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Sunday 14 November 2010

History will be kinder to Dubya than we all were

An easy target in office, Ruth Dudley Edwards says George W's blunders prevented us from seeing a real, no-nonsense guy

OK, before I explain why I like George W Bush, I'll concede that I believe he was wrong to authorise waterboarding.

Like a lot of people who were understandably anxious that interrogators should extract useful information from terrorists, he didn't want to believe it was torture. But I accept what Christopher Hitchens said after sampling it: "If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

Having said that, I have sympathy for anyone who has to make terrible decisions.

Bush was desperate to stop a repeat of 9/11. Referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the supposed architect of 9/11, Bush describes the circumstances: "We capture the guy, the chief operating officer of al-Qaeda, who kills 3,000 people. We felt he had the information about another attack. He says, 'I'll talk to you when I get my lawyer.' I say, 'What options are available and legal?'"

In Decision Points, his honest memoir, he says he rejected two of the legal 'enhanced interrogation techniques' recommended by the CIA because he felt they went too far. If, in Bush's shoes, I'd been told that waterboarding 'was tough, but medical experts assured the CIA that it did no lasting harm', I hope I still wouldn't have approved it. But I strive not to be a sanctimonious git, so I'll admit to not being sure that the thought of saving innocent lives mightn't have changed my mind.

There's a similar issue over capital punishment. Bush describes an argument with Cherie Blair over the death penalty, which he justified because he believed it a deterrent. I side with Cherie -- yet I wonder if either of us were in a position of power and really believed the executions of monsters would save lives, would we hold securely to our principles.

I always liked Bush because he was happy in his skin and seemed like a no-nonsense, self-mocking and decent kind of guy who would have been fun to have a beer with in his drinking days and who seemed to have a gift for friendship. I was irritated by knee-jerk hostility to him and the relentless mockery of Bushisms like 'misunderestimating'. Compared to Bertie Ahern, Bush was golden-tongued. And we all sometimes muddle our words, but most of us aren't dogged by reporters. I also thought him intelligent, because he seemed to get to the heart of issues.

He wasn't particularly clever academically, although he did better at university than his electoral opponent Al Gore, who liberals claimed was brilliant, but I care more that politicians should have good judgement than that they pass exams easily.

Bush quotes approvingly an Arizona phrase: 'Book smart, sidewalk stupid', which is another way of describing the 'clever-sillies' who are all around us missing the point. And incidentally, Bush is a serious reader of history, who had a contest with his White House Senior Adviser to see who could read most books in a year. Karl Rove won, but considering he was president, Bush managed a tally of 95.

The guy's a realist. On his first flight on the presidential election trail, he looked at the journalists packing out his plane, grabbed the microphone and announced: "This is your candidate. Please stow your expectations securely in the overhead bins, as they may shift during the trip and may fall and hurt someone -- especially me."

Obama would be in less trouble now had he persuaded his frenzied followers to do the same. And he would be a happier man had he been ready for the disappointments and stresses to come. Bush had suffered with his adored father, the 41st President: "I had watched Dad endure gruelling months on the campaign trail, under the constant scrutiny of a sceptical press. I had seen his record distorted, his character attacked, his appearance mocked.

"I had witnessed friends turn against him and aides abandon him. I knew how hard it was to win. And I knew how much it hurt to lose."

George W started out opposed to American over-involvement abroad, but following 9/11 he developed what became known as the "Bush Doctrine" which holds both terrorists and the nations that harbour them to account: take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us at home; confront threats before they fully materialise; and advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy's ideology of repression and fear.

He became the enemy of 'isolationism, protectionism and nativism'.

His administration made a lot of errors in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the instincts were benign. Domestically, he recognised the need to strengthen the regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were lending wildly, but was blocked for five years by Democrats like Senator Chris Dodd who insisted there were no problems with the subprime market.

Bush wasn't a great president, but history will declare him misunderestimated.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards