Do Bush’s claims stand up under interrogation?

We’ve heard his side of the story. Now Independent writers present their verdicts on the key claims made in ‘Decision Points’
Wednesday, 10 November 2010

George W. Bush: ‘I hope I’m judged a success, but I’m going to be dead when they finally figure it out’
Torture: ‘Three people were waterboarded and I believe that decision saved lives’
George W Bush’s defence of the treatment meted out to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his supporters goes to the heart of questions about the moral compass of the War on Terror.
Mohammed, a Pakistani and one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, had been arrested in Rawalpindi and “proved difficult to break”, recalled Mr Bush. When the CIA director, George Tenet, asked permission to use “enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding” he had no hesitation in giving the OK.
Mr Bush’s justification for this was that it led to Mohammed providing information about attacks on targets in the US as well as Canary Wharf and Heathrow Airport in London. Waterboarding – which makes victims feel they are drowning through being immersed in water – was not, the former president held, torture or illegal.
A British court, however, would regard waterboarding as torture and illegal. It contravenes Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Downing Street stated yesterday that it came under the British Government’s definition of torture. Whether the confessions of Mohammed did actually prevent attacks on Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf is disputed. Kim Howells, the former Labour MP who chaired the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee until this year, took a different view. “We are not convinced,” he said. “I doubt that this, what we regard as torture, actually produced information instrumental in preventing those plots coming to fruition.”
Security sources said that Mohammed did, indeed, provide some information about possible attacks on those targets, but details remained sketchy.
How did British authorities deal with the intelligence obtained through torture? Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, in his first-ever public speech delivered last month, had insisted that his agents did not take part in any abuse. But, he also said: “After 9/11 the terrorist threat was immediate. We are accused by some people not of committing torture ourselves, but of being too close to it.”
Sir John said: “We can’t do our job if we work only with friendly democracies.” But the information obtained from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was imparted by the UK’s staunchest ally, supposedly holding the same values. It just happened to have a president at the time who has a very loose definition of what constitutes torture.
Kim Sengupta, Defence Correspondent
The war on terror: ‘There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right’
President Bush never had much idea of what was going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is as true now as when he was in the White House. He blandly claims that “the Iraqi people are better off with a government that answers to them instead of torturing or murdering them”, as if torture has not been the norm in Iraqi prisons since 2004.
Nobody ever imagined that Mr Bush had much of a clue about the war he blundered into in Iraq or its impact in the Middle East. Even so it is breathtaking to read sentences such as: “The region is more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow.” This appears after a week in which 58 Christians were slaughtered in a church in Baghdad and cafes and restaurants in the capital are empty after a dozen bombs killed more than 70 people. Eight months after an election in March parties have failed to form a new government.
To be fair, Mr Bush’s ignorance was shared by those around him. Perhaps it says something of the US political class as a whole that they underestimated the dangers of Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only important exception was General David Petraeus, now in command in Afghanistan.
Mr Bush joins former US presidents, notably Bill Clinton, who believe they came within a whisker of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This supposedly happened in 2008 in the last days of Ehud Olmert as prime minister of Israel and Mr Bush as president of the US. It is not a convincing claim.
More realistically, Mr Bush says he considered an attack on Iran but was persuaded that it had halted its nuclear weapons programme. Overall this is thin gruel for the historian of Mr Bush at peace and war in the Middle East.
Patrick Cockburn
Tony Blair: ‘Some of our allies wavered. Tony Blair never did’
Seven years after the invasion of Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair remained joined at the hip. Sorry is the hardest word for both of them.
The former US president seems to have studied the former prime minister’s appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry on Iraq in January. A headline flashed danger signals in Mr Blair’s mind as he was asked whether he had any regrets. He did not want the headline to be “Blair apologises for war” or “Blair finally says sorry.” So he said merely that he took responsibility for his actions.
Mr Bush has been through the same thought process. “I mean, apologising would basically say the decision was a wrong decision,” Mr Bush told NBC. “And I don’t believe it was the wrong decision.”
Unlike his soulmate, Mr Bush does not do emotion. In his own memoirs, Mr Blair pleads for understanding from his critics, saying: “Do they really suppose I don’t care, don’t feel, don’t regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died?” In contrast, Mr Bush says: “It doesn’t matter how people perceive me in England. It just doesn’t matter any more. And frankly, at times, it didn’t matter then.”
Mr Blair was ready to ignore political opinion. Mr Bush offered Mr Blair a last-minute opt-out from the Iraq invasion when he realised it could bring his closest foreign ally down, saying he wanted regime change in Baghdad, not London.
Revealingly, Mr Blair replied: “I’m in. If it costs the Government, fine.”
That unquestioning loyalty might have surprised some observers at the time. But Mr Bush already felt he had a sense of his British ally’s character. It was a judgement he had come to on Mr Blair’s first visit to the US president’s Crawford ranch in 2001.
