The who, what, where, when and ‘W’

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Garin Bur­bank

HATEVER it takes.” So spoke a res­cue worker to U.S. pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush at the smok­ing ru­ins of the World Trade Cen­ter af­ter al-Qaida ter­ror­ists had smashed hi­jacked air­lin­ers into the tow­ers on the day now known as 9/11. The pres­i­dent told the work­ers and the na­tion that vengeance would be theirs. In the next seven years, through two ad­min­is­tra­tions, the quest to pun­ish al-Qaida and pre­vent fur­ther at­tacks took two du­bi­ous wars, an un­prece­dented ex­ec­u­tive or­der to tor­ture “en­emy com­bat­ants,” the pas­sage of a sweep­ing new law (the Pa­triot Act) to le­gal­ize and ex­pand the elec­tronic sur­veil­lance of Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens, and dem­a­gogic de­nun­ci­a­tions of any­one who would shrink (“cut and run”) from these harsh mea­sures. That no new large-scale ter­ror­ist strikes oc­curred on U.S. ter­ri­tory in those years inspired the claim (still made) among their de­fend­ers that Bush had achieved es­sen­tial suc­cess for his poli­cies. Their claim is under scru­tiny. Peter Baker, who was the New York Times chief White House cor­re­spon­dent dur­ing the Bush and Cheney era, of­fers a huge chron­i­cle of “W’s” pres­i­dency, ex­plor­ing the crit­i­cal de­ci­sions, day-by-day, al­most down to the tick­ing of the clock. The ex­haus­tive de­tail will tax the pa­tience of the non-spe­cial­ist reader.

‘WIt is im­por­tant to note that Baker has in­tended to of­fer a non-judg­men­tal ap­proach to these events, telling what hap­pened, and how it hap­pened. He leaves the deeper ques­tions of “why” to fu­ture his­to­ri­ans. In­ex­pe­ri­enced in for­eign af­fairs, buoy­ant on the oceanic fury of pub­lic opin­ion af­ter 9/11, Bush be­came the “war pres­i­dent” en­vis­aged by his strate­gist Karl Rove. He was strongly in­flu­enced by the vice-pres­i­dent, Dick Cheney, who em­braced the “dark side,” in­clud­ing tor­ture. Wa­ter-board­ing suspects was, Cheney laughed, “just a lit­tle dunk.” Clever lawyers sup­plied slith­er­ing ra­tio­nales for “en­hanced in­ter­ro­ga­tion,” smudg­ing the bright line be­tween civ­i­liza­tion and bar­barism. It was Cheney and his long-time men­tor, Don­ald Rums­feld, now sec­re­tary of de­fence, en­cour­aged by the bel­li­cose neo­con­ser­va­tives on their staffs, who sought to ini­ti­ate a war on Sad­dam’s Iraq, sup­pos­edly to un­cover “weapons of mass de­struc­tion.” Once pur­sued, the Iraq war di­verted men, ma­teriel, fo­cus and en­er­gies from Afghanistan, where ac­tual al-Qaida el­e­ments roamed the moun­tains. By 2005-06, the oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq, min­i­mally planned and heed­less of sec­tar­ian ha­tred, be­came the em­blem of fail­ure for Bush, Cheney and Rums­feld. The Democrats made sweep­ing gains in the 2006 elec­tions. Bush felt con­strained to fire Rums­feld and in­creas­ingly ig­nore Cheney, re­flect­ing his dis­abused grasp of the war’s mis­eries. In a press con­fer­ence, Bush ad­mit­ted that 2,000 U.S. sol­diers and 30,000 Iraqi civil­ians had died for the trou­bling re­sults. Bush was fi­nally master of his own dis­mal fate, ad­vised by a more con­cil­ia­tory Con­doleezza Rice. Tor­ture was aban­doned if not openly re­pu­di­ated. He soon or­dered the “surge,” a strat­egy de­signed to sup­press Iraqi civil car­nage that bought some time but noth­ing close to a vic­tory. Along with the trum­peted “free­dom” agenda os­ten­si­bly tar­get­ing Mid­dle East­ern dic­ta­tors came the en­tre­pre­neur­ial free­dom cru­sade at home. The col­lec­tively held re­sources of So­cial Se­cu­rity would be, if Bush had his way, chan­nelled into pri­vate, in­di­vid­ual ac­counts; the big in­vest­ment banks would be freed from reg­u­la­tions that limited their cre­ativ­ity; the an­i­mal spir­its of cap­i­tal­ism would surely make Amer­i­cans (and oth­ers) more pros­per­ous. We know how that turned out. Bush’s poli­cies would be­come what Baker calls “touch­stones” of na­tional de­bate: tor­ture, wars of choice, elec­tronic sur­veil­lance of rou­tine cit­i­zen life. Even today they re­main provoca­tive, shock­ing the con­science of a large body of re­flec­tive ci­ti­zens. Baker’s episodic treat­ment tends to ob­scure durable pat­terns in U.S. pol­icy. But his un­matched ac­cess to the prin­ci­pal fig­ures will in­vig­o­rate the con­tin­u­ing dis­cus­sion of Bush’s un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dency. Garin Bur­bank taught U.S. his­tory for 39

years at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.

Days of Fire Bush and Cheney in the White House By Peter Baker Ran­dom House Canada, 800 pages,


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