It’s Impossible to Count the Things Wrong With the Negligent, Spurious, Distorted New Biography of George W. Bush
Jean Edward Smith’s biography is so replete with factual errors and specious judgments that an extended set of corrections and remonstrances seems warranted.
When I first heard that acclaimed historian and presidential biographer Jean Edward Smith was writing a biography of former President George W. Bush, I recall telling a fellow historian that I was cautiously optimistic it would be a well-crafted, insightful book and that I looked forward to its publication. I had read some of Smith’s earlier works, including biographies of former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and found the books to be elegantly written, carefully researched, and deeply insightful. But my optimism was tempered by the fact that the materials and perspectives of history are not yet available to Smith, or to any other would-be biographer of Bush.
How wrong I was to be optimistic at all.
Readers should be forewarned that this essay is longer than the customary book review. I beg their indulgence, because Smith’s biography, Bush, is so replete with factual errors and specious judgments that an extended set of corrections and remonstrances seems warranted for the sake of the historical record. All the more so because I am not aware of any other reviews to date that have identified the many flaws in the book. If anything, it has received some surprisingly positive assessments from the generally credible Peter Baker and Morton Kondracke in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, respectively. As I hope to demonstrate, such favorable reviews are wholly unwarranted.
Informed readers will know that the primary tools that we historians bring to our craft are original research — most often in archives, and sometimes through interviews in the case of more recent history — and the passage of time, which cools partisan passions and lends perspective and insight. Smith avails himself of neither of these tools. Other than a couple of cursory interviews with Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the book relies almost entirely on secondary sources and previously published books. Even a gratuitously sympathetic reviewer like Jason Zwengerle in the New York Times, concedes: “Smith’s biography of Bush unearths little new information on its subject. Most of Bush relies on previous books by journalists like Peter Baker, Robert Draper and Bob Woodward or the memoirs of key figures including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Bush himself.”
The book’s opening broadside puts Smith’s vendetta on full display: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” A strong charge, to be sure, and yet over page after page, instead of building a scholarly case for this scathing historical indictment, Smith instead produces a profoundly distorted caricature of Bush based on unreliable accounts, factual errors, and wildly implausible judgments. He also on occasion indulges in a viciousness that is unbecoming in a scholar of his stature.
In disclosure, I write this review from two perspectives: as a historian, and as a former Bush administration staff member who served five years at the State Department and the National Security Council. So, while I (like Smith) am hardly unbiased, I can claim familiarity with both the craft of history, the workings of the Bush administration, and the character and intellect of Bush.
As a historian who admires Smith’s previous works, I found the ineptitude of the research perhaps the most surprising and disappointing aspect of the book. Take one of the most egregious examples: an anecdote, which Smith relates with great relish, and upon which he bases much of his depiction of Bush as a warmongering religious zealot. According to Smith, in a January 2003 phone call between Bush and Frech President Jacques Chirac, during which Bush urged the French president to support a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, Bush allegedly told his counterpart, “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East. Biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins” (339). Smith then goes on at some length describing the obscure Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Gog and Magog (complex passages about which biblical scholars differ upon the meanings) and asserts, “biblical writings were determining Bush’s decision about war in the Middle East.” Moreover, in Smith’s account, this alleged presidential application of biblical prophecies to Iraq had a tremendous consequence in that it caused Chirac to decide to oppose the war: “Bush’s religious certitude and his invocation of Gog and Magog scuttled the possibility of French support for military action” (339).
The conversation is utterly and completely false. Bush never said these words to Chirac or anything of the sort to any other world leader. I have checked with multiple senior people with firsthand knowledge of the call Bush had with Chirac, and all confirmed that Bush never said anything remotely resembling those words.
No wonder Smith’s footnote for this passage only references an unreliable book by a partisan journalist, and that book in turn relates the Chirac anecdote without any sourcing whatsoever. The Chirac story has reverberated in the media for years, but Smith seems to be among the first serious (or credulous?) scholar to repeat it in print and treat it as fact. Peddling internet fabrications as facts and basing a significant thesis (Bush as war-crazed religious zealot) on those fabrications is scholarly malpractice.
That Smith never did the research necessary to verify this scurrilous story bespeaks a larger interpretive failure on his part. Anyone who knows Bush, or even knows anything about him, on hearing the Gog and Magog story would immediately think, “That just doesn’t sound at all like Bush.” Yes, he is a man who speaks openly about his faith, but that is hardly unusual for an American president – Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Eisenhower, and many other presidents did so as well. But Bush never focused on or even spoke about obscure and contested biblical prophecies, or try to relate them to current events, let alone use them as a basis for momentous national security decisions. Here is the deeper tragedy of Smith’s book. Having spent many hours reading secondary sources on Bush, Smith never developed enough of a familiarity with the man to intuit that the Chirac story did not ring true. Rather, it seems that Smith’s partisan contempt for Bush so distorted his perceptions that he became willing to believe even the most outlandish fabrications about Bush — as long as they were negative and conformed to Smith’s biases.
Consider another example, on which Smith bases an entire chapter purportedly exploring the intellectual framework of the Bush administration, titled “March of the Hegelians.” He frames the chapter with a remark by former White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove, wherein he allegedly dismissed the “reality-based community” which operates on the basis of empirical evidence, and instead pronounced, “that’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality…we are history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Smith then argues that “the grandiose view that Rove expounded lies at the root of the international debacle engineered by the Bush administration” (page 175). A strong charge, and damning if true. But again, it is a categorical falsehood. I contacted Rove and he confirmed for the record that he never said this or anything resembling it (a “damned lie” were his exact words). And anyone who knows Rove — his fans and informed critics alike — would immediately suspect that quote to be a fabrication, since Rove neither talks or thinks that way at all. Yet Smith, all too willing to believe the most hysterical caricatures of the Bush administration, not only gleefully repeats this fiction but bases a substantial portion of his argument on it.
When not treating fabricated quotes as revealing facts, Smith makes other errors that further distort his analysis. A favorite rhetorical device he employs is the sweeping historical assertion, along the lines of “never before in American history…” or “not since the presidency of [insert long-ago American president]…” followed by a ritual condemnation of the Bush administration for some sort of egregious deviation from the mainstream of American history. Some of Smith’s assertions are matters of opinion and interpretation that historians can debate, but at times his oracular pronouncements are factually wrong.
For example, describing an early meeting between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Smith observes how Bush and Putin agreed to each designate one senior trusted official to handle sensitive matters that might arise in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Putin designated Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Bush designated National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The choice of Rice for this role stirs Smith’s umbrage. In his words, “The asymmetry is striking. Bush chose a member of his White House staff who had no ministerial responsibility. Not since F.D.R. and Harry Hopkins had executive power been so personalized.” Smith repeatedly returns to this allegation, that Bush elevated the position of national security advisor to unprecedented authority, at the expense of cabinet secretaries.
As a matter of the historical record, this is simply incorrect. Smith attempts to depict the position of national security advisor as a mere mid-level administrative functionary. Yet that has not been the case since the Eisenhower administration. From John F. Kennedy’s elevation of the position under McGeorge Bundy, every president since has treated the national security advisor as co-equal with, and in many cases even superior to, cabinet secretaries. Thus, in addition to Bundy, the likes of Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon, Zbigniew Brzezinski under Carter, Brent Scowcroft under George H. W. Bush, and Sandy Berger under Bill Clinton, all enjoyed authority similar to cabinet officials, functioned as principals in conducting negotiations with foreign leaders, and held considerable sway in forging American national security policy.
The purported “personalization of foreign policy,” unprecedented since the F.D.R. administration, of which Smith accuses Bush, turns out instead merely to be the customary practice of virtually every president since F.D.R. Even setting aside the fact that Rice was one of the world’s foremost experts on Russia, Bush’s choice of her to take the lead in the U.S.-Russia relationship was entirely appropriate and consistent with historical precedent. Putin and Ivanov no doubt realized this, even if Smith does not.
