November 24, 2010

"Decision Points," a review

Before I start, let me be perfectly clear on one thing: I did not support the war in Iraq. Not going in and not now. It is, in my never humble opinion, the single biggest mistake any president has made in my lifetime. However, once there, President Bush stuck to his guns, kept out of the military's way, and let them get the job done as best they could. Assuming the right prevails, the Islamic Caliphate sought by Al Qaeda and its supporters fails, and somehow our world manages to overcome the insidious spread of Marxist utopian thinking that has come to dominate our intelligentsia, then this war will be remembered by historians both inside and outside Iraq as a war of liberation. However, sometimes even a necessary war is an immoral war. What makes the Iraq War immoral is not the existence of some secret conspiracy to destablize the region. While there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime was brutal and needed to be destroyed, the timing of our entry into that war alongside the unforgivably bad intelligence used to justify it mean that in the end the war must be judged immoral. It was not the right time. The outside world did not have enough information about conditions inside Iraq until afterwards. In another decade the situation proably would have resolved itself, perhaps in two decades, but either way, it was the responsibility of the Iraqi people and not the United States. We never should have gone in there, but having gone in, it is good that we stayed until the job was finished. It would have been more immoral to walk away from the mess and leave the country a smoking ruin.

Okay, with that out of the way, let state straight up that "Decision Points" is quite possibly the single most important book written during my lifetime. There is a certain poetry in this, that the worst decision would create the most important book, and yet, it should not be surprising. The mark of an adult is that we learn from our mistakes and then we pass on that knowledge to the next generation. If you are a teacher of history, English, or literature at the high school or college level you need to immediately add this book to your required reading lists. Drop "Ulysses" by James Joyce, from literature classes in high school and college, it is boring and nihilistic in the extreme anyway, and add "Decision Points".

The book is not chronological, not is it entirely autobiographical in the traditional sense. President Bush has divided the book into fourteen sections, each corresponding to a critical decision made before or during his presidency. There is a treasure trove of historical information in these pages with quotes from staff meetings, reprints of key documents, and fond remembrances that would take decades to discover digging through the papers and personal items of a dead president. This is exactly the kind of book a former president needs to write as soon after he leaves office as possible, while the memories are still fresh and many of the policy decisions are still be debated in the public forum. There is nothing arrogant, egoistic, or narcissistic about writing a book like this. As President Bush points out in his introduction,
"In the final year of my presidency, I began to think seriously about writing my memoirs. On the recommendation of Karl Rove, I met with more than a dozen distinguished historians. To a person, they told me I had an obligation to write. They felt it was important that I record my perspective on the presidency, in my own words."

For what it's worth, Mr. President, I agree. "Decision Points" will be read, reread, argued over, debated, written about, analyzed, and reinterpreted for the next century, possibly for the next few centuries. It is that important, it is that complete, and it is that detailed. There is currently no finer portrait in existence of a president performing his role as the highest executive in the nation with all the powers and limits that office entails. This book is an inside look at how the United States really functions out here in the real world where a president is under constant public scrutiny and every decision has consequences no one can ever completely predict. Every teenager in America should read this book, every college student should be required to discuss it. This book holds within its pages a realistic and honest reflection on how decisions are reached both in times of crisis and in times of peace.

There are many important things left out, mind you. After all, even a book by a former president has page limits. Many important questions raised by conspiracy theorists who believe 9/11 was an inside job are not even mentioned on these pages. In my opinion, this is a good thing. Instead, the book focuses on what happened, who it happened to, how the president learned about it, how he felt about it, how he analyzed it, and how he responded to it. Even business majors could benefit from the intimate, often painful reflections of a man forced to make hard decisions and then live with the consequences. One of the most important lessons I as a reader took away from this book is a greater appreciation for the fog of war and how it impacts the decisions a president is often forced to make with limited or (as in the case of the Iraq War) flat-out wrong information.

Consider, for example, this little anecdote recounted from the days immediately following the fall of Baghdad when everyone throughout the country was feverishly searching for Saddam's WMD stockpiles,
"At one point, the CIA heard that large canisters had been spotted from a bridge over the Eurphrates River. Navy frogmen deployed to the scene. They found nothing. A high-ranking official from the United Arab Emirates brought drawings of tunnels he believed Saddam had used to hide weapons. We dug up the ground. Nothing materialized."

There are places where I nearly cried, places where I laughed out loud, places where I cringed in painful anticipation, and even a few places where suspense held me so tense my shoulders began to ache. It is that kind of book. Since it covers what will go down in history as one of the most controversial presidencies of the modern age, how could it be anything else?