Thursday, 25 November 2010

New books: Distortion points

Since leaving office nearly two years ago, former US President George W. Bush has had the decency to remain quiet and not join those of his fellow Republicans who hurl unconstructive abuse at the current administration no matter what they do (or do not do) as they try to clean up the mess left by their predecessors. However, this month Bush has broken his silence by launching his memoirs, Decision Points, published by Crown Publishers of New York on 9 November, a week after his party regained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. But Bush steers clear of current politics and rather focuses on his own career and the decisions he made.
The book’s title is obviously chosen to highlight Bush’s preferred image as the great decider – he writes that when he entered politics, “I made a decision: I would confront problems, not pass them on to future generations”. “I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions”, Bush congratulates himself and lets us know that making decisions was “the most important part of the job”.
Thus, rather than telling the entire story of his life and dealing with every issue he had to handle, he has chosen to structure the fourteen chapters of his autobiography around central decisions he made. He believes he “got some of those decisions right, and I got some wrong. But on every one, I did what I believed was in the best interests of our country”.
He has, however, not been consistent in this approach. While some chapters deal entirely with one decision or several related decisions, such as Iraq, others are a mix of miscellanea only loosely related to each other. For instance the chapter “Leading” covers the No Child Left Behind programme, the failed Social Security reform, his state visit to Britain, his 2004 re-election campaign and more.
The first chapter, “Quitting”, begins with his decision to give up his hard drinking, a decision without which “none of the others that follow in this book would have been possible”, and then goes on to chart his background and the first forty years of his life – without giving much details about the drinking, but assuring us that he does not consider himself an alcoholic.
The third chapter, “Personnel”, is more concentrated and deals entirely with the choice of key members of his staff. He reveals he had suggested Dick Cheney to his father as a running mate already in 1988 and stresses the importance of choosing a vice president “fully capable o assuming the presidency”. (Whatever one may think of Cheney this stands in sharp contrast to the irresponsibility of John McCain, who in a moment of desperation chose a running mate wholly unsuitable to assume the presidency – and thereby created a Frankenstein’s monster within the party).
The book is interesting and mostly well-written – better than Blair’s recent autobiography, which is quite surprising giving the stark contrast between Bush and Blair as communicators. But the big problem about it is that Bush thinks he can simply leave out those parts of the story which do not really fit in with his narrative and apparently expects that the reader will not notice. Of course neither one-sidedness nor selective memory is new for political memoirs. But several of the omissions made by Bush are so obvious that it makes the book far from convincing.
This becomes clear early on in the book. We have only reached page 16 when he writes heroically that when the draft was introduced during the Vietnam War, “my decision was easy” when faced with the choice of “join[ing] the military or find[ing] a way to escape the draft. [...] I was going to serve. [...] I would have been ashamed to avoid duty”. He goes on to tell us how he joined the Texas Air National Guard, omitting to mention that this choice of service guaranteed that he would not actually have to go to Vietnam.
During the presidential election in 2004 supporters of George W. Bush chose to cast doubt upon the wartime credentials of his opponent John Kerry, who had served in Vietnam and won several medals. This shameless act goes entirely unmentioned by Bush, who, however, vents his anger at Dan Rather at CBS having “aired a report influencing a presidential election based on a fake document” claiming that Bush had not served his required hours with the guard when he moved to Alabama to work on Red Blount’s Senate campaign.
In the same vein we hear that John McCain during the Republican primary of 2000 was “justifiably upset about insulting language some of my supporters had used in South Carolina” – read: “the smear campaign directed at him, his character and his family by my supporters”.
This tendency to give us only that half of the story which reflects well on him is present throughout the book, also when it comes to graver issues such as Guantanamo and the “War on Terror”. The prisoner camp at Guantanamo was established to avoid giving the prisoners the rights stipulated by the US Constitution. However, the only problem about Guantanamo was obviously that it was on the soil of the country ruled by Fidel Castro.
The prisoner camp (pardon, “detention facility” seems to be the correct newspeak term) itself was really a spa hotel, we are given to understand: “At Guantanamo, detainees were given clean and safe shelter, three meals a day, a personal copy of the Koran, the opportunity to pray five times daily, and the same medical care their guards received. They had access to exercise space and a library stocked with books and DVDs. One of the most popular was an Arabic translation of Harry Potter”. The prisoners must really have had a swell time in between the mistreatments.
