BookReviews

Well-meaning warrior

George W. Bush never shied away from hard decisions in his battle to keep America safe.

Reviewed by Alexander Downer

It was September 2007 at Kirribilli House. My wife and I were enjoying pre-dinner drinks with John Howard and George W. Bush, his wife, Laura and Condi Rice. Suddenly, to my alarm, my wife Nicky turned to the President and said, "Tell me, Mr President, what's it like being the most unpopular person in the world?" Mind you, it was a fair question, but who would have the guts to ask that of the President of the United States? Bush took it in his stride. He smiled and said the criticism was all about politics. He had to do what was right. And so the conversation progressed.

My wife later said she found George Bush disarmingly charming and "rather attractive". For his part, President Bush took me aside at a breakfast the next morning to say, "Alexander, that wife of yours is a real pistol." When I saw Bush off the next evening on behalf of the Australian government, I did so with mixed feelings. I was sorry to say farewell to a man who had been a great friend to Australia, but at least my marriage was safe.

In a way, this anecdote sums up George W. Bush whose autobiography, appropriately called Decision Points, is frank, literate and readable. It is laced with self-deprecating anecdotes, earnest justification of major domestic and international decisions, conviction and some frank admissions of error. This is a book by a good man who made mistakes.

But what is more, this is an important book to read if you want to develop a fuller view than you get from tendentious media analysis.

First and foremost, there is George W. Bush the person. Most readers will already be aware of his transition from naughty boy through religion and into adult responsibility. The stories about drunken escapades and binge drinking are all there. Bush makes no attempt to hide them. He tells the anecdotes about his boyish pranks enhanced by alcohol with relish. It is clear he wants to draw a stark contrast between his early, flawed years and his latter years of dedication, faith and responsibility.

Bush's charm and his faith are strong themes. When I first met the then Governor Bush in Austin, Texas in 1998, I, like my wife nine years later, found his charm quite infectious. I had half an hour set aside with him and after an hour, I had to terminate the meeting because I risked missing my flight to Washington. He was gracious, amusing, rather politically incorrect, but utterly decent. What is more, his views on public policy issues were largely compatible with my own and those of our then prime minister, John Howard. He was passionate about free trade, competitive markets and enterprise and he was a stalwart believer in America's alliances.

Governor Bush also made it clear he was a man of deep faith. In Australia, only prelates, priests and the sickeningly sanctimonious wear their religion on their sleeves. In America, however, it's common; in person as in his autobiography, George W. Bush doesn't hide his belief in God. In Decision Points, he frequently refers to his passion for prayer; he prayed for wisdom at times of major decisions, he prayed for his soldiers in war and for the grieving families of the victims of September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wasn't always religious; it was something which came to him partly through Billy Graham in mid-life. And he isn't someone who forces his theological beliefs down your throat. But for George Bush, his conversion to faith is a defining issue.

The Bush presidency was to be dominated by the so-called war on terror following the horrific events of September 11. This was entirely understandable. As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush argued that America shouldn't be in the game of nation building. This all changed after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The Bush administration tried to rebuild two nations from the bottom up and tried to help pave the way to democracy where tyrants ruled. He hadn't planned to do these things.

It is understandable that President Bush re-cast himself as a political leader after September 11. He saw himself as a war president with a mission to destroy Islamic extremism. That was a good objective, but by framing the struggle against al-Qaeda as a war commensurate with Roosevelt's war against Hitler and Tojo, President Bush somehow misjudged global sentiment.

Certainly al-Qaeda and its affiliates wanted to kill innocent people—especially Westerners—and their networks had to be destroyed. And more than that, President Bush had the responsibility to protect the American people from further terrorist attacks, and he did. It was a fine achievement and he proclaims it as his greatest achievement. Protecting Americans (and their allies) required some very tough decisions. Allowing for enhanced interrogation techniques—including waterboarding by the CIA, opening the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and allowing telecommunications interceptions—were controversial decisions. But they worked.

Imagine Bush's choices: if he had refused advice to take ruthless action against terrorist suspects, and the terrorists had then struck and killed Americans, Bush would have been vilified. Yet by taking tough, war-time measures, he was savagely attacked for trashing people's freedoms. Congressmen and Senators were all too ready to give the President these powers straight after September 11, but when people stopped dying and the public's attention moved to other issues, many became opportunistic advocates of civil liberties.

In general, I think Bush made the right choices. After all, President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay within one year of coming to office but it's still open for business more than two years later.

Bush's response to September 11 was right and that included ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. But often his rhetoric was wrong. For example, it was a stretch to compare his situation to Lincoln's during the Civil War, and Roosevelt's during the dark days of World War Two, and Harry Truman's at the end of the war and during the Korean War. Al-Qaeda is never going to destroy America or take over the Islamic world, let alone the whole world.

This book is a fascinating insight into how Bush and his team saw the war in Iraq. Read it. If you were against the invasion of Iraq, then you should at the very least do yourself a favour by familiarising yourself with the arguments of those who wanted to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's regime. The post-invasion chaos in Iraq is described and the allegations of lack of planning repudiated and rightly so. The Americans did have plans for the period after the collapse of the regime in Iraq. The trouble was, they weren't very good plans.

What we don't know but can only guess is what would have happened if Saddam had managed to talk Bush and his allies out of the invasion. No one can be sure of course, but for certain Saddam would have been no friend of America's in the battle against terrorists. In truth, there was no good option; there was only a least bad option.

On balance, I think Bush's foreign policy will be kindly judged by history. He must be watching with a smile as the people of the Middle East take to the streets to overthrow corrupt tyrants. That was essentially the message of his "freedom agenda", enunciated so eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address.

The book ends with the global financial crisis, for which Bush wasn't solely responsible. Many of the structures which led to the sub-prime crisis were put in place before his time, but after more than seven years in office it is incredible no one in the Bush administration or the Federal Reserve saw it coming. Bush admits that in his book. They should have; it was inexcusable. Of course, the President himself wouldn't have, but with all those brilliant Treasury officials, no one saw it coming? That is the greatest weakness of the Bush presidency.

Overall, Decision Points is essential reading if you wish to judge the Bush legacy. At a lunch with President Bush in Hanoi a few years ago we started talking about Harry Truman. I said I thought he was arguably the greatest president of the 20th century. Bush didn't disagree. He said, "Remember, Truman ended his presidency with ratings of 22 per cent".

"That won't happen to you, Mr President," I said cheerfully. I was wrong. George W. Bush was no Harry Truman, but he was a much better president than the liberal media establishment and the Democrats claim. This book is subjective, but it explains why.