A Portrait of a Man Defined by His Wars
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Five days before Christmas 2001, a little more than three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that redefined his presidency, George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office for the first of what would become a series of six interviews about how he had chosen to exercise his most consequential power -- that of commander in chief.
At 55, he was a young president, filled with certainty. The war in Afghanistan appeared to be going well. The U.S. military had overthrown the Taliban regime and was hammering al-Qaeda sanctuaries. He kept photos of al-Qaeda leaders in his desk and showed how he had crossed through the pictures with a large "X" as each suspected terrorist was killed or captured. He explained: "One time early on, I said: 'I'm a baseball fan. I want a scorecard.' "
He confidently laid out grand goals. "We're going to root out terror wherever it may exist," he said. He talked of achieving "world peace" and of creating unity at home. "The job of the president," he said, "is to unite the nation."
Seven years later, as he sat for a final interview, President Bush remained a man of few doubts, still following his gut, convinced that the paths he chose in Afghanistan and Iraq were right. But in important ways, he was a different man entirely. It was more than the inevitable aging, more than the grayer hair, more than the deeper lines in his face or the noticeable paunch or the occasional slouching in his chair. During the first years of the Iraq war, the president spoke about "winning," or "victory." By May 2008, he had tempered his rhetoric. Twice in the last interview, he mentioned "win," then immediately corrected himself and substituted "succeed," a subtle but unmistakable scaling back that reflected the murky realities of a war with no foreseeable end.
Since the fall of 2001, about a half-million men and women of the U.S. military have served in Iraq. More than 4,100 have died, and another 30,000 have been seriously wounded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. As Bush prepares for the final four months of his presidency, almost 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, about the same number that undertook the ground invasion. The next president will inherit not just this war, but the ongoing and costly one in Afghanistan.
Any scorecard for the Bush presidency would focus on his performance as commander in chief: Did he set up and enforce a decision-making system worthy of the sacrifice he has asked of others, particularly the men and women of the U.S. military? Was he willing to entertain debate and consider alternative courses of action? Was he slow to act when his strategies were not working? Did he make the right changes? Did he make them in time? And was the Bush administration a place where people were held accountable?
These questions arose often during my seven years of reporting for four books on Bush and his wartime presidency. Interviews with dozens of administration officials and military officers, though focused on the events that dominated Bush's two terms in office, inevitably painted a portrait of the man, how he governed and what he is leaving behind. Those interviews, along with contemporaneous notes of meetings, show that President Bush often displayed impatience, bravado and unwavering personal certainty about his decisions. Perhaps most troubling to some in his administration, the result sometimes was a delayed reaction to realities and advice that ran counter to the president's gut instincts.
Just as war defines a nation, a president's leadership in war defines him.
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David Satterfield, a senior diplomat known as "the Human Talking Point," had watched the president up close for several years from his vantage point as Iraq coordinator for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Satterfield had reached some highly critical conclusions not shared by Rice: If Bush believed something was right, he believed it would succeed. Its very rightness ensured ultimate success. Democracy and freedom were right. Therefore, they would ultimately win out.
Bush, Satterfield observed, tolerated no doubt. His words and actions constantly reminded those around him that he was in charge. He was the decider. As a result, he often made biting jokes or asides to colleagues that Satterfield found deeply wounding and cutting.