The virtues and hazards of going ‘all in’ at moments of crisis.
Discussing the Iraq surge strategy in 2006, former President George W. Bush notes that during his presidency he read 14 biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The cause of his preoccupation with Lincoln is obvious: The Bush presidency will be remembered as a war presidency. First in Afghanistan after 9/11 and then from 2003 onward in Iraq. The rest will be footnotes.
In “Decision Points,” Mr. Bush covers Hurricane Katrina, expanding Medicare coverage to prescription drugs, the failure of Social Security reform, Harriet Miers’s Supreme Court nomination and much else. Some of it, like the drug benefit, contributed to the anti-Washington upheaval that cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006 and then exploded last Tuesday with a voters’ revolt against the mega-expansions of the Obama Democrats.
But 50 years from now only specialists will be sifting the archives on Katrina, earmarks and the rest. As Mr. Bush himself says in this interesting, and at times frustrating, account of his tenure: “Through the lens of the post 9/11 world, my view changed.”
The chapter on 9/11 and its aftermath is compelling. Mr. Bush’s passage through that week, as president, was unique. The frontispiece photograph is appropriately of Mr. Bush amid the Ground Zero rubble. He conveys the myriad forces and pressures in play then, including constant reports of more threats from al Qaeda. Beyond the need to respond, nothing about the policy landscape was obvious.
As the U.S. went to war, Mr. Bush’s feisty, determined pursuit of his policies elicited an almost neurotic, personal antipathy among his opponents. At two moments in the biggest crises of his presidency—the war and the 2008 financial crisis—Mr. Bush, I think unintentionally, offers an insight into the mind of what he would call “the man himself.”
In late 2008, faced with what looked like a collapsing financial system after the Lehman bankruptcy, Mr. Bush is aware that the rescue strategies proposed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (“Ben and Hank were like the characters in The Odd Couple“) will be a “breathtaking intervention in the free market.” Despite a firestorm of opposition building in Congress, Mr. Bush is resolute. “I had made up my mind: The U.S. government was going all in.”
Two years earlier, Mr. Bush had decided to increase troop levels in Iraq, the famous “surge” decision. At the end of an Oval Office meeting, Mr. Bush takes aside Gen. David Petraeus, his new commander, and tells him: “This is it. We’re doubling down.”
Mr. Bush compares putting Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno in charge of the war to Lincoln finding Grant and Sherman. He states: “I waited over three years for a successful strategy.” Discussing his decision to opt for the surge, he makes it clear that he was abandoning the course pushed hard by his first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and by his earlier commanders in Iraq, Gens. George Casey and John Abizaid: turn over the battle as quickly as possible to the Iraqis and draw down our troops. In spring 2006, amid bloodshed and insurgent slaughter in Iraq, Mr. Bush tells Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser: “This is not working.” To his credit, he found the right strategy and the right generals.
It was a good call. But a question emerges from “Decision Points”: Why did he wait so long to change strategy and generals? His answer is that the administration’s initial benchmark, Iraqi political success, appeared to be working. Then came the sectarian violence of 2006, which he says wasn’t foreseen. “If I had acted sooner it could have created a rift that would have been exploited by war critics in Congress to cut off funding and prevent the surge from succeeding.” There is no elaboration as to precisely what Mr. Bush means here, which is frustrating. Elsewhere he posits the harder truth: “By the end of 2005, much of my political capital was gone.”
Commitment and clarity of commitment were Bush virtues. The downside of being “all in,” however, is that much can be lost before the need for a course correction becomes too obvious to ignore. What emerges across the pages of “Decision Points” is a president who at times let his strong code of personal loyalty and commitment cloud his decision-making. Virtually all of the people who work for Mr. Bush exist wholly by their first name: Dick, Condi, Colin, Don, Hank, Ben, Tommy, Bob. His closest foreign pal is Tony. One exception: There is no Dave or David. It is always “General Petraeus.” One may assume that Lincoln also called his own winning appointment “General Grant.”
The book contains delightful and telling personal observations. Hank Paulson’s family was so Democratic that his mother cried when he joined the Bush cabinet. After Mr. Bush refuses to pardon Scooter Libby, convicted of obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair, Vice President Dick Cheney tells him: “I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.” When Gen. Pete Pace is removed as Joint Chiefs chairman in a bonfire of political correctness, Mr. Bush says that Gen. Pace took off his four stars and left them at the Vietnam Memorial near the name of a Marine in his old platoon. In contrast to the ugly cartoon figure drawn by his opponents, Mr. Bush is unfailingly gracious to virtually all his opponents, including Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist who had lost a son in Iraq.
More than most presidents, George W. Bush belongs to history. History will judge him almost solely by what he did after a single historic day, Sept. 11, 2001—in short, by the war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If in time they succeed, he was a good president. If they fail, his presidency falls. For everyone’s sake, one should hope that he was a good president.
Mr. Henninger, a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page, writes the Wonder Land column.
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703514904575602542935259532.html