiction was clear, and Bush realized that a new strategy, and generals, was needed.

Beyond replacing Casey with Petraeus and making other key personnel changes, Bush needed key commitments from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Bush told Maliki that the political pressure to abandon Iraq was tremendous, but that he would send additional troops, but only if Maliki agreed to certain reforms. Bush got the commitments at a one-on-one meeting, and the surge went forward.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Katrina

Karl Rove did an excellent job summarizing Katrina in Courage and Consequence, which I reviewed here at Redhunter. His conclusion is pretty straightforward; government failed at all levels. If you want to blame President Bush for his part, fine, but let's not pretend that the Democrat dominated government in Louisiana and New Orleans did not behave in anything but a completely incompetent fashion.

Essentially, Mayor Ray Nagin, Senator Mary Landrieu, and Governor Kathleen Blanco were nothing short of complete nimcompops (again, my term, not George W's) who were incapable of taking a decision, did little that was productive, and if you get down to it behaved in an emotionally unstable fashion. Blanco, for example, continually refused to allow the federal government to assume control of the emergency, which legally limited what Bush could do. It took much begging and cajoling from the President for her to come around.

But Bush does not excuse himself, admitting to making several errors. Some of these were in public perception, but several more substantive. FEMA performed badly, and Bush and his team were slow to make personnel changes. It was indeed a failure of government at all levels.

Domestic Policy

While Bush's foreign policy generally met with approval from conservatives, his domestic policy did not. In the book Bush explains his reasons for everything from No Child Left Behind, to his attempted immigration reform, to increasing prescription drug benefits.

As with everything else in the book, you either accept his policies or you don't. Bush does a good job of explaining himself. He views his domestic polices as bipartisan attempts to make the system work better. That they were bipartisan is a matter of historical fact (look at the voting record in Congress). Whether they improved matters is something else entirely.

Liberals generally liked his policies at the time, or at least were pleased to see him taking their position on immigration reform, domestic spending and Medicare. It was Senator Ted Kennedy, after all, who basically wrote No Child Left Behind. But conservatives were displeased, and their/our continued support waned as time went on.

Africa and AIDS

It isn't widely known in the West, but George W Bush is something of a hero in sub-Saharan Africa. The fact is that he has done more for Africa than any other US president, including Bill Clinton, said by some to be the first "black" president.

Bush proposed, and Congress passed, a massive $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS in Africa. Called The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), it was the single largest program to fight a specific disease the world had ever seen. It was, in many ways, the medical version of the Marshall Plan.

In one memorable scene, after a Presidential visit to an AIDS clinic, the director of TASO (The AIDS Support Organization), Dr Alex Coutinho, said that Bush was the first world leader he had seen hug an African with AIDS.

Not everyone was happy with Bush's actions, some of them European leaders. French President Jaques Chirac was upset that Bush had decided to tie non-AIDS aid to anti-corruption efforts. Steeped in guilt, Chirac seemed to think that we had to send African dictators whatever they wanted. After listening to one tirade by the French leader, Bush gave his own lecture back, reminding Chirac that it wasn't Americans who colonized Africa, and that anyway "America is tired of seeing good money stolen while people continue to suffer. Yes, we are changing our policy whether you like it or not."

My Take

That George W Bush is a much better writer than he is a speaker will not come as a surprise to many. Famously stumbling over many of his words while speaking it must be remembered that he did earn an MBA from Harvard Business School.

As mentioned above, the book will not please liberals or conservatives who are expecting apologies. What Bush does accomplish is explain his decisions in clear, easy to understand, terms. Agree with him or not, you'll come away understanding why he did what he did.

There were a few subjects discussed in the book that I just don't have time to adequately cover; his "freedom agenda" and the financial crisis that hit at the end of his term are the biggest among them. I supported his policies on the former and opposed them on the latter.

Readers of this blog know that I supported Bush's foreign policy and if anything wish he had been more muscular. Iraq did sap our strength; not so much for Afghanistan as for confronting other threats like Iran, Venezuela, and the elephant in the corner, China. The mistake he made with Iraq was not in the decision to invade, which I believe was correct, but in pursuing a failed policy. Finally, few if any of those those who disagree with the decision to invade Iraq would have actually favored military action against Iran if it had come down to it (or if Bush had attacked Iran instead of Iraq, today they'd be saying that Iran was a distraction and we should have attacked Iraq. Liberals, I've noticed, always want to fight another war than the one we're actually engaged in).

Domestic policy was something else entirely. Bush did hold the line on social issues such as abortion, gay "marriage," and embryonic stem cell research. But his "compassionate conservatism" turned into "liberal light" on spending and creating new programs. Although John Roberts and Sam Alito were excellent choices for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers was a disaster.

In general, those mostly on the right will like the book, those on the left will hate it. No surprise there.


Posted by Tom at March 13, 2011 9:00 PM

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