BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Win the war, lose the peace
, February 25, 2017
DAYS OF FIRE: Bush and Cheney in the White House
by Peter Baker
Penguin Random House, NY
Paperback: 832 pages
Price: AUD $35.95
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Up until the age of 40, when he gave up drinking, George W. Bush was what we would call a no-hoper. He traded on his father’s name to establish a number of oil exploration companies, which were notable for the fact that that they never struck payable oil. He was bought out by more successful oil explorers for generous sums, then offered a seat on the board at a very satisfactory fee. His family was from the northeast of the United States. He was, at best, an adopted Texan.
He struck a gusher when he put together a consortium to take over the Texas Rangers, a baseball team that had fallen on hard times and, aided by some favourable rezoning, he made a considerable profit. From there he moved on to be governor of Texas. The main requirement of this office is that the incumbent does very little. Texans don’t like big government.
Bush did, however, form an alliance to advance his social agenda with the Democrats. When he took power in Washington as President of the United States, he called this approach “compassionate conservatism”. His alliance with Senator Ted Kennedy, the left-liberal opinion leader, did produce some worthwhile reforms in education, but it mainly illustrated the depths of Bush’s naivety.
This book is a narrative history. It will be decades, if not centuries, before the involvement of the United States in the Middle East’s wars is judged to be beneficial, if it ever is. As far as the Second Iraq War is concerned, Bush had virtually no idea of the religious dimensions of the conflict. The failure to find any WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) was embarrassing, to say the least. The U.S. went to war to destroy Saddam Hussein’s WMDs and found none.
The only person to emerge with any credit was warrior statesman, guardian of the Fulda Gap, Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In Iraq, Bush’s last throw of the dice, the surge of troops, worked. Peace was – almost – achieved. Iraqi refugees talk of a time of peace and freedom. But when Nouri al-Maliki got his hands on the machinery of government, the framework of civilised governance collapsed. Could the U.S. have prolonged its occupation of Iraq against Iraqi wishes? Let’s just say the U.S. Congress didn’t try very hard.
In the early days of his administration, Bush relied very heavily on Dick Cheney, a more experienced man. Bush, however, had to cope with a string of disasters – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the home-loan market. Cheney was a “crash through or crash” type. He was also prone to heart attacks. After he left office, Cheney had a heart transplant. Cheney rose from being a linesman for the county to the second highest office in the United States.
This book is fascinating reading. Many would regard George W. Bush as the worst president in living memory. His behaviour in response to Hurricane Katrina was at best ill judged and at worst callous. It can’t have escaped notice that New Orleans is an African-American city where poverty is endemic. As for the Second Iraq War, Bush chose force over diplomacy. He seemed to have a fixation that Saddam Hussein attempted to kill his “Daddy”. In contrast to his son, President George H.W. Bush was a diplomat, who built a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
Bush’s mission to spread “freedom” was the progenitor of the Arab Spring, a series of disasters that are still being played out. The Americans have never placed great faith in diplomacy, relying instead on military firepower.
The author proposes that George W. Bush will be redeemed by history. He cites Harry Truman, among others, who showed courage and vision that was recognised only later in the life of the American Republic. The accidents of Bush’s incumbency would have tested even the greatest of leaders.
We can at least say that Bush did not collapse under pressure. He was not entirely without ability. His handling of Vladimir Putin proves that. He could look into those cold KGB killer eyes and not flinch.
This book is well worth reading. It is well researched and even handed. Did it make me like George W. Bush? Yes, he’s the sort of “hail, fellow, well met” man who you would like to have as president of your football club. People should know their limitations. Despite his illustrious family tree, he didn’t have the ability to be president.
George W. Bush will go down as one of the worst presidents ever. He started a war on false pretences that killed 4,000 of his countrymen and plunged the Middle East into chaos. May we be saved from trigger-happy pseudo-Texans.