By Cindy Carroll
President George H. W. Bush enjoyed showing his friends the White House painting of President Abraham Lincoln and his Civil War generals. Bush would point to the painting and assert that all of America’s great presidents were tested by fire. Bush, a decorated World War II hero and experienced Cold War warrior, would have an opportunity to prove himself as America’s commander-in-chief during the 1991 Gulf War. His son George W. Bush, only the second U.S. presidential offspring to also hold the presidency, will be judged for his own wartime decisions.
Palgrave Macmillan has just released Test by Fire: The War Presidency of George W. Bush (the latest volume in its series “The Evolving American Presidency”), written by Dr. Robert H. Swansbrough, political science professor at UT Chattanooga. Swansbrough’s assessment of Bush’s performance raises questions about how the Iraq War and Bush’s Middle East policies will affect the 2008 presidential election.
In an interview with NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, President Bush defined himself with the statement “I’m a war president. I made decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign-policy matters with war on my mind.”
“Has he been a good war president? Does being a war president inevitably lead to admission into the pantheon of America’s great presidents?” Swansbrough asks. “How has President Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ impacted upon U.S. foreign policy, particularly as we look at Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East today?”
The horrific events of 9/11 gave the Bush administration a focus it previously had lacked. Bush moved away from the “realist” policies followed by his father and presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, adopting the neoconservative aggressive foreign-policy approach promoted by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Vice President Cheney had assumed an unprecedented power in the U.S. foreign-policymaking process,” Swansbrough says. “Cheney had assembled a large staff of foreign-policy specialists who shared his dark, threatening view of the world. The vice-president’s staff rivaled the president’s National Security Council staff.
“Bush embraced the neoconservatives’ emphasis on military force, which downgraded the role of diplomacy in American statecraft. The more ‘forward-leaning’ policy placed less emphasis on prudence and the cautionary voices of other presidential advisors, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, and many of our generals, allies, and foreign friends.”
The Bush administration’s toppling of the Taliban and destruction of al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan was applauded at home and abroad. However, the president turned too quickly toward Iraq before destroying the al Qaeda terrorist threat in Afghanistan, as evidenced by the Taliban’s escalating attacks on U.S. and NATO forces and the reconstituted al Qaeda threat in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal region.
Swansbrough says Bush’s obsession with Saddam Hussein can be traced back to a 1993 assassination attempt on his father. “The guy,” Bush said in October 2002, “tried to kill my dad.”
“The military victory in Iraq was never in doubt,” Swansbrough says, “because Operation Desert Storm destroyed much of the Iraqi army during the 1991 Gulf War. Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, who served as head of the U.S. Central Command until 2000, described the Iraqi military as ‘a decaying force.’ The real question revolves around whether President Bush should have launched a preemptive invasion or relied on the containment of a weakened Saddam Hussein, as followed by the first President Bush and President Clinton.”
Swansbrough examines the credibility gap created by the Bush administration over the avowed imminent threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that—after the successful toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime—were never found.
“An arms expert with the state department labeled as ‘faith-based intelligence’ the exaggerated claims of a massive Iraqi arsenal of deadly weapons of mass destruction. Bush administration officials had faith that what they believed about Iraq’s WMDs was true and sought intelligence to support their dire assumptions. This led to groupthink within the CIA. President Bush then presented a worst-case scenario, bolstered by emotional references to 9/11 and a nuclear ‘mushroom cloud,’ to frighten the Congress and American people into war with Iraq,” Swansbrough says.
U.S. peacekeeping experience in Bosnia and Kosovo provided the basis for a number of studies done by the government and the RAND Corporation think tank to suggest troop-level guidelines to establish postwar security. Swansbrough cites RAND’s prediction of the need for 20 occupying troops for every thousand people in the country, or in the case of Iraq, 526,000 coalition troops. The RAND analysis warned that when the number of occupiers is low compared with the population, the occupying forces suffer casualties.
Bush’s Iraq War legacy should have cost $40 billion, according to the man who ran the Pentagon for the first 6 years of Bush’s presidency, Donald Rumsfeld. According to Swansbrough’s research, the projected cost of the Iraq War will come closer to $532 billion by fall 2008.
George W. Bush brought three different personas to his war presidency, says Swansbrough. “The Bombastic Bushkin,” a moniker created for him by his Midland, Texas, friends that followed him into his political career, referred to his extroversion, rowdiness, and often-cutting sense of humor. Bush the “Machiavellian Politico” emerged when he joined forces with Karl Rove, who guided his campaigns to the Texas governor’s mansion and on to the White House with an aggressive must-win-at-all-costs strategy. Finally, the “Righteous Hawk,” his third persona, “did not fully reveal itself until after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when President Bush launched the war on terror to ‘rid the world of evil’ and confront the ‘axis of evil,’ ” Swansbrough says.
Bush’s biographical development will appeal to young readers, Swansbrough says. “I’ve found students enjoy reading about the youth and early careers of presidents. George W. Bush persevered, despite failing to match his father’s success in school, sports, the Texas oil patch, and the military. He later upset the low expectations of family and friends by winning the Texas governorship and the presidency. Most important, he overcame the major hurdle of alcoholism after celebrating his fortieth birthday,” Swansbrough says.
Swansbrough believes one aspect of President Bush’s legacy has been the political polarization of the country, reflected in a 70-percent partisan gap (the difference in the percentages of Republicans and Democrats who approved of the job President Bush was doing) in 2007. That partisan divide in part reflects bitter division over the war in Iraq, despite Bush’s early declaration that he was a “uniter, not a divider.”
Swansbrough observes that “the lessons of the Bush administration reveal how the idealistic goal of promoting Middle East democracy often conflicted with the realpolitik policies of the war on terror, as demonstrated in Pakistan.”
The legacy of the unpopular Iraq war, escalating attacks in Afghanistan, and Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East will confront the victor of the 2008 election.
Says Swansbrough, “The next president will also face the daunting challenges of resurrecting America’s reputation, mending relations with longtime allies and friends, and working for a Middle East peace settlement in that vital region.”