He goes on to stress that “our humane treatment of the Guantanamo detainees was consistent with the Geneva Conventions”, but that “al Qaeda did not meet the qualifications for Geneva protection as a legal matter” simply because “the terrorists did not represent a nation-state” and the Geneva Conventions apparently only apply for wars between nation-states. This is of course one of the more dubious of the Bush administration’s reinterpretation of laws.
Bush frequently stresses how much history he had read and obviously hopes that history will save his reputation in the longer term. He states that he was “struck by how many presidents had endured harsh criticism” and reminds us that “[t]he measure of their character, and often their success, was how they responded. Those who based decisions on principle, not some snapshot of public opinion, were often vindicated over time”. But what strikes me is how often he points to history, yet failed to learn any lessons from it.
The book opens with a photo of George W. Bush standing among the ruins of the World Trade Center in September 2001. This was the peak of his presidency and is of course how he would wish to go down in history. “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing”, he said in his speech at the memorial service held at the National Cathedral on 14 September 2001. Nearly ten years on these words seem even more incredibly naïve than back then.
The events of 9/11 redefined the entire purpose of his presidency. Here he points towards the lessons of history and writes on page 155 that he was “keenly aware that presidents had a history of overreaching during war”. He gives the examples of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, before adding that his own “most solemn duty, the calling of my presidency, was to protect America – within the authority granted to me by the Constitution”.
Interestingly, on page 169 we are told that his “most solemn responsibility as a president was to protect the country” and that he therefore “approved the use of the [enhanced] interrogation techniques”. In only fourteen pages the “authority granted to me by the Constitution” has dropped out of the context.
The importance of the Constitution is again brought up when he states that he wanted Supreme Court judges “who believed the Constitution meant what it said”. This comes from a man whose administration, as Anders Henriksen has shown in his interesting book Arven efter Bush – Præsidentembedet og krigen mod terror, subscribed to the so-called Unitary Executive Theory, which argues that the usual interpretation of the US Constitution’s words on the separation of power is wrong and that the original intention was that certain powers were reserved exclusively for the President and others exclusively for Congress, and used this theory in many creative ways to stretch the President’s authority, to ignore Congress, to reinterpret laws and conventions to suit their needs and how they by this sort of manipulation were able to justify (at least to themselves) their right to hold prisoners without giving them access to the judicial system, to treat prisoners in a way which we now know amounted to torture, etc. It should be added that the Unitary Executive Theory has few supporters among constitutional experts and was in the end soundly rejected by the US Supreme Court.
Bush maintains that what he calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” and used on prisoners of the “War on Terror” were entirely legal. Thus he replied “Damn right!” when asked to authorise water-boarding. This was in fact really great, he tells us, as they got so much out of it, including information which prevented attacks on Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf in London – incidentally, these claims have already been rejected by British intelligence. (He misses out on the parallel, or rather contrast, to his own words in the debate on stem cell research: “Even the most noble ends do not justify any means”).
“[Y]ears later” (in fact as soon as it was revealed in 2004) some lawmakers “charged that Americans had committed unlawful torture”. According to Bush, this view was not only wrong, but also outrageous. “I had asked the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government to review the interrogation methods, and they had assured me they did not constitute torture”. Naturally Bush does not mention that the US after World War II executed as war criminals Japanese soldiers who had water-boarded American prisoners.
And even though countless legal expert, human rights activists, politicians and others agree that it was indeed torture, it seems that in Bush’s eyes the government’s own experts could not possibly be wrong – in that he reminds me of how Nixon famously told David Frost that things were not illegal if they were done by the President.
“To suggest that our intelligence personnel violated the law by following the legal guidance they received is insulting and wrong”, fumes Bush as he goes down in the history as the US President who with a light-hearted “damn right!” set aside human rights and became responsible for war crimes by authorising torture. This is indeed only the most serious example of how Bush throughout the book shows a tendency to mark out disagreement with his own views in strong terms as well as an inability to handle unwelcome truths.
This significant flaw to his character has obviously been with him for a long time. When he was a young man and his adored father lost his run for the Senate against Democrat Ralph Yarborough, the chaplain at Yale, an old acquaintance of his father’s, told him that he had been “beaten by a better man”. This was, in the words of the younger Bush, a “self-righteous attitude” which “was a foretaste of the vitriol that would emanate from many college professors during my presidency”. So it could not possibly happen to be the simple truth?
