Baker Shows Contemplative Bush During Iraq War

America’s former president was hardly the cowboy of popular imagination.

Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (2013)
Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (2013)

When President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney finally left the White House in January 2009 after eight tumultuous years, the popularity of both men was at an historic low. Plagued by an oftentimes dysfunctional national security team, Bush departed the White House with the knowledge that his case for an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 would go into the confines of history as one of the worst intelligence blunders ever recorded. When combined with the worst financial crisis in the country’s history since the Great Depression happening on his watch, it raised the Republican leader’s disapproval rating to a 71 percent high at the end of his tenure. Cheney’s numbers were even worse.

By the time Barack Obama assumed the presidency as America’s first black president, the public was exhausted from the Bush years and perhaps as divided as it had ever been in modern times. Popular parlance often painted Bush as a one dimensional cowboy who was simply overwhelmed by the job; someone who relied heavily on his vice president for wisdom, to the point of implementing whatever his deputy said.

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, debunks most of these myths in his newly released book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. Of all the memoirs from senior Bush officials and accounts from authors about the Bush presidency that have come out since the Texan left office, none is as comprehensive, thoroughly researched and exciting as Baker’s project. By the time the book finishes after a whopping 658 pages, the reader has come to realize that George W. Bush was far more than a simpleton with thick skin immune to public criticism. He was, in essence, an emotional man who often went against the public grain doing what he thought was right for the safety and security of the United States.

The most consequential decision that the Bush-Cheney team made was, of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Like previous books about the war, Baker highlights the missteps and failures of America’s occupation of a multidimensional country in the heart of the Arab world — from the decision to follow a light footprint strategy during the initial invasion to the reliance on a flawed policy of transferring control to a corrupt and militia ridden Iraqi security force as quickly as possible. But what stands out in Baker’s work is his concentration on Bush’s state of mind during the worst years of the Iraq war, particularly in the summer of 2006 and the spring of 2007 when the American death toll was at its peak and it looked to even the most loyal Republican that the entire campaign would collapse.

During an internal White House strategy session in December 2006 that would begin to turn the war plan around, Stephen Biddle, a defense advisor called in to participate, said, “It was clear that Bush thought he was looking at a war he was about to go on the historical record as losing. He was clearly not happy. Everything suggested weight. His body looked like it felt heavy to him. He didn’t smile. The tone was very somber. No joking around. No light hearted anything.”

American president George W. Bush speaks with his vice president, Dick Cheney, at the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2008
American president George W. Bush speaks with his vice president, Dick Cheney, at the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2008 (National Archives)

Bush would experience the loneliest day of his presidency a few weeks later, when on January 10, 2007, he stepped up to the podium to announce a “surge” of another 30,000 troops in Iraq. His speech that night was incredibly sober, a far cry from the bombastic and confident addresses and press conferences he had given in the past. Baker describes those days in intimate detail.

For the president, it was, as Laura Bush later put it, “the loneliest of George’s decisions.” [Condoleezza] Rice saw the isolation as well. “It’s such a lonely job,” she said. “Nobody, no matter how close you are to the president, he carries that burden in many ways alone.” This was never more true than during the run-up to the surge decision. Almost no one, it seemed, supported it, at least at first, not the outgoing commanders in Iraq, not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not the Iraq Study Group, not the Iraqi prime minister, not Congress, not the public, not even his secretary of state and closest advisor.

Naturally, when the security situation in Iraq turned around in the fall of 2007 and spring of 2008, the Bush team felt at least a little vindication for the tough decision of increasing troop levels. Violence in Baghdad fell by nearly half after the full surge reinforcements had been deployed. Sunnis continued to fight with the Americans against Al Qaeda and American deaths were quickly decreasing to lows not seen since the invasion. But even during that time, Baker depicts a President Bush who constantly felt the strains of the war and the burdens of the office, knowing that ultimately he was responsible for the safety of American soldiers in a hotly contested warzone.

One gets the notion that, contrary to a widespread belief that the president was out-of-touch with the hard work that his troops were doing, Bush was a thoughtful man who committed himself to the soldiers and military families who sacrificed themselves for their country. Every injury or death of a soldier, it seemed, made the president all the more determined to get the strategy right.

Baker delves into every single issue of the Bush presidency, from tax cuts and the authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques to the firing of his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and a relationship with his vice president that was at the breaking point by the end of his second term. Yet it is Baker’s focus on Iraq, and Bush’s daily connection with it, that will serve readers most.

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