Bush Agonistes? Not Quite

In an interview, the former president makes the case for his ‘freedom agenda’ and defends his record on the economy and spending.

The former leader of the free world sits in a comfy chair wearing Crocs. As twilight sets in, George W. Bush keeps one eye on a muted World Series game. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he tells the TV in his home library after one impressive Rangers play.

The 43rd president of the United States looks healthy, rested and confident. That last is especially notable, considering he’s not yet two years out of what can only be called a controversial presidency.

Mr. Bush ran as a uniter, but the hung 2000 election bequeathed him a divided nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought brief national cohesion, but it was soon shattered by recriminations over the Iraq war. A difficult second term—overshadowed by war turmoil and capped by a financial crisis—saw him leave office with anemic approval ratings. But as readers of “Decision Points,” his memoir set to hit stands today, will discover, this is not a president agonizing over the big decisions he made or wringing his hands about history’s judgment.

The book is not the usual chronological fare; Mr. Bush wrote thematically, with 14 chapters chronicling decisions he made in life and office, and it is very much in his own voice. We get his insights on his decision to quit drinking, on stem cell research, Hurricane Katrina and enhanced interrogations. Six chapters deal with the momentous foreign and domestic policy decisions that followed from 9/11.

[bushinterview]George W. Bush
The president does write about his regrets and his desire to have done some things differently. But both in his memoir and in an interview he granted me 10 days ago, Mr. Bush sounds entirely secure about the major decisions of his presidency. The last lines of the book perhaps put it best: “Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.”
The president—thoughtful, spirited, and at times making fun of my clumsiness with a tape recorder—gamely answered everything I threw at him.
If his book has an overriding theme, it is Mr. Bush’s case for his “freedom agenda.” He defines it broadly: from Afghanistan and Iraq, to his African AIDS work, to tax cuts. One major criticism of his Iraq policy is that the turmoil in that country has empowered Iran, which continues to move toward a bomb.
“The notion that we went into Iraq and therefore the Iranians became emboldened—it was the opposite,” Mr. Bush says. “The Iranians, it turns out, suspended their program,” he continues, referring to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003. He says that it wasn’t until mid-2005 that Iranian elections brought to power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who announced the process of nuclear enrichment would accelerate.
As for those who feel Mr. Bush wasn’t aggressive enough, the president disputes the notion that Iran can be compared to Iraq. “Diplomacy was just beginning in Iran, the world was just beginning to focus,” he says. Mr. Bush takes credit for “helping focus” that attention.
One revelation in the book is the degree to which Mr. Bush’s Iran strategy hinged on internal political revolt. His goal, on the one hand, was to “slow down” the Iranian “capacity to develop a weapon,” which he chose to do with sanctions. On the other hand, his administration tried to “speed up” the ability of reformers to institute change. He writes of his belief that the success of the surge and a free Iraq would “help catalyze that change,” and he points to last year’s massive street protests following Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
What about the critique that Afghanistan was left to fester while the president dealt with Iraq, setting up a return of the Taliban and the need for President Obama to send more troops? “What I say is, we had a large coalition of troops in Afghanistan and it looked like we were making progress.” He notes that “when it became apparent that the NATO coalition was not able to cohesively deal with the Taliban,” he ordered a 2006 “silent surge” in Afghanistan—a 50% troop increase. “We were plenty capable of doing two things at the same time.”
Mr. Bush writes that one of two major “setbacks in Iraq” was not finding WMD. He writes it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” I ask why, given the myriad reasons he lays out for removing Saddam. The problem, he says, was what the lack of WMD meant for the public’s perception of the war.
“The world is better off and more secure without Saddam Hussein in power. But so much of the case—and so much of the focus—was on WMD, that the failure to find it made the task of convincing the American people to hang in there harder.” The Bush doctrine rested on “going on offense.” And in Mr. Bush’s mind, this failure risked a “wave of isolationism that would effect U.S. security” by putting Americans off future pre-emptive action.
Should he have fought back harder against those who accused him of lying about WMD, as Karl Rove argued in his memoir? “His point is that I should have gotten in their face about the lying, and I chose not to do that because I thought it would diminish the presidency. . . . You start calling names, it makes it even harder to hold the support of the American people.
President Bush has studiously refrained from commenting on Mr. Obama—and doesn’t here. Though when I ask him what is the most devastating thing that could happen to Iraq now, he shoots out unequivocally: “No U.S. presence. We need to work with the Iraqi government and respond to any requests they may have about a presence.
Given Mr. Bush’s reputation as an international cowboy, readers will be intrigued by his descriptions of his relationships with world leaders—including frank appraisals of those he did and didn’t like. The latter category would come to include Vladimir Putin, despite the president’s 2001 comment that he’d seen into the Russian leader’s “soul.
I ask the president when exactly he became aware of Mr. Putin’s true political character. “When they started suspending rights,” he responds. Mr. Bush’s theory is that the mid-decade rise in oil prices emboldened Mr. Putin, giving him “an opportunity to spread economic hegemony” to a Europe reliant on Russia’s natural gas. Why wasn’t there more pushback from the White House? Russia was a “disappointment,” Mr. Bush admits, but he adds that “it’s hard to know if we could have done anything differently. Russia is a sovereign nation, they elected their leaders, and they entrenched themselves.”
Then there are the anecdotes about Jacques Chirac, who at several points lectures the U.S. on the folly of morality or idealism. When I ask the president if he wants to expand, he starts, stops, and gives that Bush chuckle. “Let’s just say he wasn’t a freedom-agenda guy.”
Mr. Bush devotes his final chapter to the financial meltdown: The White House anxiety he describes nearly equals his narration of 9/11. He heaps most of the blame on Wall Street. As for too-loose Federal Reserve policy, which many see as the groundwork for the housing bubble, Mr. Bush refers to “easy money” only once among a list of contributing factors.
I ask if anybody ever specifically warned him about the Fed’s feeding of the mortgage beast. “No, not really. I think that the only place, the main place, where we get credit for having seen a potential crisis is Fannie and Freddie.” (The administration’s proposed reforms were blocked by Congress.) “The crisis blindsided us.”
While a Democratic Congress this year passed a slew of financial regulations, Mr. Bush argues this wasn’t “a lack-of-regulation crisis, except for the extent to which Fannie and Freddie were allowed to run wild. . . . This was a regulated house of cards—regulators were watching it all. . . . This was a crisis that was caused in large part by bad business decisions.”
If that was the case, why weren’t more banks left to fail? Did the administration discuss what particular institutions were too big to fail? “No,” Mr. Bush answers, adding that he believes in letting the market punish bad decisions but in this case the economy was in the balance. “We didn’t want any of them to fail because we were really worried that there would be a domino effect.”
Unprompted, he adds that this fear is why the administration bailed out General Motors. Did he genuinely believe that a GM bankruptcy would cause an economic freefall? “That’s what I was told. I think at that point in time it would have been still pretty risky.” I must still look skeptical because he adds: “I hope I conveyed in the book this sense, that we were,” he throws his hands in the air, as if to summon the anxiety of those weeks. “We were pretty risk-averse at this point. We really were.”
Why did the administration inject TARP money directly into banks—a move that tarred healthy banks along with sick ones—rather than proceed with the original idea to buy up toxic assets? “Because it was too cumbersome. It was an interesting idea, but it wasn’t going to work quickly enough. Whose assets? How do you buy them? . . . We didn’t have a lot of time.” With capital injections, the money went “boom, right into the system.”
Will the fact that the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression happened on his watch overshadow his accomplishments on the war on terror? Again, that confidence. “Naaaaah. I think history will eventually say that the Bush administration dealt with this in a way that saved the economy. . . We didn’t have a depression—and I thought one was coming. I did.”
One perception the president is determined to shift is that of his spending record. “Decision Points” contains one graphic: a table comparing, among other things, President Bush’s average spending-to-GDP (19.6%) to that of Bill Clinton (19.8%), Bush 41 (21.9%), and Reagan (22.4%). It also shows that his deficit-to-GDP was 2%—half that of Bush 41 and Reagan.

