"Days on Fire": Bush and Cheney in the White House: Sobering Lessons

February 15, 2014


This is, at once, an extremely well-written, mind-opening and horrifically sad book.  Perhaps more than any Administration other than Lyndon Johnson’s, George Bush’s was defined by what, in hindsight and, indeed, “foresight” for many, was the ill-chosen and ill-fated decision to enter Iraq. It offers sobering lessons for us in our daily lives. 

The natural response to attack Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, from where the 9/11 attack was launched, was extended, with a pre-meditated intention almost from the start, to Iraq.  As Dick Cheney said well after the attack on Iraq and with its already being apparent how long the war would be--the decision to enter Iraq was pretty well made with the 9/11 attacks.

It was an “idée fixe” from the start in Bush’s and Cheney’s minds that Saddam Hussein was involved with the attack even though there was no evidence of linkage with Al Qaeda.  Richard Clark, at the time Bush’s Counter-Terrorism Chief, was “greatly disturbed” when, right after 9/11, Bush told him to “see if Saddam Hussein did this.” When Clark responded that, “Mr. President, it was Al Qaeda,” Bush told him to dig deep.

The movement to the decision was enormously influenced by the combination of Dick Cheney, Wolfowitz, his buddy, and Rumsfeld.  Wolfowitz, with no evidence, said that there was a “10-50% chance of Hussein being involved.”  Rumsfeld said that, “Even if there is a 10% chance, Saddam Hussein is involved,” our objective “should focus on eliminating him.”

Cheney never believed that there was any point in relying on the investigators to examine the case that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. 

There were people who clearly saw the risk.  The Republican House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, told Bush:  “It will be such a burden on your presidency, you’ll never be able to complete your domestic agenda.”  In the end, Armey felt he had no choice but to go along.  “It was a fateful decision.”   If the Republican Majority Leader had opposed the authorization of force, it would have freed other nervous Republicans and given cover to Democrats to oppose it as well.  Cheney “had accomplished his mission” in talking to Armey.  He had been showing photographs of aluminum tubes and satellite images of structures he called “weapons facilities” with no evidence that they were involved with building a nuclear capability.  In fact, the CIA had warned the British (who initially put forth the idea that the aluminum tubes were related to gaining nuclear capacity) that that was unlikely to be the case. 

Secretary of State Powell and National Security Advisor Rice were both opposed to moving ahead.  George Trent, the head of the CIA, grossly overstated the CIA findings when he said, “According to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order were given.”  His own organization greeted that with skepticism, but no one spoke up.  The “conclusions were based on poor tradecraft, mistaken assumptions and over-interpretation,” per Peter Baker; that was a precise analysis of the situation.

The basic issue of whether to go in or not was predetermined, in an important sense, by deeply felt feelings that were not tested by fact.  Just prior to the launch, in discussions with Tony Blair, “Bush made clear he had decided to go to war regardless of what the inspectors found with the Security Council decided.  Indeed, he told Blair he had already set a launch date.”

There is a lot of speculation as to why Bush has this conviction.  Did it involve an over-hanging disappointment that his father had not taken out Hussein the first Gulf War?  Certainly his father never held such a concern.  Cheney and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, all joined at the hip for years, had a black view of Hussein and saw this as an “easily achieved” opportunity to do something much bigger than Afghanistan, to take out a tyrant. 

Clearly, there are lessons from this for all of us.  No aspect of this looms larger than the failure to examine the history of Iraq when the British went in the early 1920s.  Powell had it right when he said you’ll own it and you’ll have to take care of it.  That’s why George H.W. Bush did not continue to overthrow Hussein.

The estimates that Cheney supported of the number of troops that would be required proved grossly wrong.  Cheney’s misjudgment on the cost and length of the war was vividly conveyed in an interview on Meet the Press with Tim Russert.  When Russert asked:  “Do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, bloody battle with significant American casualties?”  To this, Cheney responded:  “Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.”  How sad to read that today; how mistaken Cheney was.

In the early days following the overthrow, there was an atmosphere of almost bliss.  Everyone was agreeing that we had ridden America of a terrible enemy and we had created the hope of a genuine ally in the heart of the Middle East.  Bush and his team felt the war was about all but over.  That was before Bremner went in and made his ill-fated decisions which unleashed a Sunni-Shiite civil war that continues to this day.  It was becoming clearer and clearer that no one had a strategy for winning this new war.

The problem had been greatly aggravated by the fact that Bremner, who went in following the overthrow of Hussein, did pretty much exactly what Bush said should not happen, i.e., disperse the army, which turned hundreds of thousands of people on to the street.  Bush saw he was not following his advice but he did not override it. 

