The Bush Tragedy (By Jacob Weisburg)

Sins of the Son

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Reviewed by Michael Getler
Sunday, January 20, 2008


By Jacob Weisberg

Random House. 271 pp. $26

Well before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, some experienced people raised their voices against it. One was Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to George H.W. Bush, the 41st president. Scowcroft made his point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on Aug. 15, 2002, headlined "Don't Attack Saddam."

Because Scowcroft was so close to Bush 41, the piece was widely viewed, as Jacob Weisberg puts it in The Bush Tragedy, as "a worried father's only way of communicating with his bellicose son." But that son, the 43rd president, reacted to Scowcroft "not as a concerned uncle but as an irksome surrogate for his dad." Scowcroft, the younger Bush was quoted as saying, "has become a pain in the ass in his old age."

After five years of war in Iraq, it remains remarkable how little we know about exactly how, why, when and in whose presence one of the most important -- and maybe one of the worst -- decisions in recent American history was made. Nor can we be sure what, if anything, the complex relationship of two presidents, father and son, both of whom have gone to war against Saddam Hussein, had to do with it.

Indeed, we may never know to what extent George W. Bush, who famously labeled himself "the decider," consciously sees himself as the "anti-Poppy" -- the opposite of his cautious, deliberative, internationalist father. But The Bush Tragedy is a serious, thought-provoking effort to penetrate what instinct tells us must be an extraordinary family drama.

This is not a book of extensive original reporting. Rather, it is one of analysis built upon much that has already been reported, and much that is observable but not so often reported. Pulling together Bush's personal history and his relationship to his family, to his faith and to his surrogate family in the White House, Weisberg concludes that the decision to invade Iraq grew out of a predisposition "to vindicate his family and outdo his father" by "completing a job his dad left unfinished" when the senior Bush allowed Saddam Hussein to remain in power at the conclusion of the first Gulf War.

Well, maybe. It is certainly plausible that the father-son dynamic played a central role in the decision. But many people who are not part of the Bush family also supported an invasion because, based on what they had been told, they saw Saddam Hussein as a threat. Indeed, Weisberg himself was one of those so-called "liberal hawks," an early supporter of the war who acknowledges that "the logic behind the invasion of Iraq was coherent."

At its core, The Bush Tragedy is a portrait of a deeply flawed president and presidency based upon a very big dose of psychoanalysis. Weisberg -- editor-in-chief of the online daily magazine Slate, which is owned by The Washington Post Company -- is a talented writer and political analyst. But he is not a psychoanalyst, and the president's defenders will undoubtedly accuse him of psychobabble. His many flat assertions about what really makes Bush tick ("illegal weapons had never been his real reason for going to war") may make this book easy for some to brush off.

Yet Weisberg also provides a broad, dark, nuanced way of thinking about why we went to war -- a value that far outweighs his amateur shrink and converted believer status. "Act One of the Bush Tragedy," he writes, was "the son's struggle to be like his dad until the age of forty." Act Two was "his growing success over the next fifteen years as he learned to be different." And the "conclusive third act" has been a "botched search for a doctrine to clarify world affairs" and a "progressive descent into messianism."

The "final irony" of Bush's disastrous venture into Iraq, Weisberg argues, is that "it vindicated his father's choices," particularly the elder Bush's decisions in 1990-91 to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from neighboring Kuwait but not to topple the Iraqi dictator, for fear of setting off a violent power struggle among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Because exactly such a struggle has occurred since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Weisberg writes, what once looked like Bush 41's failure to finish the job "now looked like an act of wisdom. . . . Appreciating the value of stability now sounded like maturity. Avoiding needlessly bellicose rhetoric seemed like common sense." And so a son who wanted a parental "acknowledgement that he, not [brother] Jeb, was the outstanding son" and "who tried to vindicate his family by repudiating his father's policies ended up doing the opposite of what he intended."

What also strikes one reading this book in January 2008 is that incumbent presidents and ongoing wars are moving targets, and that things can change after the writing is finished. Weisberg leaves himself some wiggle room, saying "it would be foolish to answer Bush's untethered confidence with a correspondingly definitive judgment of failure. Time and competent successors," he says, could turn Iraq into "less of a catastrophe."

From a military standpoint, at least, things do seem to be getting better in Iraq, and that improvement could grow into something more positive than most critics could have imagined a few months ago. On the other hand, no matter how Iraq turns out, it doesn't alter the manner in which this country was taken to war under false premises based on false intelligence stated with false certainty. Nor will it change the incompetence with which that war has been managed, or its huge cost in lives, treasure and reputation.

The Bush Tragedy is a relentless indictment not just of the president but of his surrogate family members as well -- Vice President Dick Cheney and top political adviser Karl Rove, in particular. Weisberg does not depict the president as Cheney's puppet, even on Iraq -- though he does contend that the vice president recognizes Bush's need "to make himself his father's antithesis." He sees Cheney's cardinal sin as pushing Bush toward open-ended claims of executive authority and privilege. As for Rove, Weisberg argues that he "put an indelible political stamp on the War on Terror" by seizing on the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to generate a political realignment that would keep the GOP in power for many years. Reinforcing Bush's worst instinct by politicizing the war was Rove's greatest disservice, ensuring that Bush would lose the ability to pull the country together, Weisberg says.

The Bush Tragedy does not maintain that the father-son relationship was the only factor in Bush's decisions on Iraq. The book mentions the intellectual influence of Middle East scholars Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami; the conspiracy theories of author Laurie Mylroie linking 9/11 and Saddam; and the internal assessments of presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, now an op-ed columnist at The Post, who "more than anyone else, promoted the idea that a providential mantle had descended upon the president." It also reminds us of the unsolved anthrax attacks just a month after 9/11 and their extraordinary effect inside an administration that feared they were the precursor to massive bio-terrorism. Weisberg even says, "Without the anthrax attacks, Bush probably would not have invaded Iraq." That may be a conjecture too far -- and it would seem to contradict the thrust of this book.

One of my favorite books about the war, George Packer's widely acclaimed The Assassins' Gate, also addresses the question of just why the United States invaded Iraq . Packer describes a telling exchange with Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning at the time, who said he expects to go to his grave not knowing the reason. In the end, Packer writes, Haass seemed to believe it was just something some people wanted to do. *

Michael Getler, a former ombudsman for The Post, is the ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting Service.

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