BUSH. By Jean Edward Smith. Simon & Schuster. 832 pages. $35.
The successes of George W. Bush’s two terms as president were vastly overshadowed by the invasion of Iraq, a horrendous decision that sprung from gut instinct and defied reasoned analysis, an acclaimed historian concludes in a comprehensive biography that pulls no punches.
In what Jean Edward Smith calls a “blunder of historic proportions,” Bush took down Saddam Hussein in a war predicated on baseless claims that he was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and then compounded the error by attempting to bring Western-style democracy to Iraq.
“Whether George W. Bush was the worst president in American history will be long debated,” the author concludes, “but his decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”
The 43rd president took office when the nation enjoyed a budget surplus, low unemployment and a decade in which no Americans had been killed in combat. When he left office, the economy was in shambles and the nation was enmeshed in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Bush was ill prepared for the complexities of being president and had scant experience and little interest in foreign affairs, the author asserts. Yet he prided himself on his decisiveness, most notably in his response to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. “He strutted around like a cowboy and then picked a fight with Iraq,” Smith writes.
Maintaining that Bush’s most critical decisions were his and his alone, the book brushes aside any suggestions that key administration figures such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice prodded the president toward war. More of a factor was Bush’s born-again religious faith that reinforced a world view that defined geopolitics in terms of good and evil.
“Believing he was the agent of God’s will, and acting with divine guidance, George W. Bush would lead the nation into two disastrous wars of aggression,” Smith writes.
The biographer is more charitable to his subject when it comes to domestic issues. Although faulting Bush for tax cuts whose main beneficiaries were the wealthy, the book applauds his education reform initiatives that broke with Republican orthodoxy and exemplified the “compassionate conservatism” he promoted.
The president’s fruitless push for comprehensive immigration reform and his success in shepherding legislation to ease the financial crisis through a skeptical Congress also draw praise.
Amid all the criticism, including the dilatory response to Hurricane Katrina, Smith is most effusive in support of Bush’s commitment to lead the global fight against AIDS, an often overlooked achievement of his presidency. The billions of dollars earmarked for drugs to Africa stands as the world’s largest health initiative to target a single disease.
The book draws on Bush’s public papers as well as memoirs of administration officials and other key figures from the period. Smith said Bush refused to be interviewed for the book because Smith had written a book that was highly critical of George H.W. Bush’s decision to launch the first Gulf War.
Smith ranks among the most eminent of today’s American biographers, having written critically acclaimed books on Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant and John Marshall, among others.
Although his latest work excoriates Bush for the Iraq invasion, the author credits his efforts in other spheres and presents a fair, comprehensive and highly readable account of a critical period that is sure to be reassessed by historians over the coming decades.