'Bush' Is Jean Edward Smith's Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush

By Spanberg, Erik | The Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Bush' Is Jean Edward Smith's Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush


Spanberg, Erik, The Christian Science Monitor


Last fall, presidential historian Jon Meacham published "Destiny and Power," a well-received biography of George H.W. Bush. POTUS 41 was, in Meacham's account, underrated and underappreciated.

If 2015 brought Bush 41 praise, this year has brought him disappointment.

In February, son Jeb Bush, a former two-term Florida governor, dropped out of the Republican presidential race after a largely forgettable run that failed despite a fund-raising war chest larger than that of any of his rivals.

To put salt in the family wounds, now comes Bush, Jean Edward Smith's biography of George W. Bush, the 43rd president - and, of course, son of the 41st. Smith wrote "George Bush's War," a book critical of the elder Bush's Gulf War and, in "Bush," paints a devastating portrait of George W. Bush.

From excessive hubris fed by his Evangelical Christianity ("sanctimonious religiosity," Smith writes) to a surfeit of unquestioning aides in and around his White House, Bush emerges in Smith's account as an unprepared, stubborn, and feckless commander- in-chief. Rather than relying on polemics, Smith makes his case with straightforward, block-by-block assemblages of facts, policy results, and telling anecdotes.

Bush became president in 2000 after five years as Texas governor and a mostly forgettable business career. In Texas, governors wield minimal power and bear much less responsibility than their colleagues in other states. "Unprepared for the complexities of governing, with little executive experience and a glaring deficit in his attention span, untutored, untraveled, and unversed in the ways of the world, Bush thrived on making a show of his decisiveness," Smith writes.

Bush, Smith argues, embarrassed and frustrated military leaders as president by eschewing the Geneva Conventions. In Iraq, he further torpedoed his own ill-conceived war by abruptly declaring a goal of "democracy" for the Middle Eastern nation during his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.

Pursuing democracy in a war that was already unjustified - remember the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction? - sent then- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into despair. Rumsfeld and the military prepared and conducted the war with the goals of finding WMDs and ousting Saddam Hussein. Attempting to convert Iraq into a democratic state devolved into an expensive, and deadly, disaster. This objective was never discussed during the lead-up to the war.

Bush continued to falsely conflate Saddam's dictatorship with an al Qaeda alliance. And, as Smith makes clear by quoting intelligence reports and experts, the occupation by American troops sowed anger and resentment - and sectarian strife. The tumultuous environment played a role in the eventual emergence of the terrorist group ISIS.

Again and again, Smith portrays Bush as a distracted and impatient leader. ("I don't do nuance," he once said. He was telling the truth.) The president abhorred lengthy meetings, disdained extended analysis, and viewed most issues through a CEO-MBA lens emphasizing punctuality and unyielding decisions at the expense of all else.

The new president met with his National Security Council soon after his inauguration in January 2001 - and not again until after the Sept. 11 attacks. The National Security Council met 22 times before 9/11 without the president in attendance, Smith writes.

He adds that 44 CIA briefs prior to the attacks on New York and Washington mentioned the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack. Still, Bush and his most trusted adviser, Condoleezza Rice, displayed minimal interest despite repeated warnings from the CIA and others during the summer of 2001, as Smith illustrates by drawing on a range of sources.

These circumstances and acts of neglect once again raise questions about the Bush administration's response to signs of an imminent terrorist attack.

Smith's book isn't filled with shocking revelations or gossipy details. …

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