Sunday, December 28, 2008
George Bush Unmasked and Unmade
[This is a review of a book I thought exceptionally readable and useful, so instead of a short analysis I've gone for a full length one some 1500 words-you have been warned.]
The Bush Tragedy: The Unmaking of a President, by Jacob Weisberg(2008), Bloomsbury.
The hardback cover of this book(for paperback see below) does not serve its contents well in that its jokey depiction of father and son as manipulated marionettes, suggests yet another crude Bush-bashing tract. It is far from that but is a vividly written, scholarly and hugely insightful study, which I would heartily recommend. Weisberg, a journalist on a variety of US publications, denies his book is ‘an indictment’ but rather, ‘an attempt at an explanation’. If the reader concludes, that by the end of the book, the two seem synonymous, that is not wholly the author’s fault. He confesses to rather liking W who is ‘comfortable in his skin and fun to be around’.
Weisberg uses the Bard’s Henry IV and V to help explain the mystery of Bush’s eight years in power. Henry IV was a competent but not great king with what appeared to be a feckless waster of a son. However, ‘Prince Hal’ eventually cleans up his act and ‘accepts the obligations of his breeding’. Having proved his father and most other former judgements wrong, Hal goes on to win the astonishing victory of Agincourt; evidence, he claims of the ‘hand of God at work’. The book begins with an analysis of the two families which created the dynasty, the Walkers and Bushes. The latter were mostly calm, assiduous, modest and public service inclined while the latter were boastful glory seekers ‘unsure of their abilities’.
W was definitely more a ‘Walker’ than a ‘Bush’. Unlike his father he was not good at games or his books or, to be honest, being able to open career and political doors. He was a ‘sore loser’ with a combination of overconfidence and insecurity. Having got into Yale ‘on the strength of family connections’, he did not lack for social popularity however. He became frat house president and the master of ceremonies of initiation ceremonies described by the Yale Daily News as ‘sadistic and obscene’. He coasted through Yale, sneering at ‘pretentious people who thought they knew better’ while believing in his own superiority: the explanation, suggests the author, for his omni-present smirk.
In the real world he had less success, his casual approach making him a hopeless failure in business and acquiring a reputation for wild drunkenness. But he was not without political ambition, standing for Congress in 1978. His father pulled strings for him behind the scenes but junior proved an excellent campaigner, with an easy folksy manner; he lost the contest by 6000 votes. His marriage in the same year to Laura Welch brought order to his life and, crucially perhaps, an eventual rejection of alcohol. Meanwhile brother Jeb, essentially in the Bush family tradition was developing a reputation as the ‘clever one’ who tilted at the Florida governorship, going on to win it in 1998.
W responded by buying up, along with friends from Yale, the Texas Rangers baseball team. This gave him visibility and name recognition but W’s management approach was wrong:
‘As a manager Bush prides himself on sizing up people quickly and not getting lost in details. An intuitive decision-maker, he de-emphasizes analytic judgement in favour of [Walker] instinct’ (p61)
During his five seasons in charge the team went nowhere.
However, W had found a vital ally. His father’s former aide, Karl Rove, was helplessly seduced by junior’s charismatic charm and helped him win the Texan governorship in 1994 while Jeb lost his first contest in Florida. The ‘waster’ Prince Hal was showing unexpected mettle. But W was keen to separate himself from his father; where his father had ‘considered religious enthusiasm a form of bad manners’, junior eagerly courted the evangelical right. And
‘Where his father engaged in the details of policy, the son saw himself as a leader who set priorities, tasked people to carry them out and held them accountable…the son was an instantaneous “decider” who didn’t revisit his choices or change his mind…He told people he wanted to be a “consequential” president, not the manager of an inbox like his dad.’
His father’s foreign policy advisers like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker he tended to view as ‘patronizing, meddlesome and tedious’ but he assiduously wooed Scowcroft’s star pupil Condi Rice, converting her to a more aggressive assertion of US power. The author notes:
‘Perhaps because she had no family life, her relationship with the president became her strongest emotional bond. In one of the great Freudian slips ever to occur at a Washington dinner party, Rice impulsively referred to George W as “my hus----".
