George W Bush still has three more months in the world’s most powerful job. What is left of his presidency will have all the impact of a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The White House is probably a lonely place. Most of his Texas inner circle have fled Washington. Hollowness pervades his administration. Indian officials who visited his secretary of state and confidante, Condoleezza Rice, were amazed at how the seventh floor of the State Department had emptied out. Every lame duck president experiences this. In Bush’s case it is accentuated by his refusal to anoint a political heir. Many wonder if he doesn’t have regrets.
This is a president who has gone from a 90 per cent approval rating, the highest ever recorded, to 22 per cent, the lowest. However those who have dissected his past say Bush is unlikely to have any regrets. That would not be his style.
As biographer Bill Minutaglio wrote: ‘Bush used to tell anyone he wasn’t into self analysis… friends said he was less than introspective.”
Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says this applies to his foreign policy as well, “He’s not given to regrets or to introspection.” The few concerns he might have would be more about tactics rather than strategy. Says Stanley Renshon of City University of New York and an expert on presidential psychology, “He will have no regrets about going into Iraq. If he has any regrets it will be that he couldn’t get the policy changed in Iraq earlier.”
As Bush told journalist Bob Woodward: “I haven’t suffered any doubts.”
Bush’s critics see a mix of thick skin and thick skull behind this surety. Renshon, a psychoanalyst who has done detailed studies of Bush’s decision-making process, says, “They haven’t done their homework. Only fools think Bush is a fool.”
Bush’s assuredness about his actions comes from the lessons he drew from his own past life — and that of his father, the other President Bush. Oil exploration was his line of work for many years and he lived in the petropolis of Midland, Texas. Oil exploration is a hit-and-miss business, half-instinct-half science, and requires a willingness to take risks. Bush once told a technician: “Let me tell you how you do quantitative analysis. You do all your analysis, you do all your statistics, and then you punch a hole in the ground. And if there’s no oil there, you just lost five million bucks.”
Though he went to East Coast institutions such as Yale, Bush came to dislike their culture. “People there don’t realise that horizons can be broadened.” When he became president, Bush spoke of bringing a ‘Western mentality’ to Washington.
He wasn’t talking Graeco-Roman, he was talking Texan. Bush believes this culture of caution proved to be the undoing of his father. George Bush Senior’s popularity had surged after he liberated Kuwait. But then he had sat on his hands and lost his re-election. ‘For George W. Bush the sin of the father was that he did not use his popularity after the Gulf War for political and policy purposes’, argue John Fortier and Norman Ornstein, political scientists at the American Enterprise Institute. When Bush was re-elected in 2004, he famously said, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style… I’ve earned capital in this election — and I’m going to spend it for what I told the people I’d spend it on.” If one succeeded, one had to push the envelope. Only that would breed further success. The mind of a gambler or the sign of a leader, say the two schools.
Bush was an alcoholic once and overcame his addiction with a religious rebirth. His early life was one of remarkable non-achievement. He blew away this reputation by being elected governor of Texas against an incumbent candidate widely seen as unbeatable.
Before 9/11, Bush argued the US needed to be more ‘humble’. After 9/11, according to Rice, Bush concluded he could not leave the world as he had found it. Says Renshon, “He wanted to rearrange conventional understandings of US national interests. He saw a new world pecking order based on new dangers.”
The losers in this were Europe and Latin America. The gainers were India and even Africa. Schaffer points out that “his policy regarding India was a bet that India would emerge as a major factor in shaping the future of Asia and the world — and would act to reinforce democracy and a liberal model for interaction among nations”.
Renshon is unsurprised Bush defied the general Washington view that India was a marginal player. “He gets no credit for it, but Bush has a talent for out-of-the-box thinking.” Robert Blackwill, Bush’s first ambassador to India, said Bush was initially alone among even his closest advisors to argue for a rethink on India. “The first time he asked, the rest of us told him India didn’t matter.”
Bush did this in other areas too. He asked the simple question as to why the US needed so many nuclear weapons and then ordered a unilateral cut in their numbers.
Bush believes in doing, in radical change and that the way to do it is to push — and push hard. Presidential scholar Charles Jones argues US presidents can be legislative — accommodating and consensual, or executive — commanding and top-driven. He believes, “Bush is among the purest executives to have served in the White House.”
Partly drawn from his observations of his father’s and the Clinton administrations, Bush believes that to get policy enacted the rule of thumb is “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”. Bush believes he should worry only about the big picture, leaving the details to his staff. But once he makes up his mind what the picture is, he is as tenacious as a bulldog in trying to get it on canvas. Whether it is democratising Iraq or getting India into the nuclear club, the pattern is the same.
“Bill Clinton would settle for whatever he could get,” says Renshon. Bush settles for nothing but the whole. This makes Bush a formidable friend. The Indo-US nuclear deal faced endless near death experiences and Bush was often the saviour. The present US ambassador to India, David Mulford, said senior US officials who had opposed the deal “had been warned that they served at the pleasure of the president” — if you don’t like it, resign.
It also makes Bush a formidable enemy. Ask the ghost of Saddam Hussein. “Presidents are blown off course easily. Once Bush came to a conclusion he became set on getting it done. From his own past experience he had realised that getting results meant you had to keep on pushing,” agrees Renshon. An accompaniment to this is an unpresidential dislike for official niceties. One journalist wrote “Bush’s impatience with diplomatic nuance became a running joke at the White House… He’ll say, ‘Was that nuanced enough?’ and then he’ll turn to somebody and say ‘Nuance is a word that we use in foreign policy.’”
Bush doesn’t think the US has much use for Europe other than as a tourist destination, but doesn’t hide this from the
Europeans. Mulford used to say, “Bush wants India to be more important to the US than Europe in 20 years.”
A Texan to the end
Bush’s strength is his perseverance. Some say it is also his weakness. He pursued failed policies in Iraq far too long. Others argue he had no alternative for two years until General David Petraeus came up with “the surge”. Iraq, combined with Hurricane Katrina, put his administration on a downslide from 2005 onwards.
Bush’s second term priorities were actually domestic: social Security and tax reforms. They never got started because of Iraq.
It doesn’t help that Bush’s dislike for formality makes him a poor reader of texts, while his frankness makes him a dangerous extempore policy speaker. He is best when he banters and jokes in Texan slang — a childhood practice learnt to amuse his mother after she slipped into depression on the death of her daughter. No one should fret about Dubya. Even as his presidency enters its twilight, one can be sure he isn’t seeking therapy. Bush is one politician about whom it can be said you get what you see.
Many US commentators point to Harry Truman: seen in his day as a bumpkin, but stubborn once convinced and whose strategic instincts earned him greatness. “Bush believes time will eventually vindicate him, that a stable and largely democratic Iraq will arise because of the overthrow of Saddam,” says Renshon.
Time will also show what seeds he has sown between India and the US. Bush thinks he’ll be proven right on all these things 50 years hence, feels Schaffer. Bush says he doesn’t want to pursue a career or a charity after he leaves the White House. Come January, Bush will quietly retire to his Texas ranch and wait for the verdict of history.