These are some of Smith’s large errors, but he makes many smaller ones as well. I eventually stopped counting and am almost sure I missed some, but a partial list includes the following: Elliott Abrams did not work in the George H.W. Bush Administration (xviii); President Bush spoke at the Yale graduation ceremony in 2001, not 2004 (1, 14); Logan Walters has not worked for Bush since 2002 and could not have been the staff member that Smith claims turned down his interview request (xxi-xxii); Bush was not the first Texas governor to win two consecutive terms, as his gubernatorial predecessors including Coke Stevenson, Price Daniel, Allen Shivers, John Connally, and Dolph Briscoe (among others) had all done before him (95); Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas is not in the Texas Hill Country (93, 97); Bush was not the only candidate in the 2000 Republican primary to identify as a “born-again Christian” — others included Elizabeth Dole and Gary Bauer (104); Andy Card served as secretary of transportation, not secretary of commerce, in the Bush 41 administration (153); Richard Armitage was deputy secretary of state, not under secretary (481); Bill Burck served in the White House counsel’s office, not as a speechwriter (504); and so on. Individually, each of these errors may be trivial, but collectively they display a sloppiness that undermines confidence in the integrity of the research and the reliability of the conclusions. (While Smith is ultimately responsible for the content of his book, this litany of errors and dubious anecdotes also does not reflect well on the fact-checking and editorial oversight at publisher Simon and Schuster.)
Smith’s judgments form some of the most problematic aspects of the book. Given the biography’s almost complete lack of original research and the previously cited errors, it should not be too surprising that Smith renders some suspect verdicts. Yet reading them is still jarring. For example, he repeatedly disparages the decision to invade Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks as a “disastrous war of aggression,” a “war of choice,” a “costly and futile war,” and so forth. These are strong charges, yet they also violate an important principle of historical evaluations: Historical actors should be judged by the options reasonably available to them at the time, rather than some sort of retrospective ideal. Here it bears recalling that after September 11, virtually every national security policy expert, every senior military officer, every leader of allied nations, every member of Congress (save one, Rep. Barbara Lee of California), and overwhelming majorities of the American public all favored the United States attacking the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Yes, in the years since there have been important and legitimate debates about issues such as the American strategy, resourcing, and conduct of the Afghanistan war; misalignment of political and military goals; whether we should still maintain a troop presence; and so forth. But virtually no credible voice then or even now would say that the United States was unjustified in launching the attacks in the first place. However, that is Smith’s position, and he disparages the war with epithets such as a “war of choice” and “war of aggression.” Tellingly, he suggests no viable alternatives that the Bush administration could have followed instead of launching military operations against Afghanistan. The closest he comes is an oblique hint that Bush should have merely pursued a diplomatic agreement whereby the Taliban relinquished its alliance with al Qaeda. Of course, Bush did offer such an entente to the Taliban, which summarily rejected that option and reaffirmed its alliance with al Qaeda. As such, Bush’s consequent decision to pursue military action against the Taliban-al Qaeda regime was entirely justified on strategic, legal, and moral grounds, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, affirmed by NATO, authorized by overwhelming bipartisan votes in Congress, and supported by virtually the entire body politic of the American people.
It appears that Smith bases his judgments in part on a disturbing trivialization of the catastrophic harm America suffered on that day. “The events of 9/11 were tragic, but scarcely catastrophic,” he writes, and “rather than reassuring the country that everyone was safe, Bush blustered about war.” For a historian, this is a particularly inapt assessment. Nowhere does Smith acknowledge that 9/11 was the bloodiest and costliest attack on the United States in our entire history. It was singularly unprecedented in the scale of casualties, the successful targeting of buildings at the epicenter of American economic and military power, and the trauma it inflicted on our nation’s collective psyche. et all of this seems to escape Smith in his quest to minimize the scale and severity of the attacks. The strongest language he can muster is that 9/11 “violated the universal norms of civilized society” — as if Osama bin Laden were guilty of bad manners rather than the most barbaric and bloody war crimes committed against America in our nation’s history.
