Genre: Non-fiction, Business
Author: George W. Bush
Book: Decision Points (Buy the Book)
In George W. Bush’s Decision Points, the former president walks the reader through a personal and factual account of the key events that transpired during his presidency, and as the title suggests, the decisions he and his administration made in that time. To set the stage, Bush allows readers access to one of the most legendary political families the United States has ever seen by explaining his family’s background, traits and qualities, experiences, and a brief history of their collective past.
A meticulous note-taker, Bush is able to recount pivotal conversations that surrounded the core issues of his presidency, giving a more personal context to the decisions that were made. Bush manages to portray just how vital the personal relationships his administration forged over the years were to the success of the team’s agenda.
Written in the two years immediately after leaving office, Decision Points allows Bush the chance to look retrospectively and analyze the decisions he made during his time serving. He is honest in admitting shortcomings, while quick to praise others who worked tirelessly in his administration and around the world. Bush analyzes strategic and logistical concerns, while also offering insight into the political and public response, and sometimes backlash, which surrounded his decisions.
Decision Points allows for vulnerability and a chance to explain how he really felt in the toughest of times: how he had to suppress emotions to be the pillar of strength, composure, and grit that the country needed and that the rest of the world expected to see. No longer serving as Commander in Chief, Bush had the chance to defend himself for the first time against a number of public misconceptions.
In Decision Points, Bush speaks for himself and not for the country. By explaining situations in precise detail, Bush puts the reader in his chair behind the Resolute Desk. Without prompting, each chapter manages to have the reader consider “what would I do?”
Within its 481 pages, Bush covers a myriad of topics. Referenced often is his father George H.W. Bush, who served as the 41st President of the United States. Being only the second father-son presidential duo had its perks, as it exposed Bush to several complex issues before it was his time to lead.
More than that, it is clear to the reader how much George W. looks up to and respects his father, and how much he valued the gift of sharing the peaks and valleys of the hardest job in the world with someone so close to him. Bush discusses his upbringing, the years spent before his presidency, and his decision to run and experience running for the Oval.
He explains his process and reasoning for choosing the people to fill the most vital roles in his administration. Interestingly, Bush includes the opinions of his teammates surrounding almost every decision and explains carefully the hand others had in taking action. Bush also humbly puts on display his morality, faith, and compassion especially in explaining the decisions to be made in funding stem cell research, as well as leading the charge to promote a healthier Africa by mounting a true fight against HIV, AIDS, and Malaria.
In vivid detail, Bush recounts the events of September 11, 2001, and day by day the week that followed. He explains the procedures and the places he went; but mostly he describes the people: their spectrum of emotions, their willingness to serve, and their desire for justice. He walks us through the planning stages before the War on Terror really began, and the steps, like the PATRIOT Act and Terrorist Surveillance Program, that had to be taken to protect the United States from another attack.
Bush paints the bleak picture of Afghanistan under Taliban rule and explains how and why the country supported Osama bin Laden and his terrorist group al Qaeda. He details a number of key battles, including the first of the war in which 12 men of U.S. Special Forces rode on horseback alongside native Afghanis of the Northern Alliance to push the Taliban out of Northern Afghanistan. Bush goes on to explain the altercations in Iraq, the events that preceded them, and the confusion surrounding the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Bush also addresses his work stateside. Before entering the White House, Bush wanted to be known as the “Education President,” and with his No Child Left Behind Act he began to fulfill this desire. The new testing, evaluation, and distribution system of students’ academic process improved schools nationwide.
His administration also overhauled Medicare by promoting competition among providers and did so well under budget. The administration’s hopes to transform Social Security and immigration stalled in Congress, but Bush was confident the work they started laid the groundwork for change in these two areas for the years to come. In perhaps his most eye-opening chapter, Bush lays out the nation’s and his own experience with Hurricane Katrina.
He explains how three disasters descended upon New Orleans at once, how the state government refused to relinquish control of the situation to the federal government, and how a number of poor decisions were made that painted the President to be someone he is not.
Bush, throughout his presidency, set the expectation that he would make decisions that were best for the country, not for his opinion polls. His decision to send a “surge” of troops to attain victory in Iraq in 2007 is perhaps the most concrete example of this line of thinking.
After consulting his new Secretary of Defense, CIA Director, and military personnel it became clear that without a troop increase the progress made and lives lost would be in vain. In 2008, Iraq emerged as a sovereign nation thanks to the continued support of the United States.
Finally, Bush discusses the economic downturn during his presidency and the steps he, his economic team, and the Fed took to guide the United States in the right direction. Once the tides began to shift, Bush explains how this team of people worked tirelessly to right the ship by saving a number of vital American institutions, and passing legislation to support the financial system. He concludes by sharing a few candid thoughts on the future of the nation’s financial climate, and some of his opinions on how to continue moving forward.
