George W. Bush by James Mann

Reviewed by Tom Switzer

Since he left the White House with the lowest approval rating of any modern president, ­George W. Bush has often claimed it’s too early for definitive historical judgments about his two-term presidency. He wants to be the next Harry Truman, the deeply unpopular president at the onset of the Cold War whom future historians would rate highly.

According to James Mann, however, America’s 43rd president is wrong. Just by judging his own forecasts, some of Bush’s most important and far-reaching initiatives turned out disastrously. Mann, an award-winning former Los Angeles Times reporter, argues that “Bush’s presidency marked a troubled entry into the 21st century for the United States and a turning point in its self-confident approach to the world”.

Think about it. When Bush came to power in 2001, the US was on top of the highest mountain. At home, Americans were enjoying the longest economic expansion in peacetime history. Abroad, the US military often seemed more concerned with effective exit strategies than with implementing ambitious, open-ended, foreign policy projects.

By the time Bush left office eight years later, the US was in the deepest valley. At home, it was experiencing its worst recession in 80 years, with soaring debt and deficits. In world trouble spots, it found itself wrong-footed and outwitted, not so much an eagle as an elephant.

A lot of the blame, suggests Mann, should be attributed to Bush. Massive tax cuts for the wealthy led to the greatest income inequality the US has witnessed since 1929. The Bush doctrine of preventive war, democracy promotion and aggressive unilateralism that culminated in the invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein cost the US dearly in blood, treasure and credibility.

For mine, Mann’s former point is less persuasive than the latter. After all, Bush’s tax cuts helped kickstart the economy after the dotcom bubble had burst in 2000. If anything, it was the Federal Reserve’s easy money, egged on by the White House, that set the scene for the credit mania and subprime crisis in 2007-08. In other words, the Bush economics team forgot a key lesson of Reaganomics: the importance of stable money.

Where Mann is on stronger ground is the war on terror, most notably the decision to “liberate” Iraq. The Bush team badly misjudged what the mission in 2003 would entail. Mann reminds us that the administration over-estimated the international support Washington would be able to obtain for the inter­vention. Before the invasion, the Bush team argued US troops would need to stay in Iraq for no more than a couple of years. Its public estimate was that the mission would cost less than $US100bn. It cost a staggering $US2 trillion.

In the past year, defenders of regime change deny any link between the invasion a dozen years ago and the rise of the Islamic State jihadists in the Sunni heartland. According to this view, it is Barack Obama’s “premature” withdrawal of US forces that is to blame for ending the sectarian peace that Bush’s “surge” forged in 2007 and so creating security vacuums in northwest Iraq in the past year.

Never mind that US troops left Iraq according to the timetable Bush had negotiated with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008. As Mann points out, Bush negotiated two written agreements that paved the way for the US to remain in Iraq for a time but also set a deadline for removal of all troops by the end of 2011.

Add to this that “regime change” up-ended the sectarian imbalance of minority Sunni rule and majority Shia suppression, which meant the Shia ascendancy marginalised Sunnis and created an insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of Sunni jihadists, and it is difficult to refute the author’s conclusion: “Overall, the Iraq War now seems like a strategic blunder of epic proportions, among the most serious in modern history, and it is difficult to see how future historians can decide otherwise.”

Mann highlights a Bush observation with his military advisers. “Somebody has got to be risk-averse in this process, and it better be you, because I’m sure not.” No statement better highlights Bush’s profoundly unconservative, indeed radical, ethos.

The September 11 terrorist attacks understandably shook the American psyche. In response, Bush took gambles — from the Patriot Act and the opening of Guantanamo Bay to the launching of torture procedures and the mess-in-potomia.

In the process, he shunned the genuinely conservative insight that continuity mattered more than change, and stability more than either; and the US paid heavily for the risks he took. All this is why Bush’s presidency, as Mann argues, was “one of the most consequential presidencies”.

It was also one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history.

Mann writes with penetrating insight and luminous clarity. The tone is judicious, the hyperbole limited and the coverage comprehensive. It’s also a surprisingly absorbing story, given how fresh the memory of the Bush era remains. What distinguishes the book is that its many new small and telling details enhance our understanding of Bush.

The result is the best study of his controversial presidency yet available.