After September 11, the United States was not safe, and the last thing we needed was a president spouting platitudes that we were. Smith seems to arrive at this bizarre assessment because he fails to address in even a cursory manner the nature and depravity of al Qaeda and its intentions towards the United States. He neglects to mention that al Qaeda had declared war on the United States several years earlier, repeatedly stating its intention to destroy the United States, repeatedly attacked American civilian and military targets, and deliberately employed tactics designed to inflict the largest possible numbers of civilian deaths — tactics which virtually all legal scholars defined as “acts of war.” Instead, Smith sanctimoniously disparages Bush’s decision to frame the conflict with al Qaeda as a “war,” which “betrayed Bush’s utter ignorance of history and the real world.” Rather, Bush “was structuring another Crusade against the evildoers of the Muslim world.”
Not content to merely score Bush for taking unwarranted aggressive actions after 9/11, Smith smugly and brazenly makes the opposite argument as well, that Bush’s assertive counterterrorism policies after 9/11 did not keep America safe. Smith writes, “to argue that by taking the actions that he did, the president kept America safe is meretricious.” He may take this for granted in hindsight, but as any intelligence official or national security policymaker can attest, the terrorist plots against the United States in the seven and a half years of Bush’s presidency after 9/11 were pervasive, serious, and deadly. Bush made the strategic decisions to shift to a war paradigm, develop a new counterterrorism legal architecture, intelligence structure, and military capabilities, and incur considerable domestic and international criticism for the assertive measures he employed against terrorism. Contrary to Smith’s haughty dismissal, it is the denial that Bush kept America safe that merits the term “meretricious.”
Smith also fails to mention that the Barack Obama administration has largely adopted the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategic framework and instruments. As a historian, Smith should appreciate that some of the most important historical judgments on particular presidents are rendered by their successors, especially successors of opposite parties who still embrace their predecessor’s main strategic architecture. Such was also the case with Eisenhower, who largely adopting President Harry S. Truman’s containment framework for the Cold War. If anything, if Smith opposes these counterterrorism policies and tools as strenuously as he claims, he should be even more vicious in his criticism of the Obama administration for largely adopting the Bush framework once in office — especially after the Obama team had severely criticized the Bush approach on the campaign trail in 2008, only to reverse and adopt most of those policies after inauguration.
After denying Bush any credit for protecting the nation against further attacks, Smith goes further and blames Bush for any terrorist threats that the nation does face. As he puts it, “the threat of terrorism that confronts the United States is in many respects a direct result of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.” But Smith just states this as an article of faith, and offers no evidence for such an overwrought assertion. In fact, as every serious counterterrorism expert knows, the jihadist threat existed well before the Iraq invasion, and has continued and metastasized through to today in many ways that have nothing to do with the Iraq war. Instead of Smith’s reckless calumny, a more scrupulous and nuanced assessment of the Iraq War’s effect on jihadism would find a complex relationship wherein the American troop presence and chaos in Iraq certainly inspired and attracted a large number of new jihadists, but also had a “flypaper” effect, which, when combined with lethal advances in American intelligence and counterterrorism operations, led to the near decimation of al Qaeda in Iraq by 2009. Meanwhile, other al Qaeda franchises and other jihadist groups have proliferated over the last 15 years in places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Algeria, and Nigeria, and their growth in numbers and in hostility to the United States has had almost nothing to do with the Iraq War.
In his ideological zeal to caricature Bush as a “crusader” against the Muslim world, Smith also overlooks inconvenient facts that do not serve his polemic. Bush deliberately engaged in outreach to American Muslims immediately following 9/11, including visiting the Washington Islamic Center just days after the attacks, publicly describing Islam as a “religion of peace,” appointing American Muslims such as Zalmay Khalilzad and Farah Pandith to senior foreign policy positions, and holding annual iftar dinners at the White House. In taking these and other actions that made clear that the United States was not at war with Islam and that the vast majority of Muslims were America’s allies in the fight, Bush drew on his appreciation for history, particularly his determination to avoid the sordid mistake F.D.R. had made of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. Why does Smith fail to even mention these facts about Bush’s historically and morally informed outreach to Muslims, all while repeatedly disparaging Bush for one offhand (and quickly retracted) comment that mentioned the word “crusade”? I do not know, but suspect it is because these facts conflict with the caricature of Bush that Smith desperately wants to draw.