Howard Dean saying that “[t]he idea that we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong” is given as an example of the “hot” rhetoric on Iraq at the time of the 2006 midterm elections. To most others this would seem a truthful assessment of realities rather than “hot rhetoric”, but of course the truth may hurt when it does not correspond with what one wants to hear.
Similarly Edward M. Kennedy is castigated for “his vitriolic speeches, in which he claimed I had ‘broken the basic bond of trust with the American people,’ compared me to Richard Nixon, and called Iraq ‘George Bush’s Vietnam’”, all of it examples of a rhetoric which Bush wished he had been able to “tone down”.
When the New York Times drew a comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam, Bush “was amazed the Times couldn’t even wait a month to tag Afghanistan with the Vietnam label”. However, the press’s role is not to act as cheerleaders for the government, but rather to present background and possible consequences of the events taking place. And nine years on, with no-one seriously believing the war in Afghanistan can be won, it seems the newspaper’s comparison has turned out to be a rather accurate foresight.
It is also striking how Bush frequently contradicts himself, apparently without realising that what he writes in one chapter entirely undermines the impression he has tried to create in another chapter. For instance he tells us on page 184 that in attacking Afghanistan “[w]e were acting out of necessity and self-defense, not revenge”, yet he has let us know on page 127 that his “first reaction” after 9/11 “was outrage. Someone had dared attack America. They were going to pay”, on page 128 that his “blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass” and on page 148 told us of how people he met in New York a few days after 9/11 told him to “find the bastards who did this and kill them”, himself adding: “This was personal”. When the first bombs fell on Afghanistan, “our troops had painted the letters FDNY” onto several on them for the New York fire-fighters who died on 9/11. When he was asked to authorise water-boarding he thought of those killed on 9/11 and on Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was taken hostage and killed by al-Qaeda, before replying “Damn right!” Obviously, revenge was actually a rather major reason for what he did.
“I supported the [Palestinian] elections”, he tells us, adding: “America could not be in the position of endorsing elections only when we liked the projected outcome”. This is one of the best examples of the blatant hypocrisy found in parts of this book, for obviously they could refuse to accept the outcome of that very election.
Another: That Harry Reid had “written off the surge [in Iraq] as a failure before all of the additional troops had even arrived” was “one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington”, writes the man who on false pretexts invaded a country without a plan B and hardly a plan A.
He insists that he really wanted a diplomatic solution over Iraq, which simply does not ring very convincing at all, particularly not compared to what other insiders have already written in their books. And he shows repeatedly that diplomacy and dialogue were not really his cups of tea. After January 2002 he never again spoke to Yassir Arafat before his death in November 2004, having concluded “that peace would not be possible with Arafat in power”; he would not talk to Ahmadinejad because doing so “would legitimize him and his views and dispirit Iran’s freedom movement”; and in general “[b]ilateral negotiations with a tyrant rarely turn out well for a democracy”.
Bush can be funny at times, as when he writes about the lawyer Jim Towey, among whose clients was Mother Teresa: “I used to tell Towey that we sure had a litigious society if Mother Teresa needed a lawyer”. But the most humorous parts of the books are the unintended ironies which occur when Bush does not have self-insight enough to understand how badly what he writes reflect on him. One delightful example is his telling us that his “favorite Bible verse for politicians is Matthew 7:3 – ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?’.”
One example of this could be Bush writing that the fact that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran “used a United Nations speech to predict that the hidden imam would reappear to save the world” was one of the reasons why Bush started to think that “[t]his guy could be nuts”. He is certainly not alone in suspecting that, but still it seems a bit rich coming from a former world leader who has just filled more than 400 pages with references to “God”, “the Almighty” and “the Good Lord”, stressed the importance of talking to other leaders about their faith and given religion a place in politics, which is a very dangerous thing to do.
Bush’s account of the Middle East is so one-sided that one sees why even his mother (!) called him “the first Jewish president”, although Barbara Bush obviously made the classic mistake of treating the terms “Jewish” and “Israeli” as synonyms. He wrings his hand over the possibility that certain states such as Syria or Libya might acquire nuclear weapons but makes no mention of Israel’s illegal possession of such weapons, but this is of course entirely in keeping with US foreign policy.
