There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back. The decision to go to war “was an accretion,” Richard Haass, the director of policy-planning at the State Department until the invasion of Iraq, told me. “A decision was not made—a decision happened, and you can’t say when or how.”
Here is another feature of the non-decision: once his own belief became known to him, Bush immediately caricatured opposing views and impugned the motives of those who held them. If there was an honest and legitimate argument on the other side, then the President would have to defend his non-decision, taking it out of the redoubt of personal belief and into the messy empirical realm of contingency and uncertainty. So critics of his stem-cell ban are dismissed as scientists eager for more government cash, or advocacy groups looking to “raise large amounts of money,” or Democrats who saw “a political winner.”
On the policy of torturing captured Al Qaeda suspects, Bush writes that he refused to approve two techniques requested by the Central Intelligence Agency but gave the O.K. to waterboarding. George Tenet, the C.I.A. director, asked permission to use waterboarding on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind behind September 11th. “I thought about my meeting with Danny Pearl’s widow, who was pregnant with his son when he was murdered,” Bush writes. (Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, was reportedly beheaded by K.S.M.) “I thought about the 2,973 people stolen from their families by al Qaeda on 9/11. And I thought about my duty to protect the country from another act of terror. ‘Damn right,’ I said.” By Bush’s own account, revenge was among his chief motives in sanctioning torture. “I had asked the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government to review the interrogation methods, and they had assured me they did not constitute torture.” The President had been told what he wanted to hear by loyal subordinates, but, his memoirs make clear, he did not consider the moral and practical consequences of authorizing what most people who were not senior legal officers in the Bush Administration would describe as torture. One crucial consequence—the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib—receives a single page (most of which is about Bush’s reasons for not firing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
“George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream,” a new study by Dan P. McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern (Oxford; $29.95), argues that September 11th offered a geopolitical version of what the personal conversion experience had given Bush: a story of redemption and mission—in this case, one that could be extended to the country and the world. Nine days after the “day of fire,” Bush addressed a joint session of Congress: “In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. . . . We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” McAdams traces Bush’s resolve over the Iraq war to this “redemptive dream”: “Psychological research shows that powerful narratives in people’s lives make it nearly impossible, in many cases, to consider ideas, opinions, possibilities, and facts that run counter to the story.” By this interpretation, 9/11 shut and sealed the door to Presidential decision-making. Bush’s account of the most consequential episode of his Presidency, the war in Iraq, does not undermine the hypothesis.
“I had tried to address the threat from Saddam Hussein without war,” Bush writes. The accounts of numerous Administration officials and journalists say otherwise: by the summer of 2002, war in Iraq was inevitable. The timing and the manner of this non-decision decision make for the cloudiest story in the book.
Bush ends “Decision Points” with the sanguine thought that history’s verdict on his Presidency will come only after his death. During his years in office, two wars turned into needless disasters, and the freedom agenda created such deep cynicism around the world that the word itself was spoiled. In America, the gap between the rich few and the vast majority widened dramatically, contributing to a historic financial crisis and an ongoing recession; the poisoning of the atmosphere continued unabated; and the Constitution had less and less say over the exercise of executive power. Whatever the judgments of historians, these will remain foregone conclusions
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