The Patriot Act
I am indebted to Professor Robert Chesney of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law for helping shape the following section on the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act sends Smith into a frenzy of righteous indignation. Yet once again, his treatment of it demonstrates his familiar problems with facts and historical perspective. He denounces the act as “a direct assault on the civil liberties Americans enjoy” and calls it potentially “the most ill-conceived piece of domestic legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.” This moral judgment is perverse. Does Smith really believe that the Patriot Act is worse than legal atrocities such as the Indian Removal Act, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Sedition Act of 1918, or the Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded entire categories of human beings based on race?
In painting the Patriot Act as an assault on the Constitution, passed only because of “the atmosphere of fear that 9/11 engendered and the Bush Administration abetted,” Smith conveniently fails to mention that in the ensuing 15 years its main features have been repeatedly reauthorized by bipartisan majorities in Congress, and embraced and even expanded by the Obama administration. Furthermore, many of the most controversial aspects of the original act had sunset provisions, yet those also have largely been renewed by bipartisan Congressional majorities and with the support of the Obama administration.
Consider Smith’s cursory treatment of the portion of the Patriot Act that most experts consider central to any debate about the scope of the government’s domestic surveillance authority. Prior to the Patriot Act, the government could not seek permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct surveillance on suspected agents of foreign powers once criminal prosecution became the government’s primary purpose. The 9/11 Commission eventually would declare this “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence to be not only an erroneous legal interpretation, but also a primary cause of the government’s failure to detect and prevent the 9/11 plot. Smith mentions none of this, and indeed fails to spell out just what the Patriot Act did to tear down the wall. Instead, he simply offers a pejorative reference to expanded domestic surveillance. This is a disservice to his readers and an unfaithful rendering of the Act’s provisions.
The only specifics Smith offers in support of his demonization of the Patriot Act come when he notes that “three provisions of the act have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.” But continuing his troubling pattern of errors and distortions, Smith’s accounts of two of those court decisions are seriously wrong.
One of the cases he cites concerns the 1996 statute making it a crime to provide material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations. The idea behind this law is to subject foreign terrorist groups to strict embargoes, just as happens on occasion with hostile foreign states. The Patriot Act merely added to the definition the category of “expert advice or assistance.” Smith seizes on this, noting that a district court in California ultimately concluded that the “expert advice or assistance” provision was unconstitutionally vague. And so it did. What Smith neglects to mention is the minor detail that the Supreme Court of the United States ultimately reversed that decision, affirming the constitutionality of the statute after all. This is a staggering failure of research or of basic understanding by Smith. (Curiously, the Wikipedia page on the Patriot Act has a section cataloging legal challenges to the statute, and happens to cite the same three cases that Smith cites — and, like Smith, neglects to mention the Supreme Court’s reversal in that case.)
Smith’s account of the third case is completely wrong. He cites a ruling by a district judge in Oregon that, he claims, struck down the part of the Patriot Act that clarified the authority of judges to authorize delayed-notification of search warrants (which he snidely calls “sneak and peek” warrant authority). And interestingly, that is precisely how the Wikipedia entry on the Patriot Act, noted above, describes the case. Alas, this is a complete misunderstanding of what happened, and not one that requires any effort to detect once one actually reads the case itself. Yes, the fact pattern in that case did include several warrants of that type, and yes, the plaintiff argued that they were unconstitutional. But the court ruled on entirely different grounds, concluding that the government’s separate use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during the investigation at issue violated the Fourth Amendment. Ironically, if Smith had actually read the case and seen this, he would have known to cite it as relevant to his otherwise-unexplained criticism of the Patriot Act’s attempt to tear down the “wall” as discussed above. In that case, however, he also would need to cite the many cases that reached the opposite conclusion (and that, unlike this one, were not vacated on appeal for lack of standing). One cannot say for certain that Smith relied on Wikipedia for his legal research, but the similarities between the Wikipedia entry’s critiques and errors and Smith’s critiques and errors at a minimum should raise an eyebrow.
