George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, almost single-handedly decided to invade Iraq. It was possibly the worst foreign-policy decision ever made by a president. The consequences dominated the Bush administration and still haunt us today. In Bush, Jean Edward Smith demonstrates that it was not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Condoleezza Rice but President Bush himself who took personal control of foreign policy. Bush drew on his deep religious conviction that important foreign-policy decisions were simply a matter of good versus evil. Domestically, he overreacted to 9/11 and endangered Americans' civil liberties. Smith explains that it wasn't until the financial crisis of 2008 that Bush finally accepted expert advice, something that "the Decider", as Bush called himself, had previously been unwilling to do. As a result he authorized decisions that saved the economy from possible collapse, even though some of those decisions violated Bush's own political philosophy.
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A comprehensive look at the life, accomplishments, and failings of the 43rd president. Smith is no fan, considering Bush's presidency as a monumental failure though he does credit him with several successes such as his campaign to combat AIDS in Africa and his response to the 2008 financial crisis. In other words, Smith treads on no new ground here. This is worthy history but thin biography. A reader looking for insights into what made Bush tick, his younger years, or his relationships will find slim pickings here.
If, like me, you thought of George W. Bush as an intellectual lightweight who was manipulated by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the other neoconservatives in launching a devastating war for fabricated reasons, prepare to be surprised.
He was much worse than that.
With the meticulous and persuasive “Bush,” Jean Edward Smith methodically dismantles the prevailing misconceptions of the 43rd president, who reveled in his role as Commander in Chief and wasn’t kidding when he announced, “I’m the decider.” He was. He made firm, crisp decisions, often without much thought.
Smith chronicles Bush’s early years as a back-slapping, hard-drinking son of privilege, parlaying his achievements as Texas governor and his born-again conversion into an improbable run for the presidency. Far from being duped by subordinates, he was a quiet Christian zealot who—whether supporting childhood education or laying waste to Iraq—believed without question he was doing God’s will. It was to him a Higher Authority that outranked both the Constitution and international law. Cheney and others were all too willing to follow his lead.
When intelligence didn’t demonstrate that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, Bush didn’t push for more. What he pushed for was better marketing, to persuade the American public that the invasion he had already irrevocably decided upon was justified. It wasn’t faulty intelligence, it was orchestrated lies about what the intelligence really said.
It is clear that Bush was determined to vanquish Iraq long before the 9/11 attack on New York.
“Bush” is filled with detailed anecdotes (the hardcover is 832 pages long), such as his futile attempt to convince the French to join the coalition against Saddam. It’s what led Bush partisans to label the French as cowards, and to rename French fries as “freedom fries” in the Congressional cafeterias.
The French declined to join in the invasion, not for lack of courage, but because Jacques Chirac was shocked when Bush told him the war was mandated by the Book of Revelations. At that moment, Chirac knew that the failure to find WMD would never be enough to deter Bush.
Smith writes, “For Bush the coming attack [on Iraq] would mark the beginning of the final battle to rid the world of evil. He may or may not have believed it would be a cakewalk, but he was certain it was God’s will.”
That invasion was seen by most of the world as a war of US aggression. At the UN, Kofi Annan flatly called it “illegal.”
For Bush, everything was a self-righteous holy war against “the axis of evil,” the obvious implication being that he had no business serving as Commander in Chief. The smug, unconditional certainty that derived from a born-again religious conviction carried the world into war that may never end. Not to mention the great recession that followed.
Together with a massive aggregation of particulars by the author, the narration by Tom Perkins contributes much to the credibility of “Bush.” His delivery is straightforward, unemotional, and free of any implied opinion that could easily surface amid the damning details. The book is highly critical of Bush, yet far too meticulous to be dismissed as an opinionated hatchet job.
The former president has often said that history will be kind to his legacy. Smith’s conclusion that Bush “may have been the worst president in U.S. history” is not a very good start.