Ariel Sharon was “a leader who understood what it meant to fight terror”. It might be added that the old general also knew quite a lot about carrying it out. The war in Gaza launched by Israel in January 2009 is casually described as “an offensive in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks”. Indeed it was in response to such attacks, but still it will go down in history as one of the most disproportional responses ever carried out. Again, Bush misses out on the parallel when he writes that he told Dmitry Medvedev during the war against Georgia in August 2008 that “[t]he disproportionality of your actions is going to turn the world against you. We’re going to be with them”.
This again confirms that in Bush’s worldview there are different rules for different countries. The Bush doctrine is of course the very “personification” of these ideas. “If the United States had the right to defend itself and prevent future attacks, other democracies had those rights, too”, he writes when referring to Israel. Israel’s 2007 bombing of Syria is admiringly described as Ehud Olmert having “done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel”. But does this mean that any democracy has the right to attack any country by which it feels threatened (even on shaky grounds?). If so, it would mean the end of international law and world order.
The fondness for telling only the suitable parts of the story appears again in Bush’s account of the war against Iraq and its background. “Saddam Hussein didn’t just threaten his neighbors. He had invaded two of them, Iran in the 1980s and Kuwait in the 1990s”, Bush writes. The support given to Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran by the USA led by Bush’s fellow-Republican Ronald Reagan and assisted by among others the man who had gone on to become Bush’s own Secretary of Defense, does of course go entirely unmentioned. (“How can Donald Rumsfeld be so sure that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction? He’s got the receipts”, went one of the great jokes of 2003).
Bush is not beyond hinting about hidden motives behind other countries’ opposition to the war. In his eyes Vladimir Putin “didn’t want to jeopardize Russia’s lucrative oil contracts”, while “France also had significant economic interests in Iraq”. It could be added that the very same suspicions have been directed at Bush and Cheney.
Bush confirms that the idea of attacking Iraq was brought up by members of his administration immediately after 9/11. However, it was decided not to go ahead with that idea at the time and rather concentrate on Afghanistan first – and to do so with force. “Our response [to 9/11] would not be a pinprick cruise missile strike. [...] When America responded to these attacks, it would be deliberate, forceful, and effective”. It seems strength was more important than precision, which goes a long way in explaining the failure of the mission.
At first Bush followed in his father’s footstep by rallying an international coalition. “The coalition of the willing in the war against terror was forming, and – for the time being – everyone wanted to join”. What the interjection hints at is really one of the great failures of his presidency. After 9/11 almost the entire world showed its sympathy and solidarity with the USA – here in Oslo the pavement opposite the US Embassy was covered in flowers – but by his aggressive “lone ranger attitude” Bush quickly threw away most of this goodwill and alienate several allies.
As we know, the USA and a handful of other countries (primarily Britain) decided to launch a war on Iraq without a UN resolution. As Bush sees it this was obviously not a problem. “Dick [Cheney] and Don[ald Rumsfeld] argued we didn’t need one for Iraq [...]. After all, we already had sixteen”. This is a flagrant distortion of truth – there were indeed several UN resolutions dealing with Iraq, but none of them authorised an attack on the country.
They did succeed in having Saddam Hussein removed from power and eventually captured and killed, but they did also come very close to tearing Iraq apart and even seven years much remains to be fixed, to put it mildly. As many have suggested, some of the chaos might have been avoided if the attackers had had a clearer idea of what to do after the actual military campaign was over.
Bush indirectly admits that this was indeed true and that they did realise this even before they went in. “The military strike would be the easy part”, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that “Iraq could fracture after liberation”. That they were aware of this yet still did not prepare properly for it speaks of great irresponsibility.
Bush admits that “we made two errors”: “the intelligence failure on Iraq’s WMD” and that they “did not respond more quickly or aggressively when the security situation started to deteriorate after Saddam’s regime fell”. “Cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure of execution in war”, he adds.
The surge is later portrayed as one of the great successes of Bush’s presidency, although extremely costly in human lives – perhaps it would not have been necessary if one had thought the whole strategy and consequences thing more thoroughly through in the first place? And why it took so long for him to realise that another strategy was needed is another of those questions left unanswered in this book.
The illegal invasion of Iraq was as we know based on the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet these supposed weapons were never found and it is now clear that Iraq had complied with the UN resolutions and got rid of them. Like Tony Blair and other warmongers, Bush now has to admit that they invaded Iraq on a false pretext, which he somehow regrets. “In retrospect, of course, we should have pushed harder on the intelligence and revisited our assumptions. But at the time, the evidence and the logic pointed in the other direction”, he writes.