Then there is the Iraq War. Smith devotes more attention to this than any other topic in the book. And yet, because he relies almost exclusively on secondary sources and has failed to do any meaningful original research, his account sheds virtually no new insight on any aspect of the war — such as the Bush administration’s changed risk calculus in the post-September 11 environment, Bush’s own deliberations and decision-making, the inter-agency divisions and disputes that hindered post-war planning, the intelligence challenge posed by a dictator who wanted the world to believe that he possessed weapons of mass destruction when in fact he did not, the swift success of the initial military operation, the multiple insurgencies that followed, and Bush’s eventual decision to adopt a new counterinsurgency strategy and increase in troop strength. Instead, Smith offers a fairly conventional narrative retelling of the war, based on previously published journalistic accounts by the likes of Bob Woodward, Peter Baker, and Tom Ricks.
The sections on Iraq are not immune from Smith’s propensity for factual errors, which sometimes influence his interpretive mistakes. For example, he returns again and again to the assertion that it was not until over a month after the original Iraq invasion that Bush summarily invented the goal of establishing a democracy in Iraq, in his “Mission Accomplished” remarks aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Smith accuses Bush of using the speech to “unilaterally changing the plan” to replace the Saddam Hussein dictatorship with a democracy, and claims this is the first time that Bush ever announced the strategic objective of a democratic Iraq. Which would be a significant violation of the commander-in-chief’s responsibility — if it were true. But what Smith fails to mention is that Bush had declared the goal of leaving behind a democratic government in Iraq months earlier, before the invasion. For example, in his speech to the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003, Bush laid out an extensive case for why the removal of the Hussein regime would best be followed by a democratic government accountable to its people: “The nation of Iraq–with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people–is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.” This speech was widely noted at the time, even prompting a New York Times editorial the next day. By the time the invasion commenced, the strategic goal of changing the regime in Iraq and giving the Iraqi people an opportunity at self-governance was widely known by all elements of the American government involved in the operation, including the Pentagon and State Department. The problems developed from the administration’s failure to clarify precisely when and how the new government would form, especially whether it would be made up of Iraqi exiles or internal Iraqi leaders, and what the precise American role would be. Smith ignores all this in his effort to hang on Bush the false charge of changing the goal well after the invasion.
To be clear, this is not at all to excuse the many mistakes and failures of the Bush administration in the post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq. Those mistakes were legion and costly — and one can read candid accounts about them in just about any memoir by a senior Bush administration official, including Bush’s own book, Decision Points. Rather, the important point here is that in his jeremiad against Bush, Smith invents a critique that gets essential facts wrong.
Smith’s lack of research and original insights into the war do not prevent him from making it the centerpiece of his evaluation of Bush, or from declaring in the final sentence of his book that Bush’s “decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.” Partisan readers already predisposed to disdain for Bush might nod approvingly at that inflammatory charge. But other readers will be disappointed to see that Smith offers absolutely no evidence for this extreme assertion. He does not undertake any comparison of the Iraq War to other costly or controversial presidential decisions in American history (such as, for example, Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 decision to escalate our troop commitment in Vietnam, which led to almost 60,000 American deaths, the first military defeat in our nation’s history, and substantial global setbacks in the Cold War) and explain why he thinks Iraq was so much worse. Nor does he even begin to offer a net assessment of the successes and failures, and benefits and costs, of the war. The costs and failures are well known and grim, including the over 4,000 American troops killed in action and thousands more physically maimed, the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, the damage to American credibility, the incitement of more terrorists, and the further destabilization of the region. But the war’s successes and benefits need to be accounted for as well, including the removal from power of a genocidal dictator who had already destabilized the region for over two decades (having invaded two of his neighboring countries, threatened to invade a third, and attacked a fourth), Muammar al Qaddafi’s voluntary relinquishment of his weapons of mass destruction stockpile in Libya, and the fact that upon leaving office in January 2009, Bush left to his successor an Iraq that was relatively stable and peaceful, with a reasonably functioning elected government, and with al Qaeda in Iraq almost completely defeated.
Here, as in so many other ways, Smith’s book represents a missed opportunity. A gifted historian such as he could have conducted original research, taken a fresh and objective look at the Iraq War, and developed an informed and nuanced critique that offered new insights on the war in all of its complexities. Such an approach could still render judgments, even severe ones, on the war — but would do so with intellectual credibility. Instead, the Iraq War will continue to await a balanced and insightful scholarly assessment that places it in the context of the Age of Terrorism, the ongoing Middle East revolutions, and the challenges of presidential decision-making in environments of threat and uncertainty.