Throughout Decision Points, Bush makes clear that he is undeniably Texan. Scattered throughout the book are numerous references to the family’s beloved Crawford Ranch. Bush explains his connection with this place, and the pivotal role it played in his presidency. Not only was it a place to recharge, but it was also an extension of the Oval Office, allowing him to receive daily intelligence briefings and check-in with advisors.
Here, Bush was able to invite world leaders into his home. Many a heart was softened on the Central Texas dirt, along with treaties and pivotal decisions made. The responsibilities of the presidency followed Bush wherever he went, so in Crawford, he simply “moved the West Wing twelve hundred miles southwest,” closer to where he truly felt at home.
George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points allows the reader a glimpse into the author’s interesting upbringing and family life. Bush is the son of the late Barbra and George H.W. Bush. The pride he has for his father beams through every chapter of the book. He credits his father with giving him a spectacular role model to learn from and a hero-like presence to emulate.
As a World War II veteran, captain of the Yale baseball team where he graduated in two and a half years, CEO and founder of a successful offshore oil company, Congressman, Director of the CIA, and finally as the 41st President of the United States, the reader cannot help but understand the respect Bush feels for his father. Of all the things his father gave to him, George claims that “one of my greatest inheritances is that I was raised in West Texas,” and he has remained undeniably “Texan” ever since.
George’s upbringing was not void of tragedy. At the age of seven, George lost his young sister Robin to leukemia, which was virtually untreatable at the time. Shortly after learning to drive, he had to take his mother to the hospital following a miscarriage. These experiences deepened the bond between their family, specifically with his mother Barbra.
After his ninth-grade year and following in his father’s footsteps, Bush relocated from the dusty town of Midland to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Here, Bush faced immense adversity and had to “study like mad” to catch up with the other students. This forced him into a new kind of man, proving to be “the hardest thing he had to do” until running for President 40 years later.
He attended Yale next, where civil rights issues dominated the campus discussion. In the summers he followed a simple notion:
“if something caught my attention, I would try it. If not, I would move on.”
He worked on a cattle ranch, an offshore oil rig, behind the trading desk of a stock brokerage house, and as a sporting goods salesman. From these experiences, he received two educations: one from fine schools and one from solid people. In the fall of 1968, he began pilot training as a part of the National Guard and continued with flying until growing restless in the fall of 1972.
He was intrigued when a friend mailed him an application to Harvard and decided to fill it out. A few months later, Bush was accepted and set his sights on the “West Point of capitalism.” Along the way, George kept politics in his life helping in all of his father’s campaigns: like a traveling aid for a potential senator in Florida, as a political director for a Senate campaign in Alabama, and with President Ford’s West Texas operations in the Republican primary.
Following graduation from Harvard, George returned home to Midland and promptly met Laura Welch. A native of Midland herself, their paths had never crossed, which, according to Bush, is because the Lord only brought her into his life when he was ready to settle down and open to having a partner at his side.
In Midland, Bush started a small energy exploration company in 1979 and successfully merged the firm twice as oil began to drop in the mid-1980s. During an annual Bush summer trip, Bush was met head-on with one of the most transformative experiences of his life.
Invited to the family house in Maine, the evangelical preacher Billy Graham captivated the young Bush and ignited a spark in his heart. Bush turned from “listening” to religion, to “hearing” it. Following a number of realizations, a deeper understanding of Christ, and a transformative bible study with incredible men, Bush was moved by God’s love towards becoming a better man.
This transformation and the particularly boisterous evening of his 40th birthday party encouraged George to make the commitment to his wife that he would never drink again. With Laura and his twin daughters, Barbra and Jenna as motivation and his faith as a guiding light, George have remained sober ever since.
He credits his decision to stop drinking, one of the toughest he ever made, as the catalyst that allowed his career and finest memories to transpire.
June 12, 1999, Laura and Bush boarded a plane bound for Iowa, the site of the first caucus in the 2000 presidential election. He was answering a call to run, not from anyone place or person, but because he had a clear vision of where to lead the country. He wanted to cut taxes, raise standards in public schools, reform Social Security and Medicare, rally faith-based charities, and lift the sights of the American people by encouraging a new era of personal responsibility.
Bush’s path to his decision to run was unconventional. As he puts it, “I hadn’t spent a lifetime planning to run for president, if I had, I probably would have done a few things differently when I was younger.” His experience in business school, a trip to China, and his time in the oil business converged into a unique set of convictions.
Bush believed the free market provided the fairest way to allocate resources and that lowering taxes rewards hard work and encourage risk-taking, both of which spur job creation. Eliminating barriers to trade creates new export markets for American producers and consumers. Lastly, the government should respect its constitutional limits and give people the freedom to live their lives.
