President George W. Bush has been an object of satire, abject ridicule and circuitous analysis. Many of these exertions have really been attempts at wrapping our minds around the president. Many Americans would like to settle on a narrative to explain Bush the man, how he came to make his decisions as president and how he now remains so eerily detached from the problems he has created. A number of explanations have been offered for the numerous outsized errors that Bush and the rest of his administration have committed: Bush is stupid, Bush is controlled by Cheney, Bush is overwhelmed, Bush is incurious, Bush is corrupt, Bush lives in an echo chamber, Bush is wrestling with his father's shadow, Bush is drinking again, Bush's brain has been damaged by drugs, etc. Some well-constructed arguments have been made for some of these conjectures, explanations that seem to satisfy for the duration of the column or article. Indeed, some combinations of them have credence. All the same, despite all the recent interviews, despite all the ink that many of us have spilled on Bush, he remains confounding, bewildering.
Other members of Bush's cabinet, such as Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice, do not as seems as inscrutable. In the twilight of the administration, they, like Bush, continue to offer superficial reflections on their tenure that read like first-draft talking-point memos that were slated for revision. And they, just as much as Bush, seem to look right past dire realities. But unlike Bush, they appear to have arrived at some artifice to justify actions.
Bush is somewhat distinct from the others in this regard. He maintains some level of confounding authenticity. Rather than defensively launch an arsenal of arguments and platitudes, in the style of Rice and Cheney, he seems to be convinced of them, or at least seems to try to believe them. In his book Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, Robert Draper published numerous interviews with Bush, where the president discussed the need to believe:
And part of being a leader is: people watch you. I walk in that hall, I say to those commanders-well, guess what would happen if I walk in and say, ‘Well, maybe it's not worth it.' When I'm out in the public…I fully understand that the enemy watches me, the Iraqis are watching me, the troops watch me, and the people watch me. The other thing is that you can't fake it. You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we'll succeed.
Bush also differs from members of his cabinet in other respects during his public appearances. He seems both there and not there, as if the core Bush is off somewhere else having an out of body experience, whereas both Rice and Cheney are more terrestrial and tangible.
Interestingly, the First Lady is exuding a similar quality in her public appearances. Shortly before the New Year, a televised Laura Bush appeared before the country, seated with the family's two dogs and thanking the American people for giving her and her husband the opportunity to serve them. This message was delivered, of course, while Bush hits historic lows in popularity, the country and world are reeling from the worst financial crisis since World War II and America remains mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Laura's strangely imperial, condescending and dazed appearance was so incongruous to the circumstances of the moment that she seemed to become a caricature of herself.
How we as a nation came to propel the Bush administration to power not once, but twice, will surely be a topic of debate for some time to come. This also goes for how Bush came to make most of his regrettable decisions. And while it may seem insufficient, the country might as well take Bush at his word and examine his parting commentary. Indeed, the erstwhile reticent president who was loath to give press conferences and interviews has been quite voluble of late.
During his last trip to Iraq, shortly after he ducked flying shoes at a press conference, Bush framed the war in Iraq as a battle against al-Qaeda. When his interviewer, Martha Raddatz, pointed out that al-Qaeda did not arrive to Iraq until after the U.S. invasion, Bush did not refute the point. "Yeah, that's right," Bush said. "So what?"
Bush then went on to offer his perception of the sequence that led to and justified the war in Iraq: In the post-9/11 world, Saddam posed a threat, the United States invaded Iraq and al-Qaeda said they were making a stand in Iraq. Now the United States is fighting al-Qaeda and the world is better off without Saddam.
This would be a feasible argument, if only it were true. But the president is conveniently ignoring large swaths of unclassified preinvasion history, such as the fact that Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis were protected from Saddam through an aerial umbrella and Saddam's use of oil proceeds were tightly controlled through the oil-for-food program. Even the faulty U.S. intelligence did not point to an imminent WMD threat from Saddam. In short, Saddam had already been contained.
When ABC's Charles Gibson asked Bush if he had any regrets, the president sidestepped any real mea culpa. "I don't know-the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. . . . And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess." But quite apart from apparently pressuring intelligence officials from producing certain intelligence on Iraq, the administration also dramatically misrepresented even the erroneous intelligence, such as when Bush said, in Cincinnati, Ohio in October 2002: "Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof-the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." Cheney and Rice used almost identical language to raise alarm regarding Iraq's supposed WMDs. But, again, even the faulty U.S. intelligence did not point to a potential Iraqi nuclear capability the way Bush and others graphically suggested.
In his interview with Gibson, Bush also demonstrated how irrational his thinking was on the war. A pull out from Iraq, Bush said, would "have compromised the principle that when you put kids into harm's way, you go in to win…I listened to a lot of voices, but ultimately, I listened to this voice; I'm not going to let your son die in vain; I believe we can win; I'm going to do what it takes to win in Iraq." That reasoning may have prompted Bush to continue sending troops to Iraq and ultimately escalating the U.S. presence there. Rather than worry about troops that were still alive, Bush seemed focused on the honor of the dead. And those logical gyrations could amount to so much personal pride, and a compulsion to avoid being personally blamed for needless deaths. At any rate, Bush decided to double down in Iraq with other people's lives. Bush should have perhaps dusted off his books from his MBA days to review the meaning of a sunk cost, and the perils of throwing more resources in a failing venture in order to try to recover (or redeem) those that have been lost already.
Despite the much-touted tactical success of the surge, it has not brought Iraq any closer to dealing with critical issues, such as how to distribute oil revenue and how much power to devolve to the provinces. Ethnically diverse Kirkuk will not even participate in upcoming elections. And finally, the Iraq War, despite the surge, has substantially bolstered the regional influence of Iran. The invasion of Iraq has depleted U.S. resources, undermined the credibility and leadership of the superpower and exhibited to the world the limits of U.S. power-to say nothing of the impact on the Iraqis themselves. Indeed, Bush cannot identify just what the United States has substantively gained through the Iraqi invasion, other than to talk vaguely about ideals and democracy.
Up to the very end, Bush remains perplexing-from the light, avuncular tone he uses to discuss the war, the financial crisis, etc., to his statement (to Gibson) that one of the things he will miss most is meeting with the families whose son or daughter has been killed in action. Even after examining Bush's reasoning on a number of issues and the influences he was under, it remains difficult to grasp the outgoing president. It may also be that, due to the scale of the problems he leaves the country (and much of the rest of the world), no explanation or insight from Bush can ever satisfy.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.