George W Bush: Decisions Points

Decision Points is an anthology of 14 essays discussing each of the most consequential and contentious decisions of Bush’s life. It’s difficult to view this book as anything else. There is no doubt in my mind that George W. Bush wrote this; and I would be supremely surprised if there was a ghostwriter.  If the book is read with the probability that each section was written independently of the last, then the book appears to be more polished than it is as a whole. Each chapter is its own essay, and each essay deserves its own discussion, otherwise the book would be reviewed as a stream of contradictions when discussing personnel and his decision-making skills.  (disclaimer: this is a long review)

One of Bush’s stated goals for this book is very important to how the book is read.  He says, “I write to give readers a perspective on decision making in a complex environment.  Many of the decisions that reach the President’s desk are tough calls, with strong arguments on both sides. Through the book, I describe the options I weighed and the principles I followed. I hope this will give you a better sense of why I made the decisions I did.” This statement is the basis for my review.

In short, for this reader, Bush fell short of the second goal.  The only section that showed me the way he weighed his options was the chapter on Stem Cell Research (Chapter 4) and possibly the chapter on Personnel (Chapter 3).  The first two chapters are anecdotal and a basic review of Bush’s personal history; the third chapter is a justification for how he hires personnel and what he uses as a basis for appointing personnel to different positions; and most of the last ten chapters are more justification for what decisions he made — rather than a proof positive of how he made those decisions. In complete fairness, I believe he probably couldn’t have talked as in-depth about some of these decisions as he could stem cell research without revealing classified information.

Many of the anecdotes and stories in Chapters 1 and 2 do little to move the book forward and less to help the reader understand how and why he made his decisions.  There is a great deal of fond memories and rambling in these chapters and they jump around from topic to topic without good segues.  In fairness, I believe there is probably a method to his choppy prose, but mostly I’m not sure the book reads the way Bush intended.

Of interest in Chapter 2 is GW’s suggestion that Bush, Sr. put Dick Cheney on the ticket as Vice President.  At this point in Cheney’s career, he was the Secretary of Defense and had led the military in Panama and the Gulf War.  Interestingly, the only reaction as written by GW is “Dad said, no.” GW shares several conversations he had with his dad throughout the book, but this gets a three-word sentence.  One can’t help but wonder why that is.

Any astute reader at this point should recognize that this is the beginning of not telling the whole story.  Throughout the rest of the book, it’s very hard not to get consumed by the question – what isn’t being said?

Chapter 3, titled Personnel, and was one of the most interesting sections for this reader. Except for the odd segue into the purchase of Prairie Chapel Ranch, Bush spends a great deal of time talking about the good traits of the people who he appointed to different positions at one time or another.  The only negative traits you will find are of his opponents and he’s border line passive aggressive in his remarks.  This is something that will continue throughout the book, with the exception of Tom Ridge during his discussion of Homeland Security further in the book.  He discusses none of Ridge’s traits, good or bad.  This appears to be contradictory to his discussions of how he made personnel decisions based on their personality traits. One could say it was an oversight; however, Ridge is the only one he gives passing reference to.

This section also begins to show some stark contradictions in what he believes to be his strength – decision making – and the reality that he didn’t think things through to the end.  On one hand, Bush didn’t want to make policy based on polling.  One gets a sense that public opinion and perception was not his guiding decision-making tactic.  However, when he’s discussing his decision to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, he says, “… I didn’t think enough about how the selection would be perceived by others.”

Hindsight is 20/20, though, and because we are reading this book two years after his Presidency, it’s easy to see the results of his decisions. The above admission is the first of its kind in the book. There is an admission earlier that some of his personnel choices were good, some bad, and some never should have been made.  But this one is different.  This is not an admission that he made mistakes, this is an admission that he didn’t think things through.

The most difficult thing about reading this book is remembering that Bush is writing about decision making in a complex environment.  If one is looking for insightful reflections on the aftermath of these decisions, the reader will be sadly disappointed.  There are neat little tidbits throughout that anchor themselves in your subconscious and make it hard to not assess the rest of the book with the admission that he didn’t think things through.

It also appears that the only decision that worked out the way he wanted is the decision on Stem Cell Research — to limit from where stem cells could be harvested. The Iraq war chapter shows a lack of thinking everything through – its one thing to think you can accomplish the goal of knocking off a target with the lowest number of troops possible.  It is another to think nation-building and stabilizing the government could be done with this same small number of troops.