“There was no stiffness about Tony and Cherie,” he writes. “After dinner, we decided to watch a movie. When they agreed on Meet the Parents, a comedy starring Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller, Laura and I knew the Bushes and Blairs would get along.”
Andrew Grice, Political Editor
The economy: ‘I assumed any major credit troubles would have been flagged by the regulators’
You and everyone else, Mr President. The excesses that were building up in the world of high finance over the course of the Bush presidency finally crashed into public view in the summer of 2008, with the fall of Lehman Brothers, and Mr Bush declares himself blindsided by the discovery that the American banking system was a house of cards built on crazy amounts of hidden debt. The resulting recession was the worst since the Great Depression and, as Mr Bush says, “one ugly way to end a presidency”.
Only a very few people predicted the scale of the calamity, and none of the mainstream experts, so it is not Mr Bush’s failure of clairvoyance that is striking. It is the professed faith in the power of regulators – from a man whose administration was deeply committed to a market-knows-best philosophy and eroded the influence of regulators wherever it could, to the extent of putting a laissez-faire Republican former Congressman called Christopher Cox in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission. For ordinary Americans, financial discussions around the kitchen table were indeed about jobs and prices, but also, let’s add, about house prices, about whether to move to a spanking new home, about the extraordinarily cheap mortgages available. This was the real-world evidence of excesses in the credit markets and the banking system. If only someone in the White House had connected the dots. If only.
Stephen Foley, Associate Business Editor
Hurricane Katrina: ‘The suggestion that I was a racist, because of Katrina, was an all-time low’
It seems odd that President Bush would choose an unkind comment by Kanye West, the hip-hop star, about his handling of Hurricane Katrina as the low-point of his two terms in office. Shouldn’t he rather have picked 9/11 or the moment he grasped there were no WMDs in Iraq? Yet, it is the parts of the memoir that show the human side of Mr Bush that work best, and this is certainly one of them. Mr West said the then president did not care about black people because he circled above drowning New Orleans in his fancy 747. “I didn’t appreciate then and I don’t appreciate it now,” Mr Bush says.
You can sympathise with his reaction. But that doesn’t mean critics will forgive him for mishandling the crisis, or should. Bush is now using this book to offer something of a mea culpa. “I shouldn’t have flown over and looked,” he told Oprah Winfrey yesterday. “I made a mistake. I should have landed. The problem is, when the president lands, resources are taken off the task at hand… I didn’t realise that a picture of me looking out would look like I didn’t give a darn.” The problem is, none of this will make those still without a home in New Orleans feel any better.
David Usborne, US Editor
Aids: ‘Critics said I started work on Aids to appease the right. Preposterous’
Bush’s contribution to the fight against Aids is undeniable. The President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief committed $15bn (£9bn) over five years from 2003 to 2008 providing treatment with anti-retroviral drugs to 1.2 million people (since expanded further to 2.5 million). It has been called the largest health initiative ever launched by one country to address a disease.
But it was freighted with a moral code that critics said undermined its effectiveness. From 2006-2008, one third of the fund was restricted to abstinence programmes. The restriction caused a major split between Europe and the US over how to tackle the pandemic with Europe backing the ABC strategy – Abstain, Be Faithful and use a Condom. Pepfar funds were also denied to needle exchange schemes on the grounds that they could be construed as encouraging drug use, despite evidence that the schemes were a key defence against the spread of Aids among drug users.
Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor
His place in history: ‘I hope I’m judged a success, but I’m going to be dead when they finally figure it out’
Thus a breezy George W Bush spoke to NBC’s Matt Lauer in his main TV interview launching his book. And however much Mr Bush got wrong in the White House, his musings on history’s final verdict are spot on.
There are a couple of reasons why the 43rd President can afford to be relaxed. For one thing his reputation can hardly get any worse. Second, presidents, whatever their record, tend to be more kindly regarded with the passing of the years – especially in this era of relative US decline.
When he left office Ronald Reagan was widely regarded as a doddering old man. Today he is admired for the correctness of his judgment that the Soviet Union was doomed. Dwight Eisenhower, George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton, and even Richard Nixon have seen their stock rise.
But for Mr Bush ever to be viewed a success a lot of improbable things need to happen. Iraq has to turn into an exemplar of successful secular democracy in the Middle East. An outside power must defy history by succeeding in Afghanistan.
If Mr Bush’s Manichean, either-with-us-or-against-us approach to world affairs is to be vindicated, a fresh wave of terrorist attacks against the US is surely required. Finally, the economy has to get a whole lot worse than it is right now – and for an extended period – for the pre-crash years of 2001 to 2007 to be recast as another vanished golden age. Stranger things may have happened. But not many.
Rupert Cornwell, Chief US Commentator