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Book Review Decision Points George W.

Bush Crown Publishers, 2010 An autobiographical narrative such as this one has several faces. Many readers, especially those who liked and admired George W. Bush as president, will find this book enjoyable as a personalized, selfdeprecating, often humorous account of how Bush faced several of the major turning-points in his life and presidency. Those same readers, and others besides, will read it for its historical content, realizing that any memoir by a former president is itself a document that will be part of the historic record. Beyond that, any memoir, and in particular one that was actually written by the person himself, can be read for what it tells about the mindscape that informs the author. The choice of words, the arguments used, the inclusions and exclusions ± all of these and more reveal the worldview of whoever writes autobiographically. That is certainly true here of George W. Bush. Decision Points is not primarily a chronological account, although the subjects Bush discusses did occur in sequence. The focus is on several of his majorseveral of his major decisions, with a chapter devoted to each. The first chapter centers on his quitting alcohol in 1986 at age forty, but also looks back to his education, military service, beginning business ventures, marriage to Laura, their having their twin daughters, and his coming to embrace Christianity. The second tells of his running for office, including the governorship of Texas and the presidency. The remaining twelve chapters have to do with issues he considers pivotal to his administration. These include his personnel decisions, his position on stem cell research, the trauma of 9/11, the lead-up to war, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, his leadership on the ³No Child Left Behind´ educational program and on faith-based initiatives, the response to Katrina, his administration¶s fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa, the ³Surge´ in Iraq, his worldwide ³freedom agenda,´ and finally the financial crisis. Each of these is worth exploring at length. An example would be his defense of ³waterboarding,´ a technique of simulated drowning, as a part of the CIA¶s interrogation of terrorist suspects. He says the administration¶s lawyers advised him that the technique was lawful, and, though harsh, was not a form of torture. The Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah had ³explained to interrogators why he started answering questions again. His understanding of Islam was that he had to resist interrogation only up to a certain point. Waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold, fulfill his religious duty, and then cooperate.´ In all, Bush says, only three of the thousands of captured terrorists were waterboarded; but even this small number produced enough information to save lives. Supportive readers will be especially interested in what Bush recalls about the attack that was made on his record as a Texas Air National Guard fighter pilot back in 1972. During Bush¶s 2004 presidential reelection campaign, ³a typewritten memo on National Guard stationery [surfaced] alleging that I had not performed up to standards« signed by my old commander.´ It turned out that the document had been forged: ³the typeface came from a modern computer font that didn¶t exist in the early 1970s.´ One of the country¶s most prominent television commentators, Dan Rather, ³aired a report influencing a presidential election based on a fake document. Before long, he was out of a job. So was his producer.´ What interests us most in this review, however, is what Decision Points reveals about the content of George W. Bush¶s mind. What are his convictions and mental characteristics? He is so congenial and likeable in this book that this reviewer is reluctant to find what he must: that the stereotype of Bush as lacking depth a ³simpleton´ has not been an unjustified invention of malicious opponents, but rather finds support in much that he writes. This is a superficiality that unfortunately is not his alone, since he is a creature of his time. In matters of religion, he stands on the religious side of the great secular/religious

