George W. Bush delivers a fascinating firsthand story of his presidency.
After a presidency that encompassed eight of the most tumultuous and politically savage years in recent memory, one could understand if George W. Bush was a more than a little disenchanted with the media, with politics, and with ideologues. And he surely is, to some extent, but that’s not the overwhelming impression that comes across after reading Decision Points, Bush’s account of some of the most important issues that have come to define his term in office. Rather, the message of the book is that the man from Midland retains a deep faith in his country and its people. To borrow a word more commonly associated with another president, George W. Bush remains as hopeful about America and its future as he was on the day he took office.
While Decision Points contains some autobiographical anecdotes, it’s not so much a memoir as a study in command. Bush takes us through the process that led him to formulate policy on nine big issues that marked his presidency: stem cell research, 9/11, preventing domestic terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, fighting AIDS in Africa, the surge and the financial crisis, among others. The narrative style is pure Bush and his editors at Crown Publishing are to be commended for not trying to make the president sound like someone he’s not. In his writing we find the folksy tone, the economy of words and an aversion to flowery language that defined his preferred oratorical style. It’s an easy, enjoyable, and very often a fascinating read. But if Bush uses plain language in Decision Points, there is nothing simple about his analysis. Rather, as the president walks the reader through each chain of events and the policy discussions that ensued, it’s clear that this man – so often derided as a simpleton by the Left – has a shrewd grasp of the subtleties of leadership.
Though defensive at times, Bush appears not so much interested in protecting his reputation as he is in giving readers an inside look at the competing political and patriotic agendas that all presidents are forced to consider while trying to lead the nation. Early on, he points to Harry Truman as a point of inspiration and guidance. “He did what he thought was right and he didn’t much care what the critics said,” Bush wrote. “When he left office in 1953, his approval ratings were in the twenties. Today he is viewed as one of America’s greatest presidents.”
The innate decency of the forty-third president of the United States shines through Decision Points. This is a man with immense respect for his nation, its citizens and, most of all, the men and women who serve it in uniform. In what is almost an aside, Bush reveals one of the ways he expressed his profound admiration and gratitude for America’s fallen warriors while in office. “I sent letters to the families of every service member who laid down his or her life in the war on terror,” he wrote. “By the end of my presidency, I had written to almost five thousand families.” Indeed, the very last words of the book are directed toward the men and women serving in the military. Wrapping up four pages of acknowledgments, Bush closes Decision Points with a paragraph thanking everyone in uniform, summing up thus:
Their achievements will rank alongside those of the greatest generations in history, and the highest honor of my life was to serve as their commander in chief.
Some of his ideological opponents come across better than expected in Bush’s recounting. Most surprisingly, Ted Kennedy is among this group. Bush describes a relationship in which he and the late Senator acknowledged their many differences, but agreed to work together on issues they could agree on, most notably No Child Left Behind and on crafting an immigration bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t fare as well. Bush is careful to avoid direct criticism of anyone, but an easy read between the lines lets you know that he found some people tiresome and Reid is clearly high on this list. He recounts, for example, how he worked with Kennedy and was within a couple of votes of getting an immigration bill passed. But, the Senate was due to adjourn for the Fourth of July break. Both Kennedy and Bush called Reid to ask him to extend the session for a couple of days so they could get the bill through. Reid wouldn’t budge. “Given the importance of the legislation, I thought it would be worthwhile to allow them a little extra time for the bill to pass,” Bush wrote. “Apparently Harry Reid did not.”
Ex-Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco doesn’t fare too well either. As the situation in New Orleans spiraled out of control following Hurricane Katrina, the president struggled with the decision to send troops to restore order and help the victims. On the one hand, he could order federal troops in unilaterally, so long as they were unarmed. Given the looting and violence that gripped the Crescent City, as well as his devotion to protect the lives to those serving in the military, he was hesitant to do so. But, he could legally send armed troops into New Orleans if the Governor of Louisiana requested them. Blanco seemed paralyzed by the crisis. The president related the following exchange that occurred in the Air Force One conference room on September 2, 2005, four days after Katrina hit:
I told her it was clear that state and local response forces had been overwhelmed. “Governor,” I pressed, “you need to authorize the federal government to take charge of the response.”
She told me that she needed twenty four hours to think it over.
“We don’t have twenty-four hours,” I snapped. “We’ve waited too long already.”
The governor refused to answer.