Most of this book is a GW’s defense of his own decision-making abilities and management skills.  If you remove the anecdotes and quips about people’s personalities, and instead approach the writing as a third-person discussion about the decision making, then you’d have a book written by a presidential candidate, published prior to the campaign.  I thought several times of John McCain’s and Mark Salter’s Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions.  The difference is McCain’s book is more thought out and Bush’s Decision Points is a celebration of the good people with whom he worked and the decisions they helped him make – there’s not a lot of introspection and even less self-awareness.  Of course, maybe this is further proof that Bush wrote this completely by himself.

In some areas he seems to minimize the national outrage on certain issues.  As an example, when he’s talking about the Patriot Act he says (pg 161):

“One provision created a little discomfort at home. The Patriot Act allowed the government to seek warrants to examine the business records of suspected terrorists, such as credit card receipts, apartment leases, and library records.  As a former librarian, Laura didn’t like the idea of federal agents snooping around libraries. I didn’t, either. But the intelligence community had serious concerns about terrorists using library computers to communicate. Library records had played a role in several high-profile cases, such as the Zodiac gunman murders in California. The last thing I wanted was to allow the freedom and access to information provided by American libraries to be utilized against us by al Qaeda.”

… And that’s all he says about the Patriot Act really.  No discussion of the decisions to wiretap, no nothing.  He just personalizes so his readers see he had some issues with it as well.  I think I expected a little more here.

Another example of where Bush does nothing to make his case is on page 170 where George Tenet asks if he has “permission to use enhanced interrogation techniques, like water boarding, on Khalid Mohammed”.  Bush goes on to describe his thoughts that went back to meeting Danny Pearl’s pregnant widow, the 2,973 people who died in 9/11, and “his duty to protect our country from another terrorist act.” His response to George Tenet – “Damn right.”

This is not congruent with what Bush wants us to believe about his decision-making skills that he’s laid out in the previous chapters.  “Damn right” is an emotional response to the emotional thoughts that were running through his head.  Further, there appears to be a great deal left out of this reflection on how he made the decision to use water boarding.  He’s chosen to take the onus off his attorneys here about this decision.  I’m not really sure why he does this, other than at the bottom of page 65, Bush states,

“The people you choose to surround you determine the quality of advice you receive and the way your goals are implemented.” With this axiom in mind, one understands how Bush can answer whether water boarding was torture with the emphatic “no, because the attorneys told me it was legal.”   And there’s no real reason at all to discuss this in-depth in the enhanced interrogation techniques section.

The next page and a half are spent justifying how this was the right decision because of all the information received from Mohammed. There is one sentence that discusses the legal team and their decision that water boarding was legal:

“They charged that Americans had committed unlawful torture.  That was not true.  I had asked the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government to review the interrogation methods, and they assured me they did not constitute torture. To suggest that our intelligence personnel violated the law by following the legal guidance they received is insulting and wrong.”

I would liked to have seen a more in-depth reflection on the decision-making process regarding the usage of enhanced interrogation techniques (including water boarding) rather than a justification of how much information we got and that we only did it to three different detainees.  Again, it’s dumbed down to make it look like we only water boarded three times – with no mention of how many times on each of the three people. Bush tells us a third were interrogated using “enhanced interrogation techniques” but never discusses what they were.  Mr. President, you spent some time talking about the morality of different decisions, were there any moral questions on this subject for you?

The War Footing chapter was sadly lacking.  What wasn’t said is just as important as what was said, in my humble opinion.

On page 184, at the beginning of the chapter on Afghanistan, he states, “We had planned the mission carefully.  We were acting out of necessity and self-defense, not revenge.”

In fairness, one of the stated goals of this book was that we got a look at the tough decisions that a President has to make.  Sending your nation into war was and always will be probably one of the toughest.  It’s an emotional decision.  My challenge with this section is that Bush tells us of his moral thoughts and emotions regarding different topics in the book, yet, here, 26 days after a horrific tragedy that affected all Americans, he is very careful to make the decision appear as if it was made with no thoughts of retaliation, and no revenge in mind.  I find that very difficult to believe.

I’m do not want to appear as if I’m bashing Bush on the decision to go to war in Afghanistan.  For the life of me, I don’t know if it was the right decision at the time or not – again in hindsight, I think there were some bad decisions made in the strategy, but at the time, who knows what was right and what was wrong.  What I’m bringing your attention to is the appearance of continued lack of introspection in the book.

My sticky notes throughout this section, which (after the first few pages) goes back and discusses the days after 9/11, are consistent with the question of his emotions and how he made these decisions.  On September 16th, the decision was made (page 190) to retaliate (let’s be honest — this is the right word to use here) and all that was left was figuring out how.