Religious distortions and missed opportunities
A particularly distasteful aspect of the book is the contempt that Smith displays towards Bush’s religious faith. Over and over again, Smith disparages Bush for “religious fundamentalism” and “religious certitude. Smith writes: “by recruiting Christianity as his ally and mainstreaming religious invocations into official business he was structuring another Crusade against the evildoers of the Muslim world.” These are not mere snide asides, but form the core of Smith’s depiction of Bush as some sort of deluded religious zealot. As shown above in the Gog and Magog anecdote, some of these most extreme and bizarre slanders are simply fabrications. But what of Bush’s regular habits of prayer, scripture reading, and professions of reliance on God and trust in divine providence? Here Smith’s considerable historical knowledge seems to have failed him, or he would have realized that Bush is remarkably unexceptional in his faith and stands in a long line of American presidents who believed, talked, and acted in the same manner.
These include some presidents who were subjects of previous biographies by Smith. For example, in an October 27, 1941 radio address warning the American people of the threat of Nazism, F.D.R. proclaimed a veritable religious war:
In the place of the churches of our civilization, there is to be set up an international Nazi church — a church which will be served by orators sent out by the Nazi government. In the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as Holy Writ. And in place of the cross of Christ will be put two symbols — the swastika and the naked sword. We stand ready in the defense of our Nation and the faith of our fathers to do what God has given us the power to see as our full duty.
Truman, F.D.R.’s successor, used similar language in a 1951 speech rallying Americans to confront the Soviet threat: “The international Communist movement is based on a fierce and terrible fanaticism. It denies the existence of God, and wherever it can it stamps out the worship of God…. God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.”
Eisenhower, whom Smith oddly and inaccurately tries to portray as spiritually indifferent, became the first president in American history to compose and deliver his own prayer at his inauguration. Eisenhower continued in this vein while in office, opening his first cabinet meeting in prayer (not a silent prayer as Smith alleges), calling the Cold War a “holy war,” and saying, “What is our battle against communism if it is not a fight between anti-God and a belief in the Almighty?” Likewise, Presidents Carter and Reagan both believed they had been ordained by God to lead the United States at the times they did — Reagan’s conviction of a divine calling becoming especially firm after he survived the assassination attempt. Similar quotes and sentiments could be cited for the vast majority of the presidents throughout American history
In his effort to smear and marginalize Bush, Smith disregards this rich tradition of presidents who spoke openly about their faith and defined global threats and America’s calling in spiritual terms. Nor is Smith’s contempt confined to Bush. In a similar vein of religious bigotry, Smith writes darkly of a “phalanx of subcabinet appointees” and cites only four by name: Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Doug Feith. In Smith’s telling, “never before in American history has an administration come to power with a subcabinet echelon of like-minded ideologues … dedicated to a common purpose, and armed with a game plan ready to be implemented.” The four Bush appointees Smith singles out by name in this alleged conspiracy are all Jewish. Perceptive readers will detect the ugliness and unfortunate historical echoes of his description. (Not to mention that, once again, Smith abuses the “never before in American history” trope; previous administrations such as those of F.D.R., Nixon, Carter, and Reagan had also brought in groups of like-minded staff fervently committed to common beliefs).
Over the course of almost 700 pages, there are many other deficiencies and errors that could each merit their own extensive rebuttal, such as how Smith repeatedly misstates and misunderstands the role of the National Security Council and especially the national security advisor. Or how he mischaracterizes the strategic, legal, and political dimensions of the concept of “war” in American history. Or how he several times credulously cites as authoritative gossip maven Kitty Kelley’s book, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, and Russ Baker’s conspiracy-mongering book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years, which, among other absurdities, tries to implicate the Bush family in the Kennedy assassination. Or how Smith disparages Bush as intellectually incurious (e.g. “reading and reflection were not part of the president’s routine”) yet fails to note that Bush was perhaps the most avid presidential reader of history books since F.D.R. and regularly convened salon discussions with eminent scholars.