He preferred the company of his own people, especially his alleged ‘brain’ Karl Rove, who proved to be his brilliant detail obsessed Machiavelli, constructing strategies for winning elections, ruthlessly neutralizing opponents, politicizing the executive branch and exercising a day to day stamp on the conduct of government from the White House. But, as Weisberg notes:
‘What Bush and Rove shared was the machine politician’s insight that distributing rewards and aligning incentives can make the public sector work effectively. But when it came to executing a new policy approach in the face of major obstacles, they were essentially all at sea.’
Rove nudged Bush ever rightwards, crucially, argues the author, after 9-11 when he had a chance to become a genuine consensus president instead of the ‘polarizing figure’ he became until the end of his presidency. The other dominating figure of these years was Dick Cheney. A mediocre scholar, Cheney shared, with Bush, a sense of resentful inferiority towards his more able Yale classmates. He was able to link up with the Nixonite Donald Rumsfeld to forge his subsequent political career.
During these years the presidency suffered a decline after Watergate and then the relative failure of Jimmy Carter. Cheney resolved to work, in his secretive, behind the scenes way (he is a naturally retiring man who shrivels the limelight), for a revival of executive power at the expense of the legislature. Bush’s ‘hands-off’ management style, eschewing detail and micro-management, allowed Cheney to insert himself, without precedent for a Vice President, as a major influence.
I thought the best part of the book was from chapter six onwards where foreign policy and the decision to invade Iraq is analysed. It needs to be said that he mentions no role for Tony Blair as a player of any clout whatsoever, either as moderating force or stout ally. Rather, Weisberg sees a number of threads coming together in the genesis of the decision to invade: a disinclination to follow his father’s multilateral diplomatic route; a determination to make ‘with us or against us’ the acid test of international friendship; a particular, Cheney inspired fear of biological weapons-explaining why the anthrax attacks caused such alarm in Washington; the neo-conservative belief that a democratic Iraq could act as a beacon of freedom in the Middle East; a belief, borrowed from the Arab scholar Bernard Lewis, that Muslims had been engaged in a ‘cosmic struggle for world domination’ since the time of Muhammad; and, finally, a conviction that certain states constituted an ‘axis of evil’ which had to be resisted and defeated. According to Andrew Card, Bush still believed WMD would be found as late as 2006, though the searcher after them, David Kay, was amazed to discover no sign of disappointment when they refused to be discovered.
What made it go wrong was Bush’s extraordinary ignorance of Islam- he did not know the difference between Shia and Sunni for example; his belief Iraqis would welcome an invasion as a liberation; Rumsfeld’s conviction that the firepower available to the US meant the size of the force required to do the job could be relatively small; and no forward planning to rebuild Iraq once Saddam had been toppled.
Weisberg concludes much of the tragedy is owed to ‘the old family drama’.
‘Where George HW Bush weighed options, W sizes you up and decides. Where 41 saw shades of gray; 43 finds moral clarity. ‘The son [according to Scowcroft] prides himself on being the guy who cuts through it all, who is decisive, not wishy- washy’.
Junior compares himself with the great leaders and presidents –Churchill, Truman, Reagan- people who were initially ridiculed but finally proved heroically right. Truman is singled out as someone who also believed, rightly, that a democratic Japan could be transformative in Asia. Yet the analogy is woefully inappropriate: Truman was imaginatively bi-partisan and worked though a network of multilateral agencies.
The author also charts the convolutions of Bush’s failed desire to find a ‘Doctrine’ from being ‘humble’ and almost isolationist in 2000, to advocating a globally ideological version of democracy in 2006. What was extraordinary was his ability to sustain his self assurance in the face of massive unpopularity. Even now, a month before he goes, and globally reviled, he talks of walking away ‘with head held high’. Weisberg states his aim is to explain Bush rather than judge him, but he cannot help the judgements peppering his analysis, for example:
‘A son who tried to vindicate hiss family by repudiating his father’s policies, ended up doing the opposite of what he intended. He showed the world his father’s wisdom and brought shame to his name.’ (p72)
‘If Bush was Truman, where were the durable institutions, the supportive alliances, the sound doctrine? Bush’s contribution to the new era was an unnecessary war, an overblown conception of the terrorist threat, and a hollow rhetoric of victory.’(p236).
If we need to know history in order to avoid making the same mistakes again, I would like every aspirant politician on both sides of the Atlantic set Jacob Weisberg’s book as compulsory reading.
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