George W. Bush paints a picture of the 43rd president who relied on a dubious sense of ”destiny” rather than on intelligence when deciding whether to go to war.
The four-hour documentary – a fresh installment of American Experience, a history series, aired in two parts on PBS on Monday and Tuesday. It features accounts by top members of the Bush camp such as his chiefs of staff, press secretaries, advisers and speech writers.
In the aftermath of 9/11
According to Mike Morell, the president’s daily intelligence briefer, Bush felt guilty for letting the 9/11 attacks happen.
“He told me his No. 1 job was to protect the American people, and he told me he failed on 9/11 and he could not let that happen again,” he says in the documentary.
George W. Bush accused then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden of orchestrating the attacks and demanded that Afghanistan, where he was supposedly living or hiding, hand him over to the United States.
The Taliban, Afghanistan’s Islamist rulers at the time, expressed a willingness to turn bin Laden over if evidence could be provided that he'd played a role in 9/11. The US rejected the offer and launched an invasion on 7 October 2001.
'F**k it, we’re going to war'
Journalist Peter Baker recounts in the documentary that a State Department official approached Bush before a National Security Council meeting in Camp David and tried to persuade him that the US should put pressure on the Taliban to get its hands on Bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.
“The president looked at us. And he said, "F**k it, we’re going to war,’” Baker recalls. “The president’s mindset was: They did this. They have the capability to do this, and I have to make sure they don’t do it again. And the only way to do that is militarily.”
Cheney the Trigger
George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, is widely considered the mastermind of that administration’s war-hungry foreign agenda and the most vocal proponent of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, aka torture, applied to suspected terrorists.
Collin Powell, the then-secretary of state, was said to have developed a growing antagonism both to the rush to war and to the use of violence against prisoners, but Bush pressed ahead.
“The Vice President knows how to get the cowboy in Bush to pull his 45 and start shooting, and I don’t know how to get him to put it back in the holster,” Powell once said, according to his chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson.
Although a US-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power within weeks, the deadly and costly guerrilla warfare continues to date – but Osama bin Laden escaped. Bush did not take the news lightly.
“I had never seen the President lose his temper in my entire year of briefing him,” said Morrell. “I had never seen him get mad. He did in this case.”
Despite the initial appearance that the invasion of Afghanistan was a success, the Bush administration felt that it failed to reach its underlying goal: to “send a signal to the world that you don’t mess with the United States.”
The invasion of Iraq
Another major military overture happened in March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. The official rationale for the invasion was never-seen evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
According to speakers in the documentary, Bush felt that invading Iraq was an opportunity to `spread American values’ to the Middle East. Another reason could be the completion of his father’s “unfinished business” from the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when US troops stopped short of capturing Baghdad.
It is Lawrence Wilkerson’s opinion that the president “truly believed that there were things he was destined to do. And one of those things was to spread the American way in opportune moments. An almost evangelical sense of rectitude and righteousness did motivate Bush.”
To sell an upcoming a war against Hussein, the US intelligence community started to churn out reports that Iraq had active chemical and biological weapons programmes. International weapons experts concluded that Iraq did have such programmes indeed, but rolled them back by the late 1990s.
The documentary assumes that Bush was “woefully uneducated in foreign affairs, inclined to believe the worst about Saddam, Bush did nothing to probe the reliability of the CIA’s reporting.”
Cheney famously claimed just days before the invasion that US troops will be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq. This didn't turn out to be the case, as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was followed by a protracted conflict with insurgents and a slew of weak US-backed governments.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were arguably some of the ugliest moments in modern US history, but perhaps even more domestic attention was drawn to the Bush administration's mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and deregulation of the banking industry that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Bush began his presidency with approval ratings of around 60 percent, which skyrocketed to 90 percent post-9/11. He left office, however, with a staggering 22-percent approval, the lowest for an outgoing president since records began nearly 70 decades earlier.
He has maintained a low profile since then, making news for the first time in quite a while last week as he appeared in a three-minute video message calling on the nation to unite during the pandemic - only to get attacked by President Trump and other Republicans.