Bush doesn’t waste much time or effort talking about the vicious, maniacal attacks that ultra-leftist billionaire George Soros financed as part of his obsession to remove the president from power. But one anecdote is particularly revealing about the way that Soros thinks and functions. The president and U2 lead singer Bono struck up an unlikely friendship, owing to Bush’s efforts to battle AIDS in Africa. Soros, who had provided funding to some of Bono’s causes, was not pleased. Bush related the financer’s rebuke to the singer: “You’ve sold out for a plate of lentils,” Soros told Bono.
Of course, the one issue that will define this president when the long view of history looks back at his administration is Bush’s response to Islamic terror. Bush carefully describes the multi-faceted issues that he had to deal with while crafting America’s strategy and how he dealt with the great decisions: balancing civil liberties versus rooting out domestic terror cells; how to deal with enemy combatants; rooting out the Taliban in Afghanistan; and ensuring that Saddam Hussein was neutralized. In some cases, politics came into play, but not often. Decision Points makes it clear that Bush would give political realities considerable weight when it came to domestic issues, but he was loath to compromise when it came to fulfilling his oath to protect and defend America. He would err on the side of caution when it came to protecting the nation and its citizens and if that provided ammunition to opponents in Congress and the media, he could care less. He would rather be criticized for doing too much than for his fellow Americans to suffer because he did too little.
This attitude, more than any other, inflamed Bush’s enemies on the Left. Most politicians share a particular characteristic with young children: they yearn to be noticed. Yet, when it came to the war on terror, George W. Bush rarely bothered to take his opponents' concerns into account. He duly noted them, explained why they were wrong and moved steadily on. His focus was on protecting the nation, protecting our troops and minimizing the threat of terrorism – period. In his way, Bush was as single-minded about pursuing a goal as any president in history. That focus allowed his opponents to claim that Bush was either dangerously obsessed, or – more often – too dim to grasp the important issues they were raising.
There are villains and heroes aplenty in the tale. Yasser Arafat’s naked duplicity clearly disgusted Bush, while Tony Blair’s loyalty inspired him. He bemoaned the weakness of will of the many American politicians who wanted to abandon a fight that the president had warned would be long and hard at the outset, but the strength of others, like Senator Joe Lieberman, shines through. From the confusion of the attacks on 9/11, to taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan, through the decision to wage war in Iraq, Bush’s recounting of his role in the war on terror is the most fascinating part of Decision Points. One particular decision point -- implementing what is known as “the surge” deserves special attention.
From the beginning of the war in Iraq, Bush and his advisors worried about having too many Americans involved in the conflict. They were concerned that an overwhelming American force would appear like an army of occupation to Iraqis and the Muslim world, rather than an army of liberation. Thus, the initial invasion force was less than half of that which invaded Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Bush’s commander in Iraq, General George Casey, along with many advisors, stuck to the plan. They believed that a minimal American presence was essential if Iraqis were to establish self-governance. For a while, that strategy worked. But the situation began to deteriorate, and when the Golden Mosque of Samarra was bombed in February 2006, what had been a dangerous situation quickly dissolved into chaos. Faced with the prospect of complete failure, the president had to make what was probably the toughest decision point of his life:
General Casey – like General Abizaid and Don Rumsfeld – was convinced that our troop presence created a sense of occupation, which inflamed violence and fueled the insurgency. For two and a half years, I had supported the strategy of withdrawing our forces as the Iraqis stepped forward. But in the months after the Samarra bombing, I had started to question whether our approach matched the reality on the ground. The sectarian violence had not erupted because our footprint was too big. It had happened because al-Qaeda had provoked it. And with the Iraqis struggling to stand up, it didn’t seem possible for us to stand down.
Bush ultimately promoted the Army’s premier counterinsurgency expert, General David Petraeus to take charge in Iraq. He gave him more troops, not less, ignoring both conventional wisdom and political pressure. The president’s opponents, including the current occupant of the White House, howled that Bush was pursuing a dangerous, disastrous policy. The president’s opponents were wrong. The surge in troops and the leadership of General Petraeus culminated in a stunning victory, one that members of all parties now acknowledge. The free people of Iraq, if no one else, recognize the debt of gratitude that they owe to America and its stalwart men and women in uniform.
Decision Points is full of such stories. Each gives us a desperately needed glimpse of the world of governance that extends beyond politics and punditry. It’s a book that should be required reading for everyone, regardless of political persuasion. For anyone who doesn’t understand how decisions are made shouldn’t criticize the decisions that are made. In George W. Bush, we had a leader who may not have always made the right decision, but there should be no doubt that he made each decision for the right reasons.