Decision Points: An Interview with George W. Bush

Decision Points: An Interview with George W. Bush

By Tom Bevan and John McIntyre - November 15, 2010

"I'm not trying to fashion legacy," former President George W. Bush said in an exclusive interview with RealClearPolitics last week. "Legacy is eventually formed with time," he said, adding, "and I'm not gonna be around to see it."

Instead, Mr. Bush said his new book, Decision Points, which hit bookstores nationwide last Tuesday, is simply "a way of saying to the people that witnessed my presidency, ‘here is my perspective, here is what it was like."

In a wide-ranging one-hour interview conducted in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Mr. Bush discussed the principles and thinking behind some of the crucial decisions he faced during his eight years in office. He also offered a number of personal observations and reflections about his time in the White House.

Overall, Mr. Bush defended the major strategic decisions of his presidency (tax cuts, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Trouble Asset Relief Program) saying even with the benefit of hindsight, "I wouldn't have changed those four decisions."

Troubled Asset Relief Program

Of those decisions, none generated more criticism from within his own party than TARP. Mr. Bush said he fully understood the objections to bailing out Wall Street:

"A lot of people didn't want to use the money of hardworking Americans to go to Wall Street. I've got a little populist streak in me, a suspicion of Wall Street. I've had it all my life. I described being raised out there in the desert, and even though my grandfather was a Wall Street guy, I've kind of always looked at Wall Street with a suspicious eye. And I put in [the book], my friends are going to wonder what happened to ol' George W. He goes to Washington, and he's using my money to give to Wall Street."

However, Mr. Bush said that his critics had the luxury of not being burdened with the responsibility for the potential consequences of not taking action.

"It was convenient for some people out there to make a case that [TARP] was not necessary," Mr. Bush said, "but they weren't charged with the responsibility of dealing with a depression."

In the end, Mr. Bush said he was "unwilling to gamble for the sake of ideology," and that he did not want to be remembered by history as a president who could have acted to stave off a depression but didn't. "I'm going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover," Mr. Bush said he told his staff at the time.

Mr. Bush said the nature of being president means that "sometimes you just have to do the unpleasant assignment in order to achieve a consequence that is satisfactory."

Despite the criticism, he remains confident he made the correct decision. "I do believe TARP saved the economy," Mr. Bush said. "Now, I can't prove it, but I can tell you that the depression didn't happen."

The Surge in Iraq

Regarding the other most significant and controversial decision of his presidency - the surge in Iraq - Mr. Bush said that he became convinced a change in strategy was necessary over the course of 2006 as he reviewed casualty reports with NSC Chair Stephen Hadley in the Oval Office every morning.

Mr. Bush said he could feel public support waning in 2006, and understandably so. Asked about the media's coverage of the Iraq war and its influence on public opinion, Mr. Bush said:

"No question the media can affect the broad populace view of what's going on. But in 2006, what was going on on the TV screens and what was going on in the streets was one in the same. In other words, these weren't distorted stories; these were real stories of a country that was descending into chaos."

Eventually, Mr. Bush was presented with three options: stay the course, pull back and let the violence in Iraq "burn itself out," or go in with more troops to try and stabilize the situation. After reflecting on "what failure would mean to our security, our standing and the security of people in the Middle East as well," Mr. Bush chose the latter.

More broadly, Mr. Bush described his "take" on the public's attitudes toward the conflict in Iraq by saying:

"The American people initially understood why Saddam Hussein was a threat, were disappointed there were no weapons of mass destruction, nevertheless were willing to hang in with the administration if it looked like the strategy was going to achieve victory. And that became harder and harder to convince the American people of.

The irony is that a subset of the American people - the military - believed we could win. You know, I hung with them and they hung with me throughout eight years. If you asked me what I miss, I miss being Commander in Chief. I love our military."

Mr. Bush also stressed the management aspect of executing the surge decision in a complex political environment and the need to build consensus during the decision making process:

"The danger is if you rush a decision you create fractures within the administration which will be exploited by the people who don't believe we should be there and/or who don't believe we can succeed. And if that happens, it gets hard to fund."

