Monday, 29 November 2010

Decision Points, George W. Bush - Part 2

III

Bush's presidency was defined above all by the "War on Terror", a conflict which Bush hadn't sought but which he embraced enthusiastically and pursued through mountains of money and rivers of blood.  The tone was set by his reaction to the September 11 attacks: "My blood was boiling.  We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass."  He did - and he did.

Bush's treatment of the lead-up to 9/11 is deficient.  He refers to the famous "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" briefing given to him by the CIA on 6 August 2001, but without exploring its implications.  Unsurprisingly, he does not quote George Tenet's judgement that "the system was blinking red" in the preceding months, or address the unfavourable comparisons that have been made with the way in which the Clinton administration handled similar security alerts.

Bush has few regrets about this part of his record.  When he talks about Guantanamo Bay, the "PATRIOT" Act and his secret surveillance programme, he seems to regard congressional oversight, public scrutiny and the rule of law almost as unwarranted inconveniences.  When even the conservative-majority Supreme Court ruled against him in Hamdan v Rumsfeld, he accepted the decision fairly grudgingly.  The notion of a balance between liberty and security is alluded to but not really explored.  Bush acknowledges the crimes that his soldiers committed at Abu Ghraib and says that he felt sick when he was told about them, but he seems to feel no such nausea about the murky practice of extraordinary rendition.

On the subject of his forces' brutal interrogation techniques, Bush says that he was advised that the practices in question did not amount to torture, that he vetoed a couple of the more outlandish ones, and that only three prisoners were waterboarded.  This isn't really the point, though.  When you've reached the stage of splitting hairs about what is and isn't torture, and arguing that you didn't do it to many people anyway, you are self-evidently in a morally grubby position.  The President of the United States doesn't get to argue that his interrogation practices aren't torture because his lawyer wrote him a memo saying so.  There is a distinct lack of ethical clarity here.  Of course, an awareness of moral ambiguities isn't always a bad thing, but one doubts that Bush would allow himself a similar level of ambivalence about, say, abortion or gay marriage.

And so to Iraq.  In human terms, the legacy of the Iraq War is hundreds of thousands of early deaths and a society which has taken seven and a half years to turn into a corrupt and unstable democracy.  If you want to argue that Iraq is now a better place than it was under the Ba'athist insanity, then fine, let that be Bush's epitaph: "He wasn't as bad as Saddam".  Politically speaking, taken together with the stalemate of Afghanistan, the Iraq adventure fatally exposed the limits of US power.  The strength of empires lies in perceptions and myths as much as it does in tanks and B-52s.  When the American Empire was at its zenith, Bush chose to show the world in plain sight that it could be ensnared and resisted.  For a superpower already destined for long-term decline by demographic and economic trends, that was the fatal misjudgement, the unpardonable sin.  American global hegemony may have been born in the mud of the Western Front in World War I, but it withered away in the land of Nineveh and Babylon.

Bush, predictably, insists that he didn't want to create an empire.  Ironically, he says that he didn't deploy more troops in the early stages of the Iraq War because of the dangers of looking heavy-handed and provoking unnecessary resentment against an occupying foreign army.  He fails to rebut the argument that his own employees at the State Department knew exactly what was going to happen and tried to tell him how he should approach the rebuilding of the country.  Maybe there is some truth in Niall Ferguson's critique of Bush-era policy: the Americans were trying to maintain an empire on the cheap, without committing the resources that were needed for success.

The failure to secure Iraq was followed by the failure to find those elusive WMDs.  Now, it is well known that spies around the world believed that Saddam had WMDs, and his own behaviour was not that of a responsible statesman who had nothing to hide.  Nor did Bush himself present WMDs as the only justification for war (though he isn't foolish enough to try to revive the old canard that Saddam was complicit in 9/11).  His neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who had been dreaming of going after Saddam since the 90s, went so far as to describe WMDs as a "bureaucratic pretext" for the invasion.  But the fact remains that the case of the missing WMDs was - or should have been - a scandal on a colossal scale.  In any other walk of life, including the business world in which Bush cut his teeth, such a massive cock-up would have spelt immediate resignation and career death.  For Bush - and indeed for Tony Blair - it spelt re-election.  Sometimes we get the leaders we deserve.

The sections of the book on the "War on Terror" and foreign policy contain various vignettes of encounters with civilians and servicemen which Bush found memorable, touching or otherwise encouraging as he attempted to grope his way to victory.  To European eyes, these are likely to come over as maudlin, if not downright manipulative.  Is this perhaps too cynical?  I wonder.  To be fair, Bush does also mention encountering ordinary Americans (Cindy Sheehan being the best known) who didn't see eye to eye with him.

Bush has a few interesting titbits.  Tony Blair was instrumental in persuading him both to address the Saddam problem initially through the UN and to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  That process could have reached something like a successful conclusion if Ehud Olmert hadn't fallen from power at the wrong moment.  Little that Dubya says, however, comes as a surprise.  Of the Iraqi people, he tells us: "They were grateful to America for their liberation.  They wanted to live in freedom.  And I would not give up on them."  In fact, surveys of Iraqi public opinion revealed a deeply divided society in which supporters of the American war effort were matched or outnumbered by opponents - Iraqis who supported the insurgency or at any rate wanted the foreigners to leave their country.  A similarly deep and bitter division over Bush's Mesopotamian adventure persists in America and the rest of the West, and seems likely to do so for some time to come.