One thing struck me as a bit contradictory to the “we had planned the mission carefully” statement was on page 198:

“After several days, we ran into a problem.  The air campaign had destroyed most of the Taliban and al Qaeda infrastructure.  But we were having trouble inserting our Special Forces.  They were grounded at a former Soviet air base in Uzbekistan, separate from their landing zone in Afghanistan by fifteen-thousand-foot high mountains, freezing temperatures, and blinding snowstorms.”

Really?  Wouldn’t figuring out what the weather was likely to be so we could insert our Special Forces a pretty big part of the planning process?  I actually don’t put this little oversight on Bush at all.  It just seems like a silly oversight – because (sarcasm alert), you know, there’s a big mountain range that separates Uzbekistan from most of Afghanistan, and well, you know, it was October, and well, they are in the same hemisphere as we are – snow storm or not on the radar, they should have planned for that or at least known it was a possibility and had a contingency plan.  Again, I don’t think that was Bush’s fault, but someone should have questioned it.

In the chapter about Iraq, despite having multiple notes in the chapter, the thing I found most interesting in this whole section was the lack of comment on Iraq’s decision to behead Saddam.  If I understand the time line, Bush still had a guy there in charge of the Iraq governing council. What I really want to know was how the decision was made to release Saddam to Iraq and Bush’s feelings about Saddam’s sentence.  I was surprised this was left out, actually; especially after the morality questions in the Stem Cell chapter: Page 110 – “Could the destruction of one human life be justified by the hopes of saving others?” and page 115 – “Sanctioning the destruction of life to save life, they argued, crossed into dangerous moral territory.”

The next chapter is titled Leading. This is a montage of the important issues (ideologically right or wrong doesn’t matter) on which Bush felt he led the way and how well he worked with other people.  There’s not a whole lot to say about this section, though there is a touching letter from his daughter about her support for him in the second campaign. He ends this chapter with “No matter what, I am satisfied that we led on the issues that mattered most – and never played small ball.”

Katrina was an interesting chapter, and one in which I learned a few things that didn’t seem congruent with what was being said nationally.

I think I got a little worn out after this and it showed in my note taking of the subsequent chapters.  I made notes, but none were about the book – just questions about our political system or things that happened and there was an “aha! moment” during my reading.

Let me see if I can summarize my thoughts on this book.  This wasn’t really a book to love or hate.  Staunch supporters of former President Bush will love the book no matter what; and those with a staunch opposition of Bush will hate the book and find a million things wrong with it.  I touched on some specific areas I thought lacking in reflection or editing. Really, it seems like this book was written with the belief that history would see him as one of the good guys with no contemplation that maybe future generations would view him as an unsuccessful president.

Bush states as his first goal, “I believe it will be impossible to reach definitive conclusions about my presidency – or recent presidency, for that matter – for several decades.  The passage of time allows passions to cool, results to clarify, and scholars to compare different approaches.  My hope is that this book will serve as a resource for anyone studying this period of American history.”

I ended the book thinking I wished Bush would have waited a few more years before writing ‘his’ book.  There is too much information available for him to have been as vague as he was in this book.  I would have liked more reflection and less justification on some of the more critical and consequential decisions he made.

Several decades from now, IF history shows that the decisions he made were the right decisions that had long-lasting positive outcomes then this will be deemed a brilliant book.  However, if history shows that he made some tragic decisions, then this book will do nothing but portray him as a President who had no ability to reflect on his decisions and showed a huge lack of self-awareness.  And well, frankly, both of these things may be true, when you compare the Lazarus Project and Stem Cell research to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the war on terror.

In the epilogue, Bush states:

“As I hope I’ve made clear, I believe I got some of those decisions right, and I got some wrong.  But on every one, I did what I believed was in the best interests of our country.”

He showed this to the extent that one can when they aren’t forthcoming about all the things that happened regarding some topics.  The best chapters, in my opinion, were on Stem Cell Research and the Lazarus Project.  I think this is because these were causes about which he was passionate.  Everything else were things that happened on his watch with which he had to deal.  Bush did a very good job just talking about his role in a situation.  He didn’t bring in his knowledge of how others acted outside of his meetings and/or discussions.  He spoke about himself. In fairness to the areas I felt lacking, he probably could not have delved deeper into these areas without discussing other people’s actions.  However, as I said before, I think what wasn’t said was just as important, if not more important, as what was said.

I would recommend this book to everyone with the following caveat – Take it at face value.  If you want to have a full understanding of what happened during this Presidency, I would suggest coupling this book with some of the many books written by reputable authors on the topic of the Bush Administration.  Doing so will give you the pieces of the puzzle left out.

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