Mr. Bush credits Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - who initially came to Bush in the run up to the 2006 election and suggested he draw down troops in Iraq - and House Minority Leader John Boehner for getting the surge through the Congress:

"Having made the decision, Mitch [McConnell] was a very strong supporter. And another interesting fact is that after we got thumped in '06 - you remember all the language about ‘We're going to defund the troops, timetable for withdrawal' - we never lost a vote. And Mitch was instrumental - he and John Boehner - instrumental in showing that they could sustain vetoes in order for a president to affect the budget in this case."

Mr. Bush said Mr. McConnell - whom he called a "good friend" and a "wily senator" - paid him a visit in late 2008 and said about the surge, "I just want to let you know you were right and I was wrong."

Domestic Policy Challenges

Mr. Bush also addressed two notable domestic policy setbacks he faced during his two terms in office: Social Security and immigration reform. Though he stands by the decision to tackle both issues, saying he went to Washington “to try to solve big problems,” he says he should have pursued immigration reform first, “before emotion got into the issue,” and then used the “momentum” to take on Social Security.

Despite his administration’s failure to pass a bill, he made the case that Social Security reform was inevitable, arguing that his push for reform helped “take the shock out of the third rail.

He continued:

“My attitude was if you give younger workers an option – an option, it wasn’t mandatory – an option to take some of their own money and start a defined contribution plan, it’ll become over time wildly popular, which presents a threat to the people who get to decide the level of your benefits. In essence, you’re shifting power, and a shift of power is difficult for some who have the power to take.”

Mr. Bush offered a strong defense of immigration reform, stating that while he “was focused on the border,” he “also recognized that until there is a legal, rational way for people to come and do jobs that Americans aren’t doing, the border will be under stress.”

At the same time, Mr. Bush lamented that immigration is an issue on which "facts get distorted," and that during the debate charges that Bush was in favor of amnesty had "stuck to the point where rational policy was hard to do."

Mr. Bush sidestepped the controversial Arizona illegal immigration law, saying:

"Any time that rhetoric gets heated and people believe that rhetoric is directed against them regardless of the issue, people will be alienated. I’ve tried on this issue to defuse the anger and focus on a solution in a positive way, and the Arizona law is a result of nothing getting done at the federal level. It’s a tough issue for Americans.

Foreign Affairs

Asked to discuss the personal relationships he formed with a number of foreign leaders during his time in office, Mr. Bush began by giving a nod to a former president:

"The best practitioner of personal diplomacy was my dad. He was great at it. [French President Francois] Mitterand is a great example where my dad and Mitterand became fast friends through personal diplomacy, which means, listen to what the other person says and try to get to know them. And I try to give the reader a glimpse of how I conducted personal diplomacy."

Mr. Bush said during his first meeting with Vladimir Putin he asked the Russian leader about a cross his mother gave him as a way to get to know him, and how to best deliver the news to Mr. Putin that America was going to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Mr. Bush said he softened the blow with a simultaneous announcement that the U.S. would unilaterally reduce its nuclear stockpile from 6,600 warheads to roughly 2,000, telling Putin,"You can join us or not. You're not our enemy."

But, Mr. Bush said he left out of the book a final comment he made to Mr. Putin at the time: "We're going to reduce [our nuclear arsenal] down, but the ones we have will work."

Mr. Bush also shared a private exchange with Chinese President Hu Jintao in which he told the Chinese leader that the thing he worried most about and that kept him up at night was another attack on the United States. Mr. Bush said he then asked Hu, "What keeps you up at night?" Hu responded, "25 million new jobs a year."

Among the most prominent of Mr. Bush's personal relationships was with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Bush lauded Mr. Blair for his steadfast commitment on Iraq and added, "The other thing about Tony Blair that I appreciate is that he could see over the horizon. Strategic thinkers are very important, and he was a strategic thinker, and so, I'm fond of him, as are most Americans."

Lastly, Mr. Bush said he "really enjoyed" writing the book, and called the months-long process of researching and rereading notes from meetings and transcripts of conversations during his presidency "really interesting and enlightening."

Mr. Bush said he went to great lengths to corroborate the events chronicled in the book. "The danger for a book like this," Mr. Bush said, "if somebody reads it and says, ‘It didn't happen this way, he made it up, and it's not real,' and therefore people try to discredit the whole book. So, we're prepared to defend anything that comes out."

Tom Bevan and John McIntyre are the founders of RealClearPolitics.

Tom Bevan and John McIntyre

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