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Confessions of the cowboy prez

Unlike his immediate predecessor and successor, George W Bush was a 'what you see is what you get' president. He had little time for hidden layers, subtexts and designer obfuscation, writes Ashok Malik.

books Updated: Dec 10, 2010 23:03 IST
Ashok Malik
Ashok Malik
Hindustan Times

Unlike his immediate predecessor and successor, George W Bush was a 'what you see is what you get' president. He had little time for hidden layers, subtexts and designer obfuscation. He made a virtue of plain-speaking; though the Bush family has its origins in the patrician upper reaches of the East Coast, he successfully presented himself as a roll-up-your- sleeves Middle American. That was not a marketing gimmick. As this book reveals, it is very much Bush's self-identity.

True to type, Bush has structured his book unconventionally. He does talk of his life, his family and children and his relationship with God. Yet, the framework is not chronological but thematic. Bush focuses on key decisions he took in his presidency and explains why he took them and why he felt (and feels) on the basis of available evidence, no other course was probably possible.

This is most true for his decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein: "I had been receiving intelligence briefings on Iraq for nearly two years. The conclusion that Saddam had WMD was nearly a universal consensus. My predecessor believed it. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill believed it. Intelligence agencies in Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, China and Egypt believed it. As the German ambassador to the United States, not a supporter of war, later put, it 'I think all of our governments believe that Iraq had produced weapons of mass destruction and that we have to assume that they still have … weapons of mass destruction' … In retrospect of course we all should have pushed harder on the intelligence and revisited our assumptions. But at that time, the evidence and the logic pointed in the other direction."

The context is also important. After 9/11, as the book suggests, the US security establishment was gripped by a fear psychosis and clearly overestimated the Saddam threat. Bush's point is any president in his place would have taken the same call.

Bush has clear views on wartime leadership. Recalling the summer of 2006, with Iraq's insurgency claiming hundreds of lives, he writes: "I made a conscious decision to show resolve, not doubt, in public … The Iraqis needed to know we would not abandon them. Our enemies needed to know we were determined to defeat them. Most of all, I thought about our troops … The last thing they needed to hear was the commander-in-chief whining about how conflicted he felt."

This offers a window to Bush's relationship with his generals. In 2006 he tells them: "I share your concern about breaking the military. The surest way to break the military would be to lose Iraq." Instead, he offers strategic clarity and defies political opposition to a war he believes has to be won. The result: the troop surge of 2007 and the reclaiming of the Iraqi heartland.

In his pursuit of Saddam — or promotion of democracy or financing of an extensive HIV/AIDS control programme in Africa, a key element of his legacy — Bush comes across as very much a conviction president. His mandate "was to lead the public, not chase the opinion polls". As such he believes history will redeem him "as a president who recognised the central challenge of our time". Amen.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer.

First Published: Dec 10, 2010 22:59 IST