By Jean Edward Smith
Simon & Schuster
808 pages, $35
By Edward Cuddihy
Noted presidential historian and academic scholar Jean Edward Smith finds very little to admire in our nation’s 43rd president.
The George W. Bush presidency, which some writers have been disparaging – probably prematurely – as the worst presidency in American history, has come to be defined by the Iraq War and its disastrous aftermath.
So as one might suspect, the new Smith biography is all about that war, its run-up and its messy wake. It’s about a president’s resolve to invade Iraq pre-emptively despite contrary counsel, in the face of predictable negative fallout from world leaders, and while armed with a CIA report absolving Iraq of involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States.
It’s about the unsubstantiated weapons of mass destruction that served as the incentive for the invasion. And it’s all about the 4,000 American military deaths, the 30,000 American wounded, the more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths, the $3 trillion in spent U.S. treasure, and the loss of American prestige around the world.
But most of all, this book is about the enduring, almost perdurable, ramifications of a well-intentioned but wrongheaded presidential pronouncement from the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln five weeks after the invasion.
The most damning element of that televised event was not the high school prep rally-like “Mission Accomplished” banner, nor was it the cavalier presidential swagger. It was the ill-conceived proclamation to the world that the U.S. now would undertake the molding of this Mideast nation of estranged Shiites, Sunni and Kurds into a Western-style democracy. And further, this transformation would symbolize to the world the U.S. victory of good over evil.
“The arrogance of asserting that the United States was undertaking a struggle to rid the world of evil is breathtaking,” Smith observes. The very notion is ludicrous.
To historian Smith, the president’s statement demonstrated not only the height of audacity, but displayed a naiveté beyond belief and a near total ignorance or disregard for the fragile political balance of this pivotal region.
While he refrains from joining the chorus of authors who describe the Bush/43 presidency as the worst in history, Smith does not fudge his conclusion: “George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq will likely go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American President.”
Then Smith probes deeper. An American president is thought to be surrounded by the most knowledgeable, analytic minds in this enlightened nation. Who was the president listening to?
Smith makes a convincing case that after 9/11, the president was listening to Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Iraq War hawk Paul Wolfowitz, Texas cronies Karen Hughes, Karl Rove and others, but George Bush was hearing only himself.
One Washington insider described the White House staff as the president’s giant echo chamber. Smith cites Rice as the prime example of that circle of Bush enablers. It is Smith’s belief she used her considerable intelligence to anticipate the president’s thinking and parrot back what he wanted to hear, thus reinforcing Bush’s wrong impulses.
There were mildly dissenting voices like Secretary of State Colin Powell, some military leaders, and at times Secretary Rumsfeld, but they were being ignored. Smith claims further that even the dissension was more about turf wars than policy.
In Smith’s view, Bush/43 was a swashbuckler. He listened to his instincts, was bored by analytic debate, relished making quick decisions and delighted in telling anyone who would listen that he was president and his job was to call the shots.
This attitude was complicated, in Smith’s view, by Bush’s born-again religious certitude. The author cites numerous examples of the president saying he was doing God’s work, or that his decisions were in the hands of God. Thomas Jefferson would have cringed. And when a clergyman told Abraham Lincoln he had God on his side, Lincoln quipped: “I hope I have God on my side, Reverend, but what I must have is Kentucky.”
To Smith, the very notion of declaring war on terror was “a blunder of historic proportions.” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle tried to explain that “terror” was a tactic like “blitzkrieg.” And you don’t declare war on a tactic. How does one declare victory over terror? Bush never seemed to grasp that distinction. He was quoted by an aide as saying: “I don’t do nuance.”
Another blunder was Bush’s insistence that the Justice Department approve what would become the Patriot Act. Attorney General John Ashcroft, another enabler according to Smith, drafted it. Smith describes the Patriot Act as “the most ill-conceived piece of domestic legislation” since President John Adams forced through the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
In this era of information overload, it is commonplace for everyone even remotely close to a president to publish memoirs both for financial gain and to burnish one’s image. In his role as historian, Smith has digested tens of thousands of pages of often contradictory government reports and memoirs from the likes of Cheney, defense secretary Robert Gates, Rice, Powell, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, economist Henry Paulson, and of course, the voluminous papers of the president himself.
It might be a little early to rush to judgment on the totality of the Bush/43 presidency. A decade later, some of Bush’s major decisions have not fully played out.
Yet Smith has done future historians a great service in pulling together this vast amount of material in one fully sourced, easy-to-read 800-page volume (including 85 pages of endnotes).
Even so, an observer might point out that Professor Smith overlooks that in the ramp-up to the Iraq War, the American media, almost uniformly from the talking heads to the austere New York Times, encouraged invasion in their words or in their lack of questioning. The public salivated over the chance to see missiles striking Baghdad from their living room sofas via CNN.
It was not until after the invasion that many serious journalists turned critical of their publication’s role in the run-up. So Bush’s inner circle was not alone.
Near the end of the book, Smith lists several positive Bush actions likely to be lost on history, like his drive to fight the worldwide spread of AIDS, his support of education and his measures, in the face of his own ideology and his own party’s opposition, to shore up Wall Street and the auto industry.
But it will be the Iraq War, the wider war on terror, the fracturing of the delicate balance of power in the Mideast leading to the rise of the Islamic State, and the wholesale assault on American civil liberties that will make up the Bush/43 legacy.
In that light, Smith concludes that George W. Bush should be considered one of the most dangerous presidents in history.
After 9/11, when the U.S. enjoyed the world’s empathy, and when a frightened nation was willing to grant its president powers unprecedented since Pearl Harbor, President Bush showed he did not have Franklin Roosevelt’s cool head, he lacked JFK’s sense of world history, and he didn’t possess Richard Nixon’s sharp – if extremely dangerous – probing intellect.
Historian Smith might use the example of George W. Bush to refute that often-repeated urban myth that it doesn’t much matter anymore who we vote into the most powerful office on earth.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.