This would be less grim to talk about if Bush weren't still with us. But he is, in every way that matters. The Bush Doctrine lives. No leading American politician can disavow the two key aspects of the Bush Doctrine: that we cannot distinguish terrorists from the countries where they live, and that we must act preemptively against gathering threats before they materialize (propositions contradicting international law). Bush's memoir is arguably the most important book of the year because it reveals -- far better than do books by Charlie Savage, Isikoff and Corn, or Bob Woodward -- how he fundamentally reconceptualized the functions of the presidency, the balance of power among the branches of government, and the expectations and obligations of citizens, with lasting effects.
Reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times treat Bush respectfully -- much as a Machiavellian prince would desire to be treated after going into retirement; too often reviewers play Bush's game by humanizing him, or treating him with humor, or safely relegating him to history. But Bush truly was a transformative president, among the rare few, and we deceive ourselves -- as many in the commentariat continue to do, as with Maureen Dowd's light-hearted mockery of him -- if we consider him an anomaly, a rare eruption of a v irus that won't repeat itself. This book's ideas will have resonance with a large segment of the population, and a notable number among the elites; we need to study Decision Points (Crown, Nov. 9) seriously, as onerous a task as it may be, if we are to make sense of the perpetual aura of crisis that has enveloped America, and why we seem to be stuck on a self-destructive path.
Decision Points is a classic recipe for a benign dictatorship, a uniquely American form of dictatorship, to be sure -- from its rigid understanding of morality (good versus evil) to its distorted valuation of life (only American lives matter; Bush is not concerned about the loss of civilian life in the countries he attacked) -- that gives comfort to many in a time of economic and cultural stress.
The beauty of the Bush philosophy of governance is that it creates and accelerates those very conditions of stress (radical economic inequality promoted by tax cuts for the wealthy and concomitant cuts in public services for the less well-off) that then provide fertile ground for popular acceptance of measures intended to further worsen conditions for the subject class. An example would be to purposely inflate the housing bubble and then use the succeeding bailout to further enrich the wealthy elites at the cost of the average worker. Or to execute a reckless Medicare drug expansion plan, catering to pharmaceutical companies and knowing it would lead to insolvency, to set the stage for drastic future cuts in Medicare -- and other entitlements, while they're at it. The same principle applies in foreign policy, such as in retreating from Bill Clinton's tentative rapprochement with Iran and North Korea as Bush's first order of business, demonizing these countries as evil, and then setting in motion offensive strategies once those countries predictably react. The principle is evident in attacking and occupying Middle Eastern countries, then justifying the war on terror by pointing to the increased radicalization ensuing from the invasion.
Decision Points reveals the blend of personalities within Bush that makes for a rather unique combination, a big reason for his enormous impact. The faux Western/cowboy personality (derived from Reagan, but extending much farther in Bush's case, setting up West Texas's American virtues against the corruption of the East Coast elites) is his persona of choice, along with high doses of the decisive commander-in-chief (he relishes this role, and there is something for psychologists to ponder with regard to his avoidance of active military duty and his great passion for relating to soldiers and their devastated families as protector and comforter). Another favorite persona is the perpetual crisis manager; he reveals that his favorite question to world leaders was: "What keeps you up at night?"
Other elements of his personality contribute to the anti-intellectual populist appeal: he struggled with drinking and will be open and honest about it, like anyone else bent on self-improvement; he doesn't ever question the foundations of religion, it's enough that Billy Graham takes him aside one day and asks him if he's "right with God"; and he reduces the honor and dignity of the presidency to not having affairs with interns, rather than anything involving public policy.
He makes every decision by the gut, and is keen to inform us that he usually goes for the most aggressive of the three options (they're always three) presented to him, because he's convinced of the morality of his fight for good versus evil:
"After 9/11, I decided to employ the most aggressive of the three options General Shelton had laid out [for Afghanistan].... This time we would put boots on the ground, and keep them there until the Taliban and al-Qaeda were driven out and a free society could emerge."It's also very clear from this book that Bush was definitely heading down the path of military action against Iran, until he was thwarted by the NIE report asserting that Iran had dismantled its nuclear weapons program:
"But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"He sure lets on his hankering for it.
All of these constituent personas make for an imitable template of the populist-authoritarian president, with the added charm, in Bush's case, of having had to transcend his patrician upbringing (a more patrician background is hardly imaginable) by self-creating the instinctive/demagogic character to which, he thinks, the military in particular responds ecstatically -- especially when he's sending them off to die in large numbers.
Actions ought to be judged not by results, but by intentions (a religious value); and since intentions, in the case of the chosen elite, are opaque, they ought not to be explored too deeply. This point is emphasized by Bush's accounts of his father always offering "unconditional love" toward his son, whether it's after he pours "vodka in the fishbowl and...[kills his] little sister Doro's goldfish," or whether it's after he can't find the WMD in Iraq or the war is spiraling out of control. On the eve of the Iraq war, the father comforts the son: "You are doing the right thing.... You made...[the decision] with strength and compassion.... 'I love you more than tongue can tell.'" Generally, we think of the deity as issuing unconditional love; clearly, Bush's expectation is that the populace (like his father) should grant him unconditional love, because he wants to protect us.
