Reading George W. Bush’s “Decision Points” – the memoir of the 43rd President of the United States – a few weeks before the end of Barack Obama’s presidency was interesting, given the many commentaries on the legacy of the 44th President of the United States. With the proliferation of opinions these days, how would a supposed leader of the free world evaluate his or her stint in office, vis-à-vis these commentators and critics? With first-hand experience of the presidency and with greater knowledge of intelligence and of threats, can he or she justify perceived failures at home and abroad? And for the average individual who is often baffled by the political gridlock in Washington D.C., what are the behind-the-scenes developments that more should know about?
That there is a great deal of self-aggrandisement within the narratives should therefore come as no surprise, especially in a memoir. Domestically, Bush touted legislative achievements in reforming education through the No Child Left Behind Act, in counter-terrorism after the September 11 attacks, and in the modernisation of Medicare. Geopolitically, he argued that one of his proudest success was defined by denying the terrorists the opportunity of attacking the United States again. After all, “the focus of my presidency, which I had expected to be domestic policy, was now war”, he said. “The transformation showed how quickly fate can shift, and how sometimes the most demanding tasks a president faces are unexpected”.
Few would disagree with Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001, though there were concerns over the inadequate emphasis on post-conflict nation-building, which would again emerge two years later. Yet it was the former president’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which was heavily criticised – and rightly so, it would seem. Throughout the two chapters on the initial invasion and the later surge, Bush sought to justify the shortcomings of the intelligence reports, not getting a second resolution at the United Nations Security Council, and the state of lawlessness which engulfed the country, post-invasion. But I thought he was not explicit about the mistakes, or the ramifications of the invasion which persist in the region.
What was also interesting was his characterisation of foreign leaders, particularly when it came to Iraq. Bush gave honest assessments of those he did and did not trust, but in this instance he was quick to blame other countries for not supporting the invasion, even if the decisions – in the respective countries – were reached through domestic political processes or circumstances. This “you are either with us, or against us” was seen in his evaluation of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and of the others who opposed him.
And if Iraq was Bush’s biggest geopolitical failure, many will hold him accountable for the global financial crisis, caused by “a relatively small group of people – many on Wall Street, some not – [who] had gambled that the housing market would keep booming forever”. In this vein the memoir presented a good summary of the developments and policy responses, yet it was only towards the end of the short chapter when he shared some reflections on how his administration had underestimated “the extent of the risks taken by Wall Street”. Given that this was the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the many evaluations which have emerged since then, I was hoping for a more comprehensive analysis across a wider time-scale too.
Be that as it may, Bush is frank at times, when he writes about his selection of key officials, for example: “But there were times when I was too loyal or too slow to change. I misjudged how some selections would be perceived. Sometimes I flat out picked the wrong person for the job”. He is also honourable – never throwing his team under the bus – and through his first-hand account and straightforward writing style the little interactions and relationships are captured nicely through anecdotes.
And his likely response to his poor approval ratings when he left office? “If [historians] are still assessing George Washington’s legacy more than two centuries after he left office, this George W. doesn’t have to worry about today’s headlines”.