When a House seat opened up, Bush decided to run for office for the first time and was defeated in a runoff. But, he could not wallow for long. Six months following, H.W. Bush began his campaign for the presidency. With oil declining, his company merged, and employees now working elsewhere, the timing was right. George headed to D.C. to help his father.
Quickly after Inauguration, the family boarded a plane headed south to explore an intriguing opportunity and childhood dream: purchasing the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush arranged a syndicate to purchase the team and was named general partner by the investor group.
In Arlington, Bush’s team transformed from a losing record the last seven of nine years to winning seasons for four of the five years of ownership. Not only was success found on the field, but also financially as Bush increased the value of the team by building a new stadium that welcomed millions of fans in the years following.
In 1994, George ran for Governor of Texas in a wide-open Republican field as no one cared to take on the immensely popular Ann Richards. He focused on education, juvenile justice, welfare reform, and tort reform as his main policy issues, and his diligence on the campaign trail paid off. Then in 1998, Bush was elected again, becoming the first Texas governor to be elected to consecutive four-year terms. On the same night in Florida, his brother Jeb became governor, making the pair the first brothers in a quarter-century to serve as governors at the same time.
A short time after, with the question of running for president on his mind, the Bush family sat to hear a sermon on the Book of Exodus, in which God calls Moses to action although Moses had every excuse in the book to remain still. “That sounded a little familiar” recounts Bush. Following the sermon, his mother delivered the nail in the coffin: “He is talking to you,” Barbara said.
The campaign was wrought with peaks and valleys but none as low as the worst “political mistake Bush ever made.” After weighing the decision heavily, George had failed to divulge a DUI he had received as a 30-year-old man for one reason: his daughters.
Instead, when the news surfaced on someone else’s terms, Bush lost an estimated 2 million votes. Despite the setback, the election was still tight and came down to Florida. After calling the state prematurely once, the news stations called that Florida would indeed go to Bush. Shortly after, Al Gore called to concede but never gave his speech.
Instead, he called Bush back and retracted his concession, citing that the numbers in Florida had changed since the last call. Four weeks later, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Gore; and Bush and his team made their appeal. Finally, 35 days after the election, the Supreme Court ruled there was no fair way to recount the votes in time for Florida to participate in the Electoral College. By a tally of 2,912,790 to 2,912,253, the election results would stand and Bush would take Florida, becoming the 43rd president of the United States.
George approached the hiring of his staff with knowledge gained from his varied life experiences; the people that surround you determine the quality of advice you receive and the way your goals are implemented. Personnel decisions were some of the first to be made in office, and according to Bush, his most important.
Dick Chaney originally turned down the offer to run with Bush as Vice President, instead of agreeing to run the vetting process for other candidates. As time wore on, it became abundantly clear to George just how “perfect a running mate” Dick would be.
He inquired again, and this time Chaney relented. Throughout their administration, Chaney remained steady, effective, and “sturdy as an oak.” In addition to his valued Vice President, Bush explores the relationships and decisions made with the following people by his side:
- Andy Card– Chief of Staff- served under the same role during H.W. and Reagan administrations. Condoleezza Rice– National Security Advisor and Secretary of State during Bush’s second term. Colin Powell– Secretary of State- Army man who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Don Rumsfeld– Secretary of Defense- the youngest and oldest person to serve as SoD.
- George Tenet– CIA Director- retained from Bill Clinton’s administration.
- Bob Gates– Secretary of Defense, 2nd term- served as CIA Director and President of Texas A&M.
- Henry “Hank” Paulson– Secretary of Treasury- former Goldman Sachs CEO.
- Alan Greenspan– Fed Chairman- served for 19 years under four presidents.
- Ben Bernanke– Fed Chairman, 2nd term- former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.
While staff and Cabinet appointments are crucial to decision making, they are temporary. Judicial appointments, on the other hand, are for life. Bush’s administration took on the task of replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with the help of a young lawyer in the White House, Brett Kavanaugh, who suggested the best candidate would be the most effective leader on the Court.
The team found a standout candidate to answer this question in John Roberts, but before he could be sworn in, the administration received word that Chief Justice Rehnquist had died. Roberts instead was sworn in as Chief Justice, and work began to fill O’Connor’s seat again, this time landing on Sam Alito.
In April of 2002, Bush received a letter asking him to support the “miracle possibilities” of embryonic stem cell research to provide cures for people like her husband. The letter was signed by Nancy Reagan. One of the most controversial issues of his presidency, George was caught in the crossfire of those who believed the government had a responsibility to fund medical research that might help to save lives, while others argued destruction of human embryos would lead the nation of a “moral cliff” towards an uncaring society that devalued life.