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divide that is one of the major fault-lines within the modern world. When he says ³in the end, whether you believe or don¶t believe, your position is based on faith,´ he aligns himself with millions of his fellows, but runs counter to the evidence-centered rationalism that has been so basic to intellectual advances in recent centuries. On most things, else, Bush is representative of the ³conventional wisdom´ shared by the broad college-educated (i.e., semi-educated, since most American college graduates rarely read a serious book), professional, business and academic ³elite´ that actually governs American society, establishing which opinions are respectable and which are taboo, and managing to prevail on almost all issues over what is often overwhelming public opinion. This large corpus is not itself ³of the left´ (as academic leftists will be anxious to confirm), but must certainly be considered ³center left,´ since most of its attitudes are formed from the perceptions and mythologies that have permeated the American mind for, lo, these many decades. This orientation with the elite does not apply to In matters of religion, where Bushhe stands on the religious side of the great secular/religious divide that is one of the major fault-lines within the modern world. When he says ³in the end, whether you believe or don¶t believe, your position is based on faith,´ he aligns himself with millions of his fellows, but runs counter to the evidence-centered rationalism that has been so basic to the intellectual culture of advances in recent centuries. Certain of Bush¶s convictions ± ³free market, lower taxes, eliminating barriers to trade, and government respect for its constitutional limits´ ± would seem to put him on the right side of the ideological spectrum. make him a conservative, if that were any longer a coherent term in the United States. To realize their real import, however, it is necessary to place them in the context of the sort of free trade, polarized-wealth capitalism that has come to prevail in recent decades, itself a parody of the capitalism that created an industrial dynamo and history¶s largest middle class. It is a system that does little to ³conserve´ the America of even a few years ago. The ³free market´ has become one full of cronyism, self-serving excesses and breach of stewardship, as we have seen before and during the financial crisis; the ³lower taxes´ is fully in line with the concentration of wealth in the top percentiles; the ³open trade´ has hollowed out American manufacturing and led to an astronomical trade deficit; and the ³constitutional limits´ mean something different to Bush than they have to Americans ³conservatives´ over the years. The American Right, The latter, for example, long eschewed any federal involvement in education, considering it entirely within the province of state and local governments, whereas Bush made his ³No Child Left Behind´ oversight of school performance a centerpiece of his domestic policy. And the PATRIOT Act, with its warrantless surveillance, seemed essential as something analogous to an old Roman ³dictator for a year´ measure in the wake of 9/11, but the key to making it compatible with American liberties was to make it short-term; when the United States launched into wars of many years¶ duration and has taken on enemies all over the world as it has pursued an ideology of world reformation, the emergency has become long-term. This raises a serious conundrum for those who care about ³constitutional limits.´ It is not surprising that Bush stands behind a set of values even though today¶s realities so radically alter their consequences in fact. He is just one of millions of people who maintain their loyalties to old verities without realizing that when the context changes there needs to be a rethinking of how best to accomplish the original objectives. We customarily think of loyalty as a virtue, which justifies us in seeing the persistence of those earlier loyalties with some empathy. What stands out most about Decision Points Points, though, is its mixture of sincere good feeling, often amounting (to a critical eye) to a moralism, feel-good sentimentality ;, superficial knowledge, the blanking out of many realities, shallow thinking, inconsistencies and double standards ± all, of course, amiably presented in an amiable, readable narrative. Nowhere does this show up more apparently than in Bush¶s Manichaeanism and enthusiasm for a messianic remaking of the world. One might ask whether Is there is anything more sophomoric than his statement, in his post-9/11 speech at the National Cathedral, that ³our responsibility to history is already clear: to« rid the world of evil´? This declaration is astonishing in its breadth. It goes well beyond Woodrow Wilson¶s aspiration ³to make the world safe for

democracy,´ since it isn¶t just protecting democracy that Bush seeks, but a universal extension of it. Nor is it just democracy that he wants; it is a worldwide elimination of misery, which he puts in the context of rationalizes by a limitless extension of America¶s security needs: ³Our national security was tied directly to human suffering. Societies mired in poverty and disease foster hopelessness. And hopelessness leaves people ripe for recruitment by terrorists and extremists.´ To this is to be added his championing of ³women¶s rights´ in all cultures. The upshot is that ³everybody¶s business is our business,´ with little respect for other nations¶ sovereignty or for their people¶s right to be self-determining. Good intention overrides all else. For those who think only through their emotions, this is enough. All of this places Bush comfortably within the ethos of the international scene¶s cosmopolitan elite. At the same time, it makes the United States the instigator of and protagonist in the ³clash of civilizations´ about which Samuel Huntington has written so insightfully. From the point of view of those who are devoted to other cultures, with their diverse ways of life and of seeing the world, this puts the United States into a role distressingly similar to the world-challenging Communist ideology against which the United States fought so hard for so many decades. (This is one of the reasons that the ³neoconservative´ expression of the world-refashioning ideology has been characterized as ³neo-Trotskyite.´) The idea that the United States is going to remake the world in its own image is apparently acceptable to those who presume a ³moral superiority´ over the other cultures, but there is little reason to suppose that that presumption will be anything other than repugnant to peoples who love their own religions and mores. Michael Scheuer has argued that it is both presumptuous and dangerous for the United States to cast itself in such a role. The presumptuousness comes from a profound ignorance of the complexities of the world, mixed with an overweening hubris. The dangers are apparent, since a crusader nation makes an ³extremist´ of all those who will stand militantly in their own defense. It should be unnecessary to add that an eradication of misery, evil and unequal sexual relationships, however beneficent in intention, is far beyond the means of the United States, even in good times. An assumption behind the global crusade is that such means are infinite. Much of Bush¶s discussion is put in terms of ³moral responsibility.´ It wouldn¶t seem that Whether he has a consistent theory about that responsibility is, however, doubtful. What is the principled source of his feeling, say, that the United States has a ³moral responsibility« to relieve poverty and despair´ in Africa? When he makes it a duty of the country acting through its government, he is saying that it is all right, even imperative, to take money through taxation from Americans and their families that would otherwise go toward those people¶s needs and wants. And has he taken the responsibility of Africans to tend to their own lives into account? Or the matter of immense population growth as the Third World carries the world to a projected nine billion people? If Bush considers these things, it isn¶t apparent. His imputation of responsibility seems entirely a matter of feeling good about something. In aA well-thought-out outlook on morality , one would maintain expect a certain consistency. He premised his opposition to stem cell research on frozen embryos as being a ³defense of human dignity.´ It is apparent that he was He must have been applying a per se rule in saying this, because a prudential weighing of factors in arriving at his moral position would have argued strongly that human dignity might well be better served by medical research that could alleviate the misery and death caused by a variety of diseases. Those diseases often leave little room for ³human dignity.´ In other contexts, however, Bush does not apply a per se rule, but instead does consider competing outcomes. In the wake of 9/11, he authorized the shooting down of hijacked commercial aircraft despite what that meant to the innocent passengers aboard those planes. ³Despite the agonizing costs, taking one out could save countless lives on the ground.´ This conclusion seems justifiable, but its moral methodology is the diametric opposite of his thinking on stem cell research. He does have a rationale for the double standard he applies to Israel and its neighbors with regard to such things as the possession of nuclear weapons, the defying of United Nations resolutions, and the use of violent reprisal. The rationale is that there is not ³moral equivalence´ between them. ³I refused to accept the moral equivalence between Palestinian suicide attacks on innocent civilians and Israeli military