Can anything good be said about this book? Of course. Smith has a well-earned reputation as a gifted stylist, and his lapidary prose is clear and energetic, with occasionally elegant turns of phrase. For all of his contempt for his subject, he occasionally allows himself to offer words of praise for Bush, in areas such as the historic HIV/AIDS relief program in Africa, courageous decisions in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, and the smooth presidential transition that Bush engineered for incoming President Obama. Smith also writes in a perceptive and balanced way (albeit with little original insight) about Bush’s gubernatorial years in Texas.
These few merits are not redemptive. One feature that distinguishes history from, say, journalism, is the enhanced perspective that comes with the passing of time. Historians can look back and assess the meaning of events in light of subsequent developments and the broadened scope of insight that comes with knowing how the many strands of the story eventually played out. In this sense, a historical perspective often highlights events that may have been relatively unnoticed at the time they occurred, and conversely sometimes downplays events that may have dominated the headlines at the time but in hindsight appear less consequential. (Historian David Greenberg makes some similar observations in his otherwise sympathetic review).
Unfortunately Smith’s book lacks any such historical sensibility. It merely rehashes in sequence the various headline events of the Bush administration, interspersed with Smith’s snide editorializing.
Had Smith adopted a more historical perspective, he might have explored foreign policy developments during the Bush administration that did not command headlines at the time but in hindsight might well turn out to be very consequential — especially those policy lines that have been adopted by the Obama administration. Here are a few examples of these, all of which Smith either minimizes or fails to mention at all:
- By the time Bush left office, America’s relations with the great powers were largely stable and constructive, including ties to Britain, China, France, Germany, and Japan. The U.S.-India relationship was transformed. The only exception to this great power stability was Russia; notwithstanding Bush’s considerable efforts towards a productive relationship, by 2008 Putin had embarked on a revanchist path exemplified by his invasion of Georgia.
- Bush established a combination of targeted sanctions and diplomatic mechanisms for managing conflict and creating multilateral pressure on regimes with weapon of mass destruction programs, such as the Six Party talks on North Korea and the P5+1 framework for negotiations with Iran. These were not just tools, but represented new conceptual approaches.
- Informed in part by his interest in early Cold War history, Bush presided over the creation of new institutions to address the challenges of the 21st century. Some have worked well, others have not, but all are consequential and merit scholarly attention. Within the U.S. government, these included the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. nternationally, these included the G-20 and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
- As early as November 2003, Bush diagnosed the brittleness and popular discontent plaguing the autocracies that ruled the Middle East, and warned that American support for these regimes was not a sustainable policy. While he did not formally “predict” the onset of the Arab Spring seven years later, he stood ahead of his time in highlighting the conditions that would convulse the Middle East and confound American policy in the years since.
- Bush faced the diplomatic challenges and opportunities of managing the “color revolutions” of 2003 to 2005 across Eurasia, including Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon, and similarly became the first president to meet in the White House with Chinese dissidents active in China as part of a larger strategy of supporting civil society and accountable governance in China. These developments anticipated today’s global debates over authoritarian capitalism and representative government.
- Bush presided over the beginnings of a technological and economic renaissance in North American oil and gas production that is now giving the United States more global freedom of action and significant geopolitical advantages.
- In his second term, Bush spoke out frequently against what he perceived to be growing public sentiments favoring “isolationism, protectionism, and nativism.” A decade later, Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican presidential nomination would seem to make Bush’s warnings worthy of historical re-examination.
There are hints that even Smith himself may be reassessing his own disparagement of Bush. On the last page of his book, the author makes the acid suggestion that “whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated.” However, in a Washington Post op-ed he wrote last month praising Bush’s “exemplary” conduct as an ex-president, Smith reiterates what he sees as some of Bush’s presidential mistakes and then says, “but that does not mean Bush was America’s worst president,” followed by a listing of some of Bush’s presidential accomplishments.
Perhaps in this year of Trump, Smith is just beginning to regain some of the historical perspective and judiciousness that otherwise seem to have abandoned him in the writing of this disgraceful book.
Photo credit: AUDE GUERRUCCI-Pool/Getty Images
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