Bush empathized with the hope for new medical cures but felt technology should respect moral boundaries. The issued raised a moral dilemma: Could the destruction of one human life be justified by the hopes of saving others? While Bush dives deep into the specifics of the issue, the differing sides, options, and science, he eventually leads the reader to his conclusion.
He decided that the government would fund research on stem cell lines derived from embryos that had already been destroyed while calling on Congress to increase funding for alternative sources of stem cells that brought no ethical controversy. He addressed the nation to firstly educate on the issue, and then to deliver his decision. He concluded saying, “even the most noble ends do not justify any means.”
The President was met with opposition as a Stem Cell bill made its way to his desk not once but twice. Bush held his moral ground, using the first two vetoes of his presidency, and was vilified for it. Five months later, Bush’s persistence was vindicated as two teams of researchers found a way to replicate the medical promise of embryonic stem cells without moral controversy.
Day of Fire
On Tuesday, September 11, the president was reading with a group of second graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. In a now-famous photo, Andy Card whispered into Bush’s ear that a second plane had hit the second tower. “America is under attack.” Though his first reaction was outrage, he recognized that the nation would be watching.
Within minutes, the lesson concluded, and Bush could see the carnage for himself. In a speech originally intended to address education outside of Booker Elementary, Bush exclaimed that “Terrorism against our nation will not stand.” Soon after, word reached the administration of a third plane hitting the Pentagon.
The first plane could have been an accident. The second was definitely an attack. The third was a declaration of war. Despite the costs, the first decision made as a wartime commander in chief was to shoot down any planes that failed to comply with orders to land to save countless other lives. Thankfully, this order never had to be carried out.
Aboard Air Force One, Bush experienced the fog of war, due to a lack of satellite television and unreliable phone lines – issues that were corrected in the years ahead. When the fog cleared, the story of the heroic passengers on Flight 93, one of the most courageous acts in American history, came to light.
Most had never heard of al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base,” before 9/11, but the Bush administration was all-too-familiar. Led by Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda was a fundamentalist and extremist terror network hosted and supported by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. In early August, the CIA delivered a brief reiterating bin Laden’s intent to strike America, but
“could not corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as by hijacking an aircraft.”
It was now clear that the threat had materialized. Quickly, the president acted to force nations to choose whether they would fight terrorists or share their fate, stating that any nation that harbored terrorists would be responsible for the acts of those terrorists.
The September 12 sun rose on a different America: grounded planes, the New York Stock Exchange was closed, the Twin Towers were gone, a wing of the Pentagon was in rubble, and 3000 innocent Americans lay dead. In the days that followed, the president went to the site of the Pentagon, Ground Zero in New York, and to the National Cathedral where a program with speakers of many different faiths was hosted.
As a culmination, Bush delivered the most important speech of his young presidency that accomplished three objectives: mourn the loss of life, remind people that there was a loving God, and make clear that those who attacked our nation would face justice.
Following the ceremony, Air Force One headed north to New York to finally see for himself the carnage. The scenes that greeted him were apocalyptic. He shook every hand of every worker that formed in a line near him. Bush describes several that had tears running down their faces, cutting a path through the soot-like rivulets through a desert.
The emotions spanned the gamut: sorrow, exhaustion, worry, hope, anger, and pride. The feelings of the workers grew rawer the longer the President stayed, but more than anything the bloodlust was palpable and understandable through the incessant yells. The voices screaming “Do not let me down!” and “Whatever it takes!” drove Bush forward.
The metal badge given to him by Arlene Howard, the one that belonged to her son, Police Officer George Howard, remained with the President for the next 2,685 days of his presidency as a constant reminder. September 11 redefined sacrifice. It redefined duty. And it redefined President Bush’s job. The story of the week after September 11 is the key to understanding his presidency because, for as long as he held office, George could never forget what happened to America that day and would pour his heart and soul into protecting the country. He would do whatever was necessary.
In response to the attack, NATO, for the first time in its 52-year history, voted to invoke Article 5: an attack on one is an attack on all. It was abundantly clear that this was a different kind of war – one facing an enemy with no capital to call home and no armies to track. The world would have to uncover terrorist plots, track movements, cut off their money, and deprive them of safe havens.
The authority to act with wartime powers as commander in chief stemmed from two sources: Article II of the Constitution and a congressional war resolution passed three days after 9/11. A daunting task in defeating terror lay ahead. To stop the enemy, the U.S. would have to be right 100 percent of the time, but to harm the U.S., the enemy only had to succeed once.
A major gap in counterterrorism capabilities in the United States was a set of procedures that prevented law enforcement and intelligence personnel from sharing key information, ironically dubbed “the wall.” To take down the wall, the USA PATRIOT Act was signed. It allowed law-enforcement and intelligent personnel to share information, allowing for roving wiretaps and allowed investigators to track suspects who changed cell phone numbers.