How much does Bush believe what he says in Decision Points? At one level, everything. One cannot merely put on an act beyond a certain point, and the conviction -- to go to war without justification, or to decide to torture prisoners -- must be palpable for policies to stick among subordinates. At another level, nothing. How can he possibly believe any of his justifications? Surely, he's trying to get ahead of historians, despite his persistent dismissal of historians as a class:
"If they're still assessing George Washington's legacy more than two centuries after he left office, this George W. doesn't have to worry about today's headlines."
This book should revive the discussion of the influence of neoconservative Straussians (Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol) that was dominant around the time of the start of the Iraq War: is there a higher truth for the elite and a more accessible one for the masses? The Straussians, to simplify, hold among other things that religion is an instrument to organize the masses around unity of national purpose, whose final aims can only be known to the real elite. There is much in Decision Points to hint that for Bush, Christianity is just such a necessary Straussian (or Machiavellian) tool; one doesn't detect in the book the religious zeal of a passionate convert, and the Christian morality is applied too selectively (to unborn children, or frozen embryos dedicated to stem cell research, rather than the actual living) and infrequently.
Another way to look at the book -- and this only enhances the Straussian reading -- is as a peek into the mind of Big Brother himself; the Orwellian subtext is pervasive throughout the book. Bush is still dead certain of the rightness of all his major decisions, and his concern is often with presentation, how he ignored some basic public relations dynamic that he ought to have grasped. Decision Points is rife with these propaganda principles: address the public at the simplest possible level; repeat a few basic phrases until they become the truth; never show weakness and deal with opponents ruthlessly; direct popular anger toward subversives (those who don't grasp the struggle of good versus evil); connect with the people always at an emotional, not rational, level; reduce language to its basic syntax, fracture it, reorganize it in chaotic/fractal terms so it becomes immune to logical analysis; preempt opposition, value secrecy for its own sake, take aggrievement of the privileged to unprecedented levels.
The chief executive/commander-in-chief need not have a complex emotional life to explicate. This has always been Bush's modus operandi: act as if the surface is all that matters, as if probing the deep waters of one's own psychology serves no purpose. It's yet another mockery of the East Coast elite, who presumably have deep inner lives, subject to discussion. Thus Bush takes us through his early life rather quickly, in one chapter. He always had a great relationship with his father; there is no question of competition with him. He takes his privileged education for granted and so should we:
"As the days at Andover wound down, it came time to apply for college. My first thought was Yale. After all, I was born there. One time-consuming part of the application was filling out the blue card that asked you to list relatives who were alumni. There was my grandfather and my dad. And all his brothers. And my first cousins. I had to write the names of the second cousins on the back of the card."
His network of patronage needs no commentary. He brazenly elides over the question of going AWOL during his Texas Air National Guard service: "When I entered politics, opponents used the gaps in the system to claim I had not fulfilled my duty. In the late 1990s, I asked a trusted aide, Dan Bartlett, to dig through my records. They showed that I had fulfilled my responsibilities." What he tells us about the lost decade -- of booze and drugs in Houston -- after graduation from college is that he was determined not to settle down: "I had pledged that I would spend my first ten years after college experiencing a lot and not getting tied down." How he got the cozy deal with Harken Energy, bailing him out of his business losses, and the deal for the Rangers' stadium ("we designed a public-private financing system to fund the construction of a new stadium"), are not things we need to understand in detail.
Decision Points should revive interest in psychoanalyzing Bush's character, as inevitably any dominant ruler who has acquired a messiah complex must be analyzed; this felt like a luxury during the Bush years, when psychoanalysis of him almost seemed to legitimize his wars and brutal divisions, but this is no longer the case. At every step, the son seems to want to outdo the father, and does it by way of truly psychopathic belief in his own entitlement. He is uniquely prepared, as the son of a president and the grandson of a Senator, with an unassailable family, to lead the country in the fight against good versus evil. He felt a "calling" to run for president. Any doubt about this was clarified in church one day, as pastor Mark Craig of Dallas spoke of God's call to Moses to deliver the Israelites, Moses's skepticism, God's reassurance, and Mark Craig's declaration that "the country was starving for moral and ethical leadership." His mother tells Bush, "He is talking to you." We ought to forgive the prince his indiscretions; he has redeemed himself manifold by answering the call to serve the nation, by embodying its highest principles and values.
The psychoanalytic impulse, however, remains risky, because it personalizes Bush and his violations of domestic and international law, when our concern ought to be with the institutional basis for potential future violation. Another authoritarian -- someone on the order of Sarah Palin -- will have different distinguishing features; this kind of analysis ought to clarify, not distract from, the structural problems.