Deconstructing the De­cider

Did Ge­orge W. Bush in­vade Iraq out of stub­born­ness?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­post.com Steven F. Hay­ward is a res­i­dent scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute and the author of “The Age of Rea­gan: The Con­ser­va­tive Counter Revo­lu­tion, 1980-1989.”

GE­ORGE W. BUSH AND THE RE­DEMP­TIVE DREAM A Psy­cho­log­i­cal Por­trait By Dan P. McA­dams Ox­ford Univ. 274 pp. $29.95

The re­mark­able com­bi­na­tion of char­ac­ter, am­bi­tion and po­lit­i­cal skill seen in the men who reach the pres­i­dency clearly de­serves se­ri­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal anal­y­sis. While ide­ol­ogy and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stance are pri­mary to eval­u­a­tion, the psy­cho­log­i­cal as­pects of, say, Lin­coln’s de­pres­sion or Rea­gan’s will­ful op­ti­mism or Franklin Roo­sevelt’s po­lio should not be over­looked. The haz­ard of psy­cho­an­a­lyz­ing pres­i­dents, how­ever, is that it can lapse into crude re­duc­tion­ism, overem­pha­siz­ing sub-ra­tio­nal or ir­ra­tional causes and thereby triv­i­al­iz­ing more ob­vi­ous traits and po­lit­i­cal ideas. Too of­ten, psy­cho­log­i­cal ap­proaches be­come one-di­men­sional de­vices for crit­ics to use as an­other par­ti­san tool.

Ge­orge W. Bush is an ir­re­sistible sub­ject for such psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­fil­ing, given his fam­ily’s po­lit­i­cal and pri­vate his­tory and his em­brace as an adult of re­li­gious faith, so­bri­ety and re­spon­si­bil­ity. It is al­most im­pos­si­ble not to spec­u­late about how Bush’s re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther af­fected his de­ci­sions. His pen­chant for be­stow­ing nick­names, his cer­ti­tude, his seem­ing equa­nim­ity un­der the pres­sures of the post-9/11 world and his self-con­scious Texas swag­ger — traits that make him no­tably dif­fer­ent from his fa­ther and brother Jeb — all sup­port plau­si­ble the­o­ries. Bush will be a cot­tage in­dus­try for psy­chol­o­gists for years to come.

Dan P. McA­dams, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, of­fers one of the first com­pre­hen­sive psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files of Bush in “Ge­orgeW. Bush and the Re­demp­tive Dream.” To his credit, McA­dams tries not to pre-judge Bush, and he avoids mak­ing moral or po­lit­i­cal judg­ments about the pres­i­dent’s ma­jor de­ci­sions. McA­dams will fur­ther dis­ap­point Bush-haters in his mea­sured re­jec­tion of sev­eral pop-psych themes, such as that Bush was in thrall to an Oedi­pal ri­valry (though he does think a de­sire to avenge his fa­ther in Iraq was a fac­tor). But in the end, McA­dams’s frame­work sinks into a mire of pro­fes­sional jar­gon that tells us more about con­tem­po­rary the­ory than about the for­mer pres­i­dent.

McA­dams’s the­sis is that “a per­fect psy­cho­log­i­cal storm of traits” de­ter­mined Bush’s de­ci­sion to in­vade Iraq. “Of course,” McA­dams al­lows, “ the de­ci­sion was also in­formed by many fac­tors that were not them­selves psy­cho­log­i­cal. Po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and world-his­tor­i­cal fac­tors all played im­por­tant roles.” But these tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal fac­tors would not have been enough, he thinks, to start the war in the ab­sence of Bush’s pow­er­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal makeup. Un­for­tu­nately, McA­dams makes a weak case for play­ing down tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal fac­tors in fa­vor of psy­chol­ogy, and most read­ers will be left with the im­pres­sion that he at­tributes ev­ery po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion to psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors. To cal­i­brate ac­cu­rately the role of psy­chol­ogy vs. “ tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal fac­tors” in the large de­ci­sions of pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters might re­quire the com­bined in­sights of Toc­queville and Freud. But in this case, a sim­ple thought ex­per­i­ment may suf­fice: If you think that John McCain, had he been in the White House then, would also have de­cided to in­vade Iraq, you will not find McA­dams’s anal­y­sis per­sua­sive.

The key traits McA­dams di­vines in Bush in­clude some ob­vi­ous ones, such as his ex­treme ex­tro­ver­sion; the ef­fects of the death of his younger sis­ter in child­hood; his trans­fig­u­ra­tion of Mid­land, Tex., into a new Eden; and, above all, his nar­ra­tive of re­demp­tion in­volv­ing his sud­den so­bri­ety and con­ver­sion to fer­vent Chris­tian faith. McA­dams ar­gues that Bush sought to im­pose his own re­demp­tive nar­ra­tive on the en­tire world through his “free­dom agenda” and the war on ter­ror­ism.

The book suf­fers from ba­nal­ity (“Shake­speare was surely right when he said that all the world’s a stage and each of us a player”) and repet­i­tive­ness, es­pe­cially of the theme that Bush suf­fers from “ low open­ness to ex­pe­ri­ence.” I lost count of the in­stances of this phrase, but it is the touch­stone of McA­dams’s ul­ti­mate den­i­gra­tion of Bush. The phrase is a syn­onym for Bush’s stub­born­ness, and McA­dams un­der­stands it in its for­mal clin­i­cal di­men­sions, which al­lows him to es­cape con­fronting the po­ten­tial ide­o­log­i­cal sources of Bush’s hard­head­ed­ness or judg­ing whether Bush’s stub­born­ness was right or wrong.

But is this trait pe­cu­liar to Bush? Has there ever been a suc­cess­ful non-stub­born pres­i­dent? To be sure, stub­born­ness served some pres­i­dents poorly ( Woodrow Wil­son, Jimmy Carter), but it served oth­ers well (Harry Tru­man, Ron­ald Rea­gan). Psy­cho­log­i­cal anal­y­sis can­not tell us whether stub­born­ness is an as­set or a li­a­bil­ity in a pres­i­dent. For that we need to turn to old-fash­ioned his­tor­i­cal and char­ac­ter anal­y­sis.

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