It also permitted the government to seek warrants to examine business records and library records of suspected terrorists. The PATRIOT Act helped break up potential terror cells in New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Florida over the next five years. In addition, Bush authorized the NSA to monitor Al Qaeda communications into and out of the country without FISA warrants through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, a decision that was essential to keeping the American people safe.
The best way to ensure both of the tools remained after Bush left office was to work with Congress to codify those programs into law. The challenge was how to present TSP and CIA interrogation to Congress without sharing secrets to the enemy. Ultimately, the PATRIOT Act passed, but the TSP took over two years to pass through the Senate and House.
In dealing with prisoners there were three critical decisions to be made in the war on terror. The first was where to hold captured enemy fighters, the second was how to determine their legal status and ensure they eventually faced justice, and third was how to learn what they knew about future attacks so the American people could be protected.
The detainees were held in Guantánamo Bay on the southern tip of Cuba where they were given clean and safe shelter, three meals a day, a personal copy of the Koran, the opportunity to pray five times daily, the same medical care their guards received, exercise space, and as well as a stocked library. In November 2001, Bush signed an order establishing military tribunals to try terrorists. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that unlike Franklin Roosevelt and other predecessors, the president needed explicit authorization from Congress to establish tribunals.
Following orders from the president, the Department of Justice and CIA lawyers conducted a careful legal review of the enhanced interrogation program. Upon completion, Bush looked at the list and found that there were two techniques that he felt went too far, even if they were legal. The new interrogation tactics were highly effective, particularly with one of Osama bin Laden’s trusted associates Abu Zubaydah.
He revealed large amounts of information on Al Qaeda’s structure and operations as well as leads that helped reveal the location of the logistical planner of the 9/11 attacks. Zubaydah later explains to interrogators why he started answering questions. 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. “You must do this for all the brothers,” he said.
Of the thousands of terrorists captured in the years after 9/11, about 100 were placed into the CIA program. A third of those were questioned using enhanced techniques, and only three were waterboarded. The information revealed by the detainees constituted more than half of what the CIA knew about al Qaeda. Experts in the intelligence community informed Bush that without the CIA program, there would have surely been another attack on the United States.
The most senior legal officers in the US government assured Bush these measures did not constitute torture. The suggestion that the intelligence personnel violated the law by following the legal guidance they received, is insulting and wrong. Rather, per Bush, the CIA interrogation program saved lives.
In 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act by a comfortable bipartisan majority. The bill contained everything the administration requested, including authority for the tribunals to restart and for a president to use enhanced interrogation techniques should he choose to do so. Bush understands that much of the controversy and legal setbacks regarding military tribunals, TSP, and CIA enhanced interrogation programs could have been avoided by seeking legislation.
While it is likely that Congress would have granted everything the administration sought, the risk of exposing operational details of the enemy was one Bush refused to take. For all of the criticisms that may surround the handling of these three critical areas, Bush remains proud of the work his administration did.
“After the nightmare of September 11, America went seven-and-a-half years without another successful terrorist attack on American soil. If I had to summarize my most meaningful accomplishment as president in one sentence, that would be it.”
The 26 days following 9/11 had been spent planning and preparing the mission to act out of self-defense and necessity, not in revenge. “Sending Americans to war is the most profound decision a president can make,” says Bush. And on October 7, 2001, military strikes and the liberation of Afghanistan began.
CIA Director George Tenet and his team worked to improve plans in the days following 9/11. They had requested permission for the CIA to kill or capture Al Qaeda operatives without asking for the President’s signoff each time, and Bush decided to grant the request. There were some in Afghanistan who received warm hospitality from the Taliban.
Shortly after taking power, the radical mullahs offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, the founder, and leader of al Qaeda. Between 1996 and 2001, bin Laden established camps in Afghanistan training an estimated 10,000 terrorists. In return, bin Laden used his personal fortune to fund the Taliban. By 9/11, Afghanistan was not only a state sponsor of terror but a state-sponsored by terror.
Collin Powell did an impressive job rallying countries to join the coalition, including Great Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and most surprisingly, Pakistan. The strategic vision for Afghanistan was threefold: to remove the Taliban, deny sanctuary to al Qaeda, and help a democratic government emerge.
On September 9, 2001 bin Laden operatives had assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the beloved leader of the Northern Alliance, a group of tribal commanders who held the allegiance of the local population. His murder galvanized the Alliance to cooperate with America, as there was now a shared enemy and determination to end Taliban rule.
Director Tenet’s plan called to deploy CIA teams to arm, fund, and join forces with the Northern Alliance, and together they would form the initial thrust of the attack. The first results arrived in early November as Afghan warriors led the ground attacks while U.S. Special Forces equipped with GPS units and laser guidance systems directed airstrikes.
