“W” is for “Why?”
Thomas Mallon writes in the New Yorker:
Jean Edward Smith’s biography of George W. Bush goes on sale a day before the former President’s seventieth birthday, and it’s safe to say that no one will be bringing it as a present to the ranch outside Crawford. Smith, a well-regarded practitioner of military history and Presidential-life writing, comes straight to the point in the first sentence of his preface: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” By the book’s last sentence, Smith is predicting a long debate over whether Bush “was the worst president in American history,” and while the biographer doesn’t vote on the question himself, the unhappy shade of James Buchanan will feel strongly encouraged by his more than six hundred pages.
And yet, for all the overheated denunciations—a rhetorical comparison gets made between Bush and Hitler—“Bush” (Simon & Schuster) doesn’t feel like a hatchet job. Like Bush himself, it is susceptible to sudden changes of heart and tone, and it never quite gets over a sense of loss for aspects of the pre-9/11 figure that Smith seems to enjoy imagining, however sketchily, in the book’s early stages.
The writer certainly doesn’t revile the compassionately conservative candidate of 2000. Bush may have permitted some brutal staff maneuvers against John McCain, but the campaign that Smith re-creates is mostly distinguished for eschewing “Nixon’s classic formula of running to the right in the primaries and then moving back to the center for the general election.” Making plans to govern “as the nation’s C.E.O.,” Bush disavowed nation-building abroad and put forward an agenda almost entirely focussed on what no one yet called the homeland. By Smith’s reckoning, Bush ran a better campaign, and then a better recount, than his opponent. If the author favors the dissent in Bush v. Gore, he never questions Bush’s legitimacy or lets up on the unappetizing aspects of his opponent, from Gore’s inclination toward “résumé enhancement” to his pompous debating demeanor. (Four years later, in his first duel with John Kerry, a charmless, impatient Bush seemed almost fatefully infected with a variant of Gore’s earlier boorishness.)
Smith points out that Bush attended no meetings of the National Security Council in the seven months prior to September 11, 2001. In her reports on these gatherings, Condoleezza Rice—Bush’s national-security adviser, workout partner, and something of an alter ego—tended to synthesize disagreements among the participants, leaving Bush with a false feeling of consensus. The President’s own focus was chiefly on matters like stem-cell-research regulation and the sort of educational reforms he had pushed through a Democratic legislature as governor of Texas. On the morning of 9/11, Laura Bush was in Ted Kennedy’s Senate office, having come to testify for the No Child Left Behind Act; the White House she returned to later that day was a wholly different place, a domestic cruise ship that had become an aircraft carrier.
In Smith’s view, the military and moral calamities began right then. If he is moderately critical of the President for being “asleep at the switch” in the period before the terrorist attacks—Bush felt no particular alarm when an August 6th C.I.A. briefing indicated that Osama bin Laden was up to at least something—the biographer is simply aghast once Bush seizes the controls. Within three days of September 11th, he says, the President had acquired a “boundless” confidence that put the country on a “permanent war footing” and the White House into a “hothouse climate of the President’s certitude.”
The war in Afghanistan, whose necessity Barack Obama insisted on in 2008 and beyond, is deemed by Smith to be scarcely more justifiable than the later one in Iraq: both are “disastrous wars of aggression.” In an earlier book, Smith found the Gulf War fought under George H. W. Bush to be uncalled for as well, and here he seems comfortable making a distinction that holds the September 11th attacks to have been “tragic, but scarcely catastrophic.” The younger Bush’s with-us-or-against-us assertion in his September 20, 2001, speech to Congress (“Any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime”) was in some respects only an amplification of what Bill Clinton had stated three years before (“Countries that persistently host terrorists have no right to be safe havens”), but Smith reads it as “a serious overstatement.” Maybe so, but his chapter “Toppling the Taliban” might have more revisionist force if it weren’t deployed with so many overstatements of its own: “Within a month [of September 11th], the United States had lost world sympathy.”
In another anti-superlative, Smith suspects that the invasion of Iraq will “likely go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.” The thirteen-year legacy of “preëmption” makes this a hard prophecy to counter, and Smith’s well-ordered scenes on the subject—Paul Wolfowitz pushing for war against Saddam on September 12th, just as he’d been pushing for it in April—do dismaying work. James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, the wise men of his father’s Administration, tell Bush to go slowly or not at all, but George Tenet, the holdover C.I.A. director from the Clinton years, assures him that convincing the public of the need to invade Iraq over W.M.D.s will be a “slam dunk.” As persuasively as anyone before him, Smith presents a strong story of how a successful military mission quickly unaccomplished itself; turned into quite something else (“the United States was going to bring democracy to the country”); and then festered into what Donald Rumsfeld himself, in his memoirs, judged to be “a long and heavy-handed occupation.”
The dark thread of Smith’s book is what he calls the “torture trail” of rendition and enhanced interrogation and prisoner abuse, a pathway perhaps made inevitable when Bush, after 9/11, “elevated the terrorists to the status of belligerents” but not combatants. Smith pays devastating attention to how the military figures around the President argued strenuously against behaviors that could be construed as violations of the Geneva Conventions. Generals Tommy Franks and Richard Myers, along with Secretary of State and retired General Colin Powell, insisted that, regardless of the casuistic memos coming out of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, any skirting of international law put American fighters at a retaliatory risk of the same treatment. In 2005, John McCain, who had been brutalized by his North Vietnamese captors four decades earlier, shepherded an “anti-torture amendment” through Congress over the Administration’s energetic opposition; after an apparent reconciliation, Bush insulted McCain not with a veto but with a signing statement that made clear he would interpret the amendment however he liked. Military men—Grant, Eisenhower, General Lucius Clay—have often served as Smith’s subjects, and his scorn for the modern-day civilian “chicken hawks” is so strong that he chooses this quotation from General H. Norman Schwarzkopf for a chapter epigraph: “After Vietnam we had a whole cottage industry develop, centered in Washington, D.C., that consisted of a bunch of military fairies that had never been shot at in anger.” . . .