He stresses that he was not alone in believing that Saddam Hussein had WMD. “If Saddam didn’t have the WMD, why wouldn’t he just prove it to the inspectors? [...] If he cared so much about staying in power, why would he gamble his regime by pretending to have WMD?” Explanations which seemed possible to some of us already then were simply madness or that the dictator’s pride meant that he would not admit to having had to get rid of them. After his capture Saddam Hussein himself told the FBI “that he was more worried about looking weak to Iran than being removed by the coalition. He never thought the United States would follow through on our promises to disarm him by force”.
But if Bush regrets that the premises were wrong, he has no regrets about what they did and goes to considerable lengths to argue his case for why invading Iraq was the right thing to do, first and foremost because “the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone”. But is that really the case?
Except extremists no-one disputes the fact that Saddam Hussein was one of the greatest bastards to walk upon earth, but at the time of the US-led invasion he was no longer in a position to pose much of a threat to the outside world. On the other hand the falling-apart of Iraq made the country a hotbed for terrorism and has helped the spread of terrorism, in other words the exact opposite of what Bush wanted.
Bush himself mentions that following 9/11 terrorists have “struck Bali, Jakarta, Riyadh, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Amman, and Mumbai”. Hardly a week goes by without reports of plots uncovered and terror attempts foiled. It might well be argued that the world is less safe today than a decade ago and that Bush bears parts of the blame for this.
“For all the difficulties that followed, America is safer without a homicidal dictator pursuing WMD and supporting terror at the heart of the Middle East. The region is more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow”, Bush writes. But not only has the region seen an increase in terrorism, it has also seen the dangerous strengthening of Iran, which happened while the world was preoccupied with Iraq. Much of the same is true about North Korea.
“Imagine what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein still ruling Iraq. He would still be threatening his neighbors, sponsoring terror, and pilling bodies into mass graves”, says Bush. To a large extent this role has now been taken over by Iran. “The most volatile region in the world lost one of its greatest sources of violence and mayhem”, Bush tells us, without adding that the war he started provided the chance for another such source to replace it.
Later he tells us that Iran’s refusal of European offers of support for a civilian nuclear program made him conclude that “[t]here was only one logical explanation: Iran was enriching uranium to use in a bomb”. The failure of his so-called logical explanations relating to Iraq’s supposed arsenal of WMD does not seem to have weakened his trust in his own judgements.
This was in fact “a major decision point”. Iran could not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons as it will enable them “to dominate the Middle East, blackmail the world, pass nuclear weapons technology to its terrorist proxies, or use the bomb against Israel”.
But is not the fact that Iran has come this far really also a result of the Iraq war, which strengthened Iran while the world looked away to other preoccupations? Rather, Bush was “confident that the success of the surge and the emergence of a free Iraq on Iran’s border would inspire Iranian dissidents and help catalyze change”. That the very opposite has happened must be added to the list of failures caused by Bush’s foreign policy and the war on Iraq.
About that war Bush assures us that “[t]here was one person with the power to avoid war, and he chose not to use it”. He refers to Saddam Hussein, but actually it was Bush himself who was that person. So this, perhaps his most important and ill-fated decision, has suddenly become Saddam Hussein’s decision, although ultimately the responsibility for the war and all the tragedies, hardships and difficulties it created lies at Bush’s own door.
But as the failure of his presidency folds out Bush shows a marked tendency to blame others than himself. “Nobody was lying [about WMD]. We were all wrong”. Not really everyone, but more importantly: Bush, not all of us, was the one to decide.
His 2004 Democratic opponent John Kerry’s “argument that I had misled the country on Iraq didn’t pass the commonsense test. As a member of the Senate in 2002, he had access to the same intelligence I did and decided to cast his voice in support of the war resolution”. But still there is a difference between leaders and fellow-travellers.
When he infamously declared victory in Iraq on 1 May 2003, he “hadn’t noticed the large banner” reading “Mission Accomplished” which had been placed behind him by “my staff”. “It was a big mistake”, he admits, but obviously it was the staff’s mistake.
The press team was to blame for having “ushered photographers into the cabin” when Bush flew over New Orleans looking aloofly down on the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina – perhaps the lowest of the many low points of his presidency. Bush himself “barely noticed them at the time; I couldn’t take my eyes off the devastation below”. NBC News’ Brian Williams is obviously also to blame for having reported predictions that Katrina would not actually hit downtown New Orleans.