In the first combat of the war, Northern alliance fighters and U.S. Special Forces mounted a cavalry charge on horseback to liberate the northern stronghold city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Within days, almost every major city in the north fell. The success in driving out the Taliban continued into Eastern Afghanistan in early 2002, but Osama bin Laden continued to evade capture.
In six months armed forces removed the Taliban from power, destroyed the Al Qaeda training camps, liberated more than 26 million people from unspeakable brutality, allowed Afghan girls to return to school, and laid the foundation for a democratic society to emerge. With the work still unfinished, in 2002, several key allies met in Tokyo to divvy up responsibilities for helping to rebuild Afghanistan, yielding $4.5 billion in pledged aid.
Afghanistan continued to make economic progress as well as political progress. The country elected Hamid Karzai, who led much of the rebuilding process, as the first freely elected president of Afghanistan. On the surface, things seemed to be going well, but trouble lurked beneath. In June 2005, an encounter in the Afghan hills, now famous in print and on the big screen as “Lone Survivor,” seemingly sprang out of nowhere. 19 Americans lost their lives.
It was the deadliest day of the War in Afghanistan and the worst day for the Navy Seals since WWII. As attacks continued to increase, Bush ordered a troop increase in the fall of 2006. The largest problem was the constant flow of Taliban fighters coming from Pakistan to Afghanistan, which some estimate had increased fourfold. With the additional help of laser-guided bombs from unmanned aerial bombers, al Qaeda became “embattled and eroding” in the border region but remained a glaring concern.
At the end of his presidency, Bush’s team put together a report on strategy. The suggestions called for a more robust counterinsurgency and closer cooperation with Pakistan. The administration decided to give the report to the Obama administration quietly, so they could make changes and adopt the plan as their own. He left the office with unfinished business in Afghanistan.
The fact that the United States did not bring bin Laden to justice during his time ranks among his greatest regrets. President Bush felt the mission was worth the cost, as did President Obama, who fought back critics by deploying more troops and increasing the pressure on Pakistan to fight the extremists in tribal areas. “Ultimately,” said Bush,
“the only way the Taliban and al Qaeda can retake Afghanistan is if America abandons the country… and to do so would betray all gains of the last nine years.”
Another major aspect of Bush’s presidency was the war in Iraq, but the groundwork for this altercation was laid decades earlier. As a condition for ending hostilities in the Gulf War, UN Resolution 687 required Saddam Hussein, self-appointed president and dictator of Iraq, to destroy all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missiles with a range of more than 90 miles.
At first, his regime claimed to only have a small stockpile, but UN inspectors discovered a “vast, haunting arsenal.” After his son-in-law defected, Saddam acknowledged hiding a biological weapons program producing anthrax and botulinum toxin. Saddam’s history of pursuing WMD, lying about quantity and existence, and using WMD in war combined to set the stage for the altercation that was to follow in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein was waging a low-grade war against the United States. Among other things, Saddam had fired at U.S. aircraft, paid terrorists for their acts, praised 9/11, and made an assassination attempt on H.W. Bush. While 19 box cutters inflicted more damage on the U.S. than ever in history, Bush could only imagine the destruction that could be possible with WMD.
Threats were flowing in daily, and the stakes were too high to trust a proven liar, dictator, and promoter of terror. The U.S. alongside the U.N. attempted to use diplomacy first. After repeated chances, Saddam was given a “final opportunity to comply” with his obligation to disclose and disarm. If he did not, he would face “serious consequences.”
On December 7, Saddam submitted a report full of irrelevant papers, whose purpose viewed by the U.N. was to deceive. Then, on January 27, a formal report to the UN stated that the “inspections team had discovered warheads that Saddam had failed to declare or destroy.” Given this blatant disregard for the UN’s authority, the United States began perfecting a battle plan.
In March, after all, other diplomatic options had failed, Saddam was given 48 hours to leave the country. Instead, he ordered the tongue of a dissident slashed out and let the man bleed to death. So it began, on March 19, 2003, President Bush gave the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom, and an airstrike on Bagdad commenced.
Iraq became a magnet for extremists whose groups had different ideologies but shared an immediate goal: to drive America out of Iraq. The insurgents could never win a direct fight, so instead, they used roadside bombs, attacked nonmilitary targets, and kidnapped reconstruction workers and executed them in grisly Internet videos.
Their strategy was to present an image of Iraq as hopeless and unwinnable, swinging American public opinion against the war and forcing the United States to withdraw as had been done in Vietnam. When Saddam did not use WMD on U.S. troops, Bush was relieved. When they did not find stockpiles after the fall of Baghdad, he was surprised.