If I were to assess the failure of Bush’s leadership (and he’s not unique in what I’ll describe here), he did not bring all the players to the table and have a truly open-minded debate.  He didn’t allow the voices of Powell and Rice to be heard loud and long enough or to demand more evidence of the possibility they were right.  Nor did he follow what he believed, correctly, was the right path ahead after the overthrow of Hussein. 

There is a broader failure in Bush’s leadership here that is a lesson to us all, certainly me.  And that is that he did not bring his cabinet together to openly share views and stop back-biting.  The animosity between Rumsfeld and Powell and between Rice and Rumsfeld was classic. 

Bush’s lack of focus on resolving issues within his own cabinet were well-described by Baker.  One aspect of it was the tremendous relationship Rice had with Bush.  She was serving as National Security Advisor.  She communicated beautifully with Bush but, as Baker says, “She was a figure of great frustration to other members of the team who though she was too eager to raise differences and create false consensus rather than bring difficult choices to the President.  She had not been able to manage the sharp rivals within the War Cabinet.” 

At one point, during the second term, a good friend of Bush, Clay Johnson, described the White House structure as a “cluster fuck,” a jumble of crossed lines.  Bush apparently didn’t address this.  Rumsfeld did as he talked to the Chief of Staff Andy Card, saying: “You don’t know how to be Chief of Staff.  You’re failing the President in your job,” as Card later recalled.  In the end, however, that really was Bush’s job. 

I reflect on this and the “rivalries” which existed within our top team that I did not fully resolve. It’s not that I didn’t get into them; I did.  But, in hindsight, I did not resolve some of them as effectively as I should. 

Another “odd” aspect of Bush’s conduct was that he was not willing to personally tell cabinet leaders whom he was firing.  He did not go Colin Powell as he was being removed from Secretary of State.  He had Cheney go to Rumsfeld when he finally decided to replace him as Secretary of Defense with Bob Gates.  Really incredible.


As Bush prepared for a second term inaugural, he called together a group of historians to gain input on what theme he should strike.  He was not well-served.  One of them was from Yale, John Lewis Gaddis.  Gaddis said it was a time for Bush “to think like Wilson, Roosevelt and Reagan.”  So he proposed that the President set the goal, “It will be the objective of the United States, working with the United Nations…to ensure by the year 2030…that there will be no tyrants left, anywhere in the world.” 

What a grandiose, all-knowing proclamation.  One more example, and there have been many, where our nation’s sense of exceptionalism took us to grounds where we did not deserve to be.  Note, the emphasis wasn’t even on bringing democracy.  It was getting rid of tyrants.  An objective, on one hand, you couldn’t argue with.  But can you imagine if we had undertaken that during the Soviet era and had said we were going to get rid of Khrushchev by force, or Mao Tse Tung in China?  The truth is that sometimes, a “tyrant” may be the best the country can have at a given point in time and we need to let history take its course.  That may have been the case in Egypt with Mubarak.  A decent dose of humility doesn’t hurt in matters like this.

As the second term got underway, you could almost feel Bush’s disillusionment in a statement he made to another member of his team:  “This is not working.  We need to take another look at the whole strategy.  I need to see some new options.”  The response:  “Mr. President, I am afraid you’re right.”

Not to carry the story on in any great detail, following from this came Bush’s singularly independent decision (other than Cheney) to mount the “surge,” the insertion of another 30-40,000 troops to bring security to help Iraq gain stability.  For a while it worked.  Casualties dropped precipitously.  It was, indeed, a brave decision; remarkable in that regard.  Bush was going against the judgment of the outgoing commanders in Iraq, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Congress, the public and his Secretary of State and closest advisor.  With him, of course, were Cheney and also John McCain.

As Baker reports, when Bush felt sorry for himself in those days, Laura reminded him that he chose to run for President.  “Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency,” Bush told a writer.  “I’ve got God’s shoulders to cry on, and I cry a lot.  I do a lot of crying in this job.”  But he made the call.

This book shows that the belief that “Cheney ran Bush” was, in many ways, wrong and it was very definitely wrong in the second term.  Bush opposed Cheney on the bailout of the auto industry and on TARP; both extraordinarily brave and correct decisions in hindsight.  He opposed Cheney in making the decision to replace Rumsfeld.  And there were many other cases as well.

Bush’s was a tragic presidency, though history, as always, will tell the real tale; though what that “telling” is may change over time as it often has.  Tragic because he could have done good, but he was trapped in this personal view that it was right to take out Hussein because he was a tyrant and because he “might do bad things.”  He had his CIA so primed to find evidence that it delivered reports that, while balanced, lent themselves to misrepresentation.  I don’t believe Bush would have gone into Iraq if it had not been for the strength at that time of Cheney’s position.  And, of course, Cheney was being supported by others who were strong-minded, particularly Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.