Bush himself had absolutely nothing whatsoever at all to do with the reasons for the financial crisis which hit his country and spread to the rest of the world towards the end of his presidency after he had managed to turn the surplus inherited from Bill Clinton (much of it “an illusion”, according to Bush) into a record deficit. The whole crisis was caused by “[a] relatively small group of people – many on Wall Street, some not – [who] had gambled that the housing market would keep booming forever”. The people would wonder why the state was “spending their money to save the firms that created the crisis in the first place”.
When Paul “Jerry” Bremer issued orders banning members of the Baath Party from serving in the new Iraqi government and disbanding the Iraqi army, “I should have insisted on more debate on Jerry’s orders”. So it was really Jerry’s fault, not Bush’s. Bush only approved it too quickly.
Harry Truman famously had a sign reading “The buck stops here” on his desk reminding him that whatever happens on his watch is ultimately the President’s responsibility – he cannot kick the buck further up and blame others. Bush has no such reservations and happily passes the blame on to his staff, the press team, Jerry, Kerry, firms, a relatively small group of people and even random journalists.
He does admit to certain mistakes, but it is frequently how things appeared and reflected on him he regrets rather than the actual events. “Not disclosing the DUI [drink-driving conviction] on my own terms may have been the single costliest political mistake I ever made”. When the photos of prisoners being mistreated in the Abu Ghraib prison were published, “America’s reputation took a severe hit. [...] I was not happy with the way the situation had been handled”. And that is virtually everything he has to say about Abu Ghraib.
“I am frustrated that the military tribunals moved so slowly”. Guantanamo “was necessary”, but “had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies”. His “one regret” about the PATRIOT Act is not its contents, but the name, which is short for “the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act” and which he assures us was chosen by Congress, not himself. In hindsight he “should have pushed Congress to change the name of the bill before I signed it” as “there was an implication that people who opposed the law were unpatriotic”.
“The toxic atmosphere in American politics discourages good people from running for office”, he writes. But to what extent is he himself responsible for having created this “toxic atmosphere”? Surprisingly, in a rare bout of self-insight he admits that “[n]o doubt I bear some of the responsibility as well” and adds: “Whatever the cause, the breakdown in bipartisanship was bad for my administration and bad for the country, too”. Indeed. And that this extreme polarising of American politics now threatens to leave the country almost ungovernable is one of the saddest parts of the legacy of the Bush presidency. It is to his credit that he at least presents one constructive idea for what might possibly be done to adjust this.
There is of course also a lot one misses in this book. How did it feel to assume the presidency under the circumstances he did, i.e. based on a 5-4 Supreme Court decision and having received half a million votes less than his opponent? Incidentally, Bush forgets to mention that he lost the popular vote. What is the justification for taking lives, which he frequently authorised while Governor of Texas and as commander-in-chief? He frequently mentions several of the Americans killed or injured in action and carefully gives the number of 4,429 “American service members who gave their lives in Iraq during my presidency”. Did he ever spare a thought for those others killed, for instance the 66,081 innocent civilians killed in Iraq between 2004 and 2009?
Environmental issues and climate change, arguably one of the most important issues of our day, is dealt with in a single sentence describing it as “something that might be a problem fifty years from now”. True leadership is also about laying the foundations for a better future and doing what is in one’s power to prevent future disasters, but in this case it seems lost on a president who declares that he had entered politics with an intention to “confront problems, not pass them on to future generations”.
Bush tells us that it was said about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that “his brain was moving too fast for his mouth to keep up. That didn’t bother me. People accused me of having the same problem”. Did they really? Is he sure it was not the other way around with him?
As one reads this book one is left with the impression of a man who really does not get the bigger picture. For politicians to twist the truth in autobiographies in order to present themselves in a better light is of course nothing new, but this politician thinks he can leave out those parts of the story that does not really fit in with the picture he intends to give, and at the same time he makes self-contradictions which undermine his narrative and shows that he does not really understand how some of the things he write actually point back at him in a rather bad way.
The best example of the latter is the way he ends the book with an oft-told anecdote about how he took his dog for a walk a few days after he had left the White House. “There I was, the former president of the United States, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years”.
Did he not realise what a great metaphor this is for the mess he had left behind for others to pick up?

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