And, as the summer passed without finding any, he grew alarmed. Not only were things heating up on the battlefront, but the failure to find WMD began to transform public perception of the war. In the public’s eyes, Bush had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false.
On a farm near Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, a solider discovered a hole in the ground and climbed in. He returned with a disheveled, angry man – Saddam Hussein. Here, Bush’s team experienced triumph over the brutal dictator while he cowered in a hole, but it was not without mistakes along the way and things most surely were not over.
Cutting troop levels too quickly to avoid looking like occupiers was the most important failure of execution in the war as it allowed insurgents to regain ground and momentum. The second failure of the war was the intelligence surrounding Iraq’s WMD. Bush recounts,
“Almost a decade later, it is hard to describe how widespread an assumption it was that Saddam had WMD. Supporters of the war believed it; opponents of the war believed it; even members of Saddam’s own regime believed it.”
The explanation came from Saddam himself who told CIA after his capture that he was more worried about looking weak to Iran than being removed by the coalition. Additionally, he never thought the U.S. would follow through on the promises to disarm him by force.
While Bush knows that inaction against Saddam and allowing him to stay in power would have had dire consequences, he could not help but be plagued by how the United States intelligence was so wrong. Instead of criticizing the patriots at the CIA, he appointed a bipartisan commission to investigate the issue to improve intelligence measures in the future.
George W. Bush took a lesson from Roosevelt and Reagan that guided his presidency: to lead the public, and not chase the opinion polls. As governor of Texas, Bush took many steps to improve education, and this did not stop at the White House as he wanted to be known as “the education president.”
Bush proposed the No Child Left Behind Act, which would test students every year and post the scores publically, broken down by demographic factors. Under-performing schools would receive aid first, and the public data would allow parents to evaluate the educational opportunity for their kids. As a result, students’ test scores improved across the nation, with minority students’ scores improving most of any group.
Bush also took on Medicare with the Medicare Modernization Act which passed on December 8, 2003, and was one of the first governmental programs to come in well under budget. The heart of the act moved consumers from government control toward choices and competition of a private market system, the best way to control costs in the long run.
Following reelection for a second term, Bush immediately began pushing for Social Security reform. Despite the team pushing hard for change, it received little traction from either side of the aisle. Bush’s last initiative was immigration reform, as he believed “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” While President Vicente of Mexico pushed for amnesty, Bush believed this would undermine the rule of law.
Instead, a temporary worker program was devised and formed into a bill. The bill stalled in the Senate and when they returned from break, immigration reform was dead. As he writes, President Bush is confident Social Security and immigration reform are coming, as a solid foundation was laid by his administration.
After four days of chaos, it was clear the authorities in Louisiana could not lead. President Bush asked Governor Blanco privately to authorize the federal government to take charge of the response, but she failed to relinquish control of New Orleans in time. Once tallied, Hurricane Katrina ranked as the costliest natural disaster in American history. In reality, it was not a single disaster but three.
A storm wiped away miles of golf Coast, widespread flooding caused by breaches in the New Orleans levees, and an outbreak of violence and lawlessness in the un-policed city. Katrina tends to conjure impressions of disorder, incompetence, and the sense that the government let down its citizens.
Admittedly, the problem with Katrina was not that President Bush made the wrong decisions; it was that he took too long to decide. On Sunday morning, the day before landfall, President Bush called to encourage a mandatory evacuation. An hour later, Mayor Nagin finally announced the first mandatory evacuation in New Orleans history.
While there was a discussion of potential flooding, no one predicted that the levees would break, a much more dire issue. The first priority was to save lives, not deliver relief supplies. People criticized the response as being slow, but Bush thanks the Coast Guardsmen who mounted one of the most rapid and effective rescue operations in American history.
In regard to public perception, the President’s biggest mistake was choosing to fly over New Orleans instead of landing. Initially, he believed his landing would take away too many first responders, which was true, but the decision made him looked detached.
“The suggestion that I was a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low. I told Laura that it was the worst moment of my presidency. I feel the same today.”
The President’s last costly mistake was waiting too long to deploy active-duty troops to restore order and stop the rampant crime and lawlessness.
For all the devastation caused, Katrina left a number of lasting impacts. One such impact was helping to improve the federal government’s ability to support state and local governments responding to major disasters. The number of restaurants in the city has now exceeded the pre-Katrina figure, the levees have been strengthened, a project has begun for 100-year flood protection, and, to show the resiliency of the city the New Orleans Saints became Super Bowl champions.
The most uplifting change, however, was in education. Deteriorating public schools had reopened as modern facilities with new teachers and leaders committed to reform and results. Dozens of new charter schools opened, and, for three consecutive years after Katrina, New Orleans’ students improved their test scores.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” pondered Bush as he exited an AIDS clinic in Africa. This trip sparked the transformation of a continent as the United States poured into the citizens of Africa due to the country’s moral responsibility to help relieve poverty and despair. With multiple pledges of capital, the International Mother and Child HIV Prevention Initiative, a large scale AIDS program PEPFAR, and the Malaria Initiative, the United States paved the way for a healthier Africa.
