Michael KreponGeorge W. Bush and Dick Cheney

Quote of the week:

“America prepared for the wrong kind of war. It prepared for a new 9/11, but instead a virus came.” – Dominique Moisi

Dear readers: I’m on the home stretch of a book in progress tentatively titled “Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace.” Here’s an out-take:

At the outset of his presidency, George W. Bush badly needed wise counsel, but his chief counselor, Vice President Dick Cheney, offered no help because he was on the same wavelength. Cheney’s influence waned significantly in Bush’s second term; in Robert Gates’s reckoning, by early 2007, the Vice President was an outlier rather than an influential adviser. Supporting evidence can be found in Bill Burns’ book, The Back Channel. Burns tells of a White House meeting in 2008 where his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sought to engage with North Korea. Bush was skeptical but agreeable, cutting Cheney short and waiving off his reservations.

There was, however, one last painful matter for Bush and Cheney to attend to. Cheney subjected Bush to intense lobbying to pardon his former chief of staff, “Scooter” Libby, for disclosing the identity of a CIA operative whose husband revealed fictions in the case Libby was dutifully building about Saddam’s inventory of weapons of mass destruction. Bush had previously commuted Libby’s sentence, but a pardon was a bridge too far.

At the last of their private lunches before leaving the White House, Bush told Cheney that there would be no pardon. Both men recount in their memoirs that Cheney leveled his most intense stare at Bush and remarked, “I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.” Bush recounted that Cheney’s comment stung.

What surely stung worse was the human consequences of sending U.S. troops into harm’s way. “He felt the dark days personally,” his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, observed in an oral history. “The toughest thing was those morning casualty statistics, which were overnighted. He would feel them; they would get to him.”

Bush, ever on guard against public displays of emotion (failing just briefly in the public funeral services for his father), found an indirect outlet after leaving office by painting haunting portraits of wounded veterans. Bush, despite the bravado, was an empathetic man who never lost his basic humanity. Empathy can be a steppingstone to remorse, but remorse is a far more punishing emotion, reserved for leaders who recognize that great sacrifices were made in vain, and that choices made with the best of intentions were mistaken.

The most unwise national security decisions of the Bush presidency – his responses to 9/11 in the first term and his pursuit of NATO expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine in his second – saddled his successors with limited room to maneuver and to recover.

Bush faced hard choices with humility and confidence, but without his father’s prudence and wise counsellor, Brent Scowcroft. His bold choices proved to be his undoing, as those around him, Cheney especially, reinforced his errors of judgment. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, failed him and the forces he sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. His first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, knew that a war to topple Saddam Hussein was folly, but did not press his case in part because he knew the fix was in. Rice, Powell’s successor, was an expert on Russia, but she applauded Bush’s Freedom Agenda and did not weigh in with strong cautions against inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. Vladimir Putin pushed back as hard as Bush overreached.

As relations between the United States and Russia deteriorated, the demise of arms control became irreversible. One by one, treaties that codified the success of arms control but constrained U.S. and Russian freedom of action were jettisoned. The demise of arms control began with the pairing of Bush and Putin. It reached new heights — or rock bottom — during the toxic pairing of Putin and Donald Trump.


  1. Andrew Cockburn (History)

    Bush drew back from admitting Georgia and Ukraine to NATO. Hadley attests that he told Shaskshvili personally and emphatically that the US would not “ start WW3” over Georgia. When Shakashvili started war anyway, Hadley and Rice were terrified that Cheney would persuade Bush to intervene, and derailed Fiona Hill to watch the Veep’s office and warn them if Cheney set off to the Oval.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Cheney’s memoir doesn’t spend time on NATO expansion. Bush’s memoir is pro forma and not very helpful. The memoirs of Condi Rice and Bill Burns contain quite revealing passages. Rice knew where her boss’ head was at and didn’t make a recommendation to him about pushing for Georgia and Ukraine’s path toward membership. Burns, then the US Ambassador to Moscow, sent several warning messages to Rice in both personal and the usual diplomatic cabling. They had no effect. Robert Gates’ memoir and his oral histories are scathing about the openings to Georgia and Ukraine, but he didn’t weigh in. He focused on the wars he was entrusted with ‘winning,’ he knew where Bush’s head was at, and he didn’t try to derail a lost cause, much like Colin Powell with respect to the war to topple Saddam.

  2. Rolando Santos (History)

    Thank you for your nuanced evaluation of George W. Bush! It reminds us all that it’s still possible to be very critical – and justly so – without engaging in personal vilification.

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