actions intended to protect their people.´ Instead of being accepted at face value, however, the idea of moral non-equivalence needs to be given serious thought. It is a valid concept in certain connections, such as when it was argued that there was not a moral equivalence between the ³free world´ and Communist totalitarianism, which had overseen the murder of tens of millions. Does this mean that the idea is valid between Israel and the Palestinians? We will leave it to each reader to reach his own conclusion after mentally reviewing the history of their relationship. Sometimes, Bush¶s moral rationale shows a non-introspective disregard of contempt for democratic process. He explains that ³I proposed the AIDS initiative [for Africa] to save lives,´ and goes on to say that ³Only a few people knew about the plan. I instructed the team to keep it that way. If word leaked out,« members of Congress would be tempted to dilute the program¶s focus by redirecting funds for their own purposes.´ That those members of Congress had been elected by the people in their districts as part of America¶s representative democracy seems to have escaped him. All of this vitiates his moral sense, but the effect on his moral positions is only a part of the his overall superficiality, use of double standards, and ignoring of inconvenient realities. The notes this reviewer took from the book are replete with these. One of them, for example, points to the non sequitur involved in jumping from the premise that there was ³a need to remove al Qaeda¶s safe haven in Afghanistan´ to the conclusion that there should be a years-long war to ³liberate Afghanistan´ from the Taliban (who are by no means synonymous with al Qaeda). We could continue with many other instances, but it would be tedious to rehearse them all here. The criticisms made in this review notwithstanding, readers will find Decision Points informative in several connections. We are astounded when Bush tells us how, soon after 9/11, ³bio-detectors went off at the White House. They found traces of botulinum toxin« one of the world¶s most poisonous substances.´ For twenty-four hours, Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and all others who had been in the White House contemplated their deaths as the FBI ran tests on mice. It proved to be a false alarm, and it¶s surprising that Bush doesn¶t go on to give any attention to the immense security vulnerability the episode revealed. Any thought to that should also have pondered the foolhardiness of having gathered so many luminaries ± ³almost every member of Congress, the whole Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the justices of the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps´ and all living former presidents ± at the National Cathedral, where they could all have died together from botulinum poisoning or otherwise, three days after 9/11. There has been a serious, and by no means a quack, literature questioning the official explanation of the 9/11 attacks, and this egregious demonstration that there was no sense of continuing danger is something that should be added to the grounds for doubt. (Decision Points doesn¶t give even passing recognition to that literature, and most of the book¶s content is premised on the validity of the official account. The 9/11 skeptics will need to keep that in mind as they read the book.) The book has a lighter side found in its sometimes-risque humor. He tells how as a young man he shocked his family at a dinner party by ³turning to a beautiful friend of Mother and Dad¶s and asking a boozy question: µSo, what is sex like after fifty?¶´ Bush recalls that ³years later, when I turned fifty, the good-natured woman sent a note to the Texas Governor¶s Mansion: µWell, George, how is it?¶´ Decision Points is a good read, albeit readers will be well advised not totally to ³suspend their disbelief,´ as they say in the theatre. Dwight D. Murphey

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