When Bush left office in January of 2009, PEPFAR had supported treatment for 2.1 million people and care for more than 10 million. American taxpayer dollars of help protected mothers and babies during more than 16 million pregnancies.
More than 57 million people have benefited from AIDS testing and counseling sessions. The malaria initiative was equally encouraging, cutting the malaria infection rates by more than 50%. While the challenges facing the African people remain daunting, the world is far more engaged now than ever before.
While America needed to eventually “take our hand off the bicycle seat,” as Donald Rumsfeld put it, timing was everything when it meant pulling troops from Iraq. Facing immense pressure from the American public, Bush was preparing to make the toughest and most unpopular decision of his presidency.
He made it clear that he would set troop levels to achieve victory in Iraq and not a victory at the polls. The administration believed political progress in Iraq was the path to security, ultimately allowing troops to return home. In June 2004, Iraq had become sovereign, and three successful elections transpired in 2005. By 2006 though, conditions had quickly deteriorated as fighters followed bin Laden to support the jihad in Iraq.
By this time, the war had stretched three years and America had lost more than 2,500 troops. For the first time, Bush worried the United States would not succeed. After consulting with his new Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, the administration decided on one of the three available options: to surge. The president committed 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq and took the country by storm.
In 2007, America was finally on the offensive again and things began to feel different. Interactions with the Iraqi people improved immensely as they were finally receiving what they had been promised all along: security.
When the surge ended in the summer of 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war, and Prime Minister Maliki emerged as a confident leader. The two now sovereign governments negotiated that the United States would withdraw forces by the end of 2011. Bush reflects often on whether or not he should have ordered the surge earlier. On the one hand, victory may have been won sooner.
On the other, acting too early may have created a rift that could have been exploited by war critics in Congress to cut off funding and prevent the surge from succeeding at all. In total 4,229 American service members gave their lives in Iraq during Bush’s presidency. To every single family who lost a loved one to the war during his time as president, Bush sent a handwritten letter.
These men and women made the United States safer, gave 25 million people the chance to live in freedom, and changed the direction of the Middle East for generations to come. This cause, in Bush’s opinion, is “eternally right.”
In a speech delivered in 1999, President Bush said, “I hope for continued growth – but it is not guaranteed. A president must work for the best case, and prepare for the worst.” In 2008 those words mattered more than ever before. Together the global pool of cash, easy monetary policy, the booming housing market, insatiable appetite for mortgage-backed assets, the complexity of Wall Street financial engineering, and leverage of financial institutions created a “house of cards.”
The structure was fated to collapse, but very few saw that at the time, including Bush. By signing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Bush had strengthened financial regulation, so his assumption was that any major credit trouble would be flagged by the regulators or rating agencies. This did not happen.
In March, Bear Stearns’ poor investment decisions left them on the brink of collapse. The president’s first inclination was to let them fail so as not to embolden other firms to take more risk, assuming they would be bailed out too. JP Morgan Chase appeared as a buyer, and, to facilitate the deal, the Fed planned to lend 30 billion against Bear’s undesirable mortgage holdings. Many denounced this decision as a bailout, but it was a measure made reluctantly to safeguard the American people from a severe economic hit.
Five months later, it became clear another investment house, Lehman Brothers, was going to fail in the next two days. Try as it may, the government was unable to find a buyer for Lehman like it had for Bear. The 158-year-old firm filed for bankruptcy. Following an emergency Fed loan made to AIG, it became clear that the problem was systemic.
The president decided that the government would be “all in” as the administration mounted an initiative called the Troubled Asset Relief Program with a $700 million price tag. When the vote on the bill failed, the Dow dropped 777 points – the largest single day point loss in its 112-year history. Bush and his economic team made another run at legislation as Congress watched the markets hemorrhage $1.2 trillion in less than three hours.
Two days later, the bill passed which sent a signal that the administration would not let the American financial system fail. In response, the Dow shot up 936 points, the largest single-day increase in stock market history.
In conclusion, Bush shares a number of candid thoughts pertaining to the financial sector. Some of these include the suggestion to privatize Fannie and Freddie to compete in the mortgage market on a level playing field and unwinding government involvement in the banking, auto, and insurance sectors.
Most of all, he reminds the reader that although the Fed chairman and board of governors are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the Fed sets monetary policy independent from the White House and Congress. “That’s the way should be,” he says
“an independent Fed is a crucial sign of stability to financial markets and investors around the globe.”
Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and the principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.