The Buck Stops With George W. Bush

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld can’t be blamed for the policies the president authorized.

President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emerge from a military briefing at the Pentagon, May 10, 2004.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Peter Beinart, The Atlantic
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Peter Beinart, The Atlantic
Nov. 6, 2015, 11:02 a.m.

Great news for Jeb Bush! Jon Meacham’s new book has just set off sev­er­al more days of de­bate about his broth­er’s de­cision to in­vade Ir­aq.

In Meacham’s forth­com­ing bio­graphy of George H.W. Bush, the old man un­loads on Dick Cheney and Don­ald Rums­feld for hav­ing wrecked his son’s for­eign policy. The eld­er Bush says Cheney joined forces with the “real hard-char­ging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.” He ac­cuses Rums­feld of hav­ing an “iron-ass view of everything,” the kind of Bushism that makes no sense lin­guist­ic­ally but con­veys a mood: Rums­feld was a for­eign-policy mil­it­ant and a jerk.

The eld­er Bush isn’t try­ing to let George W. off the hook. But that’s how many will in­ter­pret his com­ments. Which is a shame, be­cause see­ing him as an empty ves­sel in­to which Cheney and Rums­feld poured their im­per­i­al mil­it­ar­ism is wrong. Cheney and Rums­feld may have provided the ideo­logy that drove the United States to in­vade Ir­aq. But Bush provided the tem­pera­ment. And that mattered even more.  

In Meacham’s book, Bush 41 ac­cuses Rums­feld of “a lack of hu­mil­ity, a lack of see­ing what the oth­er guy thinks. He’s more kick ass and take names.” But those same qual­it­ies de­scribe Bush 43.

Ob­serv­ers have long puzzled over the dis­crep­ancy between Bush’s be­ha­vi­or after 9/11 and his for­eign policy ori­ent­a­tion as a can­did­ate in 2000, when he warned that, “If we’re an ar­rog­ant na­tion,” oth­er na­tions will “re­sent us,” be­cause “one way for us be­ing viewed as the ‘ugly Amer­ic­an’ is for us to go around the world say­ing, ‘We do it this way; so should you.’”

But the com­mon thread between Bush’s be­ha­vi­or be­fore and after tak­ing of­fice was his pen­chant for high-risk moves based on his own in­stincts, ir­re­spect­ive of what any­body else thought. In his ter­rif­ic book, The Bush Tragedy, Jac­ob Weis­berg notes that in 1977, George W. Bush, who was then drink­ing heav­ily, liv­ing above a gar­age and watch­ing his busi­ness fail, made the “im­petu­ous” de­cision to run for a seat in Con­gress. This “shocked” his par­ents, who be­lieved polit­ic­al of­fice was something you pur­sued only after get­ting rich. Bush lost.

A dec­ade later, when the young­er Bush worked on his fath­er’s 1988 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, an­oth­er ad­viser, Doug Wead, re­mem­bers that he “made de­cisions that just took your breath away, just bam, bam, bam, bam, yes, yes, yes, no, no, yes, no.”

Later, as man­aging part­ner of the Texas Rangers, ac­cord­ing to Weis­berg, Bush “thought his scouts put too much em­phas­is on stat­ist­ics” in their eval­u­ation of play­ers. He, by con­trast, “size[d] up people quickly” based on their “char­ac­ter.” It was on this basis that Bush traded Sammy Sosa, who would go on to hit 608 more home runs in his ca­reer, to the Chica­go White Sox for Har­old Baines, who would hit 195. Dur­ing Bush’s five years run­ning the Rangers, they hugged the bot­tom of their di­vi­sion. But Bush didn’t change his style. In their book, The Bushes, Peter and Rochelle Sch­weizer quote a friend on George W. Bush’s own hit­ting tech­nique: “Wild swings with lots of muscle; but he was swinging so hard, try­ing so hard, he didn’t take the chance to watch the ball.”

Weis­berg and the Sch­weizers both ar­gue that Bush felt his fath­er had been too cau­tious in of­fice, which he be­lieved has con­trib­uted to the de­feat of the old man’s reelec­tion bid. He thought Clin­ton had been in­con­sequen­tial, too. “Our cur­rent pres­id­ent em­bod­ied the po­ten­tial of a gen­er­a­tion—so many tal­ents, so much charm, such great skill,” Bush said in 2000. “But in the end, to what end? So much prom­ise to no great pur­pose.” The “Clin­ton-Gore ad­min­is­tra­tion has coas­ted through prosper­ity.”

George W. Bush, by con­trast, was de­term­ined to be a “game changer.” Even as a can­did­ate, notes former speech­writer Mi­chael Ger­son, “[T]he gov­ernor con­sist­ently pushed his policy team to ‘think big’; his most damning char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of any pro­pos­al was, ‘This is small ball.’”

After 9/11, Cheney, Rums­feld, and Paul Wolfow­itz pushed for an at­tack on Ir­aq, ar­guing that the true ter­ror­ist threat lay not with Al Qaeda but with ter­ror­ism’s al­leged state spon­sors. But Bush could have over­ruled them. Sec­ret­ary of State Colin Pow­ell op­posed war with Ir­aq, and Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Con­doleezza Rice ex­pressed no strong po­s­i­tion. Coun­terter­ror­ism czar Richard Clarke con­sidered the idea in­sane.

The reas­on Bush sided with Cheney and com­pany, I sus­pect, is be­cause at­tack­ing Ir­aq rather than stop­ping with the in­va­sion of Afgh­anistan was the big­ger, bolder move. Dur­ing post-9/11 dis­cus­sions, Bush of­ten said he didn’t want to “pound sand,” as he be­lieved Bill Clin­ton had done in re­sponse to pre­vi­ous ter­ror­ist at­tacks or “swat flies.” He re­peatedly de­scribed the “war on ter­ror” as a struggle on the mag­nitude of the Cold War and World War II.

Bush nev­er tempered this gran­di­os­ity with a ser­i­ous in­quiry in­to the risks. “I’m not a text­book play­er. I’m a gut play­er,” he told his Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil two weeks after the at­tacks. Ac­cord­ing to Con­doleezza Rice, there was little Bush dis­liked more than be­ing told that a for­eign policy is­sue was “com­plex.” And he didn’t see in­vad­ing Ir­aq as par­tic­u­larly com­plex, in part, ac­cord­ing to Ir­aqi ex­iles who met the pres­id­ent in Janu­ary 2003, be­cause he seemed un­aware that Ir­aq was di­vided between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

One can see why the eld­er Bush might fo­cus on the roles of Cheney and Rums­feld in the Ir­aq War. But it was his son’s own gran­di­os­ity and reck­less­ness that em­powered them. And, in a pain­ful irony, that gran­di­os­ity and reck­less­ness came, in part, from George W.’s de­term­in­a­tion not to be a pres­id­ent like his dad.

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