Thursday, February 17, 2011

Decision Points by George W. Bush

Disclaimer: I did not vote for George W. Bush in 2000 or 2004. When he ran for office in 2000, I was concerned about his proposed tax cuts, social policies and seeming lack of understanding of foreign policy. Immediately after 9/11, I rallied around the leader. Bush acted with decisive resolve, which I thought was needed. Then, he lost me with his push for us to "go shop in the malls" and then the push into Iraq based on faulty intelligence. As the commander in chief, he was responsible for Abu Ghraib and torture, devastating blows to America's moral purpose.

That's the perspective from which I approached Bush's memoirs. Why read it? Between 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial meltdown of 2008, Bush presided over the most important and defining period of my lifetime. His decisions will have a lasting impact on the direction of the US. I wanted to hear what he had to say.

Decision Points is not history and it does not pretend to be. It is Bush's view of the significant decisions he faced as president. I didn't expect to like it, and I was wrong.

Bush begins the narrative with his recovery from alcoholism and his religious faith. Like his religious faith, many of his political principles are based on faith rather than reasoning -- stem cells (embryonic stem cells represent life); free markets (the markets should simply self correct); and freedom. That is how he presents them. Nonetheless, Bush showed a willingness to bend to confront the issues of the day. When the credit market seized up and the economy was toppling, Bush backed TARP and the nationalization of several banks. He supported massive AIDS relief in Africa through not only abstinence but the use of condoms.

As a war leader, I don't think I appreciated the need for him to maintain his public resolve as steadfastly as he did. I was very happy to hear that he had private doubts and fears. He discusses his concerns about success in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, as Winston Churchill recognized, to win a war, a leader must have steel like resolve. Any doubt from above corrodes the will to win. Was Bush oblivious to reality as the press sometimes argued? After reading Decision Points, I don't think so. I think he did what was needed--once the decision was made to go to war, he stuck with the battle plan, trusting his commanders and adjusting and challenging the military as needed.

What was comforting to see was that Bush was candid on several occasions when he declared unequivocally that he made the wrong decision or could have done better. He also was busy in the book proving his toughness (see the exchange with Putin) and intellect (he read 17 books on Lincoln and was in a famous reading contest with Karl Rove).

What disappointed me about the the memoir was that Bush avoids responsibility for Abu Ghraib and the faulty Iraq intelligence. While admitting to being sickened by what happened in Abu Ghraib, Bush fails to take responsibility ("I am the decider and I decide what is best."). In addressing the intelligence failure, he claims that everyone had the same information and made the same mistake, so how could more be expected from him. I expected more and was disappointed.

Recommendation: These memoirs should be read. They document the president's view of what happened during a critical time in US history. For the most part, Bush comes across as forthright and candid. You may not agree with Bush but his book is worth your time.

Additional note: There are other administration officials who have written books. From what I have gleaned, the Rumsfeld memoir is not worth reading, the Rice memoir addresses her family and not her time working for Bush and the Paul O'Neill memoir is thin on content and quite bitter. Dick Cheney is publishing his later this year (excerpt here), which could be quite interesting if he reveals anything. Of all of them, Bush is the one to read.

Promotional video with Bush for the book:

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