I come armed with a slew of spending questions. Why didn’t he veto more GOP spending bills? Why didn’t he use the war as a reason to cut back on domestic spending? But he shuts me down by referring to the chart. I point out that, chart or no, there is a perception he oversaw fiscal profligacy.

“Yes, there is,” he concedes. “I think the Medicare reform caused certain conservative writers to say ‘Bush has been fiscally irresponsible.’ And they did not look at the facts. And the facts are that we have a very solid fiscal record”—despite spending “a lot of money” on war, homeland security, and Hurricane Katrina.

But what about 2003 Medicare reform, which saw Republicans add a major new prescription drug entitlement? He rejects the premise of the question. “The entitlement already existed, and the entitlement was Medicare. And that’s the threshold question—should we have Medicare? If the answer is no, my attitude is fine, go debate it. If the answer is yes, then let’s modernize it.” The prescription-drug program is about allowing Medicare to give seniors a “$15 drug in order to prevent a $30,000 operation that your taxpayer money would be committed to paying.”

Congress will soon be debating the fate of the Bush tax cuts. They were the centerpiece of his 2000 campaign and have been an unadulterated supply-side victory. As the memoir notes, what followed the 2003 legislation—which included important cuts in top marginal rates, capital gains and dividend taxes—was 46 consecutive months of growth.

Isn’t the point here that not all tax cuts are created equal, and that there’s more value in the 2003 supply-side winners, than in, say, Mr. Bush’s 2008 one-time tax “rebates” that caused only a temporary GDP blip? “I don’t want to differentiate,” he responds, though he does a bit. “I do know this, 70% of new jobs in America are created by small businesses . . . and the rates matter to small business. And capital gains matter to investment.” His bigger point is that all the cuts come down to a “philosophy” that’s pretty simple to follow: “We’d rather you spend your money than the government spend your money.”

There’s a lot of emotion in Mr. Bush’s memoir—much of it for the families of troops who died protecting the country. But when it comes to the policy decisions we discuss during the interview, this does not seem like a man going to bed tortured by what-ifs or what-will-comes.

What will future historians say? “I’d hope they’d say he had certain principles that were the foundation of his presidency, and on which he was unwilling to compromise.”

And what about those who believe he wasn’t really a conservative—that he’s to blame for setting the stage for the Obama ascendancy? He smiles. “I say read the book.”

Ms. Strassel writes the Journal’s Potomac Watch column.


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