Five days before Christmas 2001, a little more than three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that redefined his presidency, George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office for the first of what would become a series of six interviews about how he had chosen to exercise his most consequential power — that of commander in chief.
At 55, he was a young president, filled with certainty. The war in Afghanistan appeared to be going well. The U.S. military had overthrown the Taliban regime and was hammering al-Qaeda sanctuaries. He kept photos of al-Qaeda leaders in his desk and showed how he had crossed through the pictures with a large "X" as each suspected terrorist was killed or captured. He explained: "One time early on, I said: 'I'm a baseball fan. I want a scorecard.'"
He confidently laid out grand goals. "We're going to root out terror wherever it may exist," he said. He talked of achieving "world peace" and of creating unity at home. "The job of the president," he said, "is to unite the nation."
Seven years later, as he sat for a final interview, President Bush remained a man of few doubts, still following his gut, convinced that the paths he chose in Afghanistan and Iraq were right. But in important ways, he was a different man entirely. It was more than the inevitable aging, more than the grayer hair, more than the deeper lines in his face or the noticeable paunch or the occasional slouching in his chair. During the first years of the Iraq war, the president spoke about "winning," or "victory." By May 2008, he had tempered his rhetoric. Twice in the last interview, he mentioned "win," then immediately corrected himself and substituted "succeed," a subtle but unmistakable scaling back that reflected the murky realities of a war with no foreseeable end.
Since the fall of 2001, about a half-million men and women of the U.S. military have served in Iraq. More than 4,100 have died, and another 30,000 have been seriously wounded. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. As Bush prepares for the final four months of his presidency, almost 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, about the same number that undertook the ground invasion. The next president will inherit not just this war, but the ongoing and costly one in Afghanistan.
Any scorecard for the Bush presidency would focus on his performance as commander in chief: Did he set up and enforce a decision-making system worthy of the sacrifice he has asked of others, particularly the men and women of the U.S. military? Was he willing to entertain debate and consider alternative courses of action? Was he slow to act when his strategies were not working? Did he make the right changes? Did he make them in time? And was the Bush administration a place where people were held accountable?
These questions arose often during my seven years of reporting for four books on Bush and his wartime presidency. Interviews with dozens of administration officials and military officers, though focused on the events that dominated Bush's two terms in office, inevitably painted a portrait of the man, how he governed and what he is leaving behind. Those interviews, along with contemporaneous notes of meetings, show that President Bush often displayed impatience, bravado and unwavering personal certainty about his decisions. Perhaps most troubling to some in his administration, the result sometimes was a delayed reaction to realities and advice that ran counter to the president's gut instincts.
Just as war defines a nation, a president's leadership in war defines him.
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David Satterfield, a senior diplomat known as "the Human Talking Point," had watched the president up close for several years from his vantage point as Iraq coordinator for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Satterfield had reached some highly critical conclusions not shared by Rice: If Bush believed something was right, he believed it would succeed. Its very rightness ensured ultimate success. Democracy and freedom were right. Therefore, they would ultimately win out.
'This isn't my first rodeo'
Bush, Satterfield observed, tolerated no doubt. His words and actions constantly reminded those around him that he was in charge. He was the decider. As a result, he often made biting jokes or asides to colleagues that Satterfield found deeply wounding and cutting.
Bush had little patience for briefings. "Speed it up. This isn't my first rodeo," he would often say to those making presentations. It was difficult to brief him because he would interject his own narrative, questions or off-putting jokes. Discussions rarely unfolded in a logical, comprehensive fashion.
Bush's governing style caused a debate within the administration, particularly among those in the military and the intelligence agencies. In the summer and fall of 2006, when the violence in Iraq reached its peak, Bush continued to assert that the war strategy was working. Military analysts such as Derek Harvey, a retired Army colonel who became an adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus when Petraeus took over as the Iraq commander, wondered about the consequences of assuring the public for months that the strategy was succeeding and then abruptly changing course in favor of a "surge" of troops.
Harvey, an early pessimist about the prospects for the war, had become a cautious optimist by May 2008. He saw much to suggest that the worst might be over: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had removed 1,400 Shia from the ministry of interior for sectarian actions. The number of vehicle bombs had dropped from a high of 130 a month in March 2007 to 30 a month in May 2008 — still a significant number, but most were detonated at checkpoints and killed far fewer people. Only occasionally did a vehicle bomb penetrate large markets to inflict the massive casualties reminiscent of 2006-07.
Even if Iraq turned out well, though, Harvey believed that it would not rescue the Bush legacy. For too many years in Harvey's view — from 2003 to the end of 2006 — the president had not been frank about the costs, duration and challenges of what had been undertaken in the Iraq war. As Harvey shuffled from Washington to Baghdad and back, he wondered about the president. "What was he really seeing," he thought, "and why did it take so long for him to understand?"
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In one of our early interviews, President Bush said of the path he had chosen: "I know it is hard for you to believe, but I have not doubted what we're doing. I have not doubted. . . . There is no doubt in my mind we're doing the right thing. Not one doubt."
It wasn't so hard to believe. During the interviews, he repeatedly declared that his certainty was an asset. "A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone," he said. "If I weaken, the whole team weakens. If I'm doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt. If my confidence level in our ability declines, it will send ripples throughout the whole organization. I mean, it's essential that we be confident and determined and united.
"I don't need people around me who are not steady. . . . And if there's kind of a hand-wringing going on when times are tough, I don't like it."
He spoke a dozen times about his "instincts" or his "instinctive reactions," summarizing them once by saying, "I'm not a textbook player; I'm a gut player."
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For Bush's closest advisers, how the president governed can best be judged by the results he has achieved, or will eventually achieve.
"I have believed from day one that Iraq was going to change the face of the Middle East. I've never stopped believing that," Secretary of State Rice said during a meeting at the State Department in May 2008. She acknowledged, however, that "there were times in '06 when I wondered if it was going to change the face of the Middle East for the better or not."
Rice rejected the notion that the Middle East had been stable and that the Bush administration had come along and disturbed it by invading Iraq. Those who felt that way simply didn't know what they were talking about.
"What stability? Saddam Hussein shooting at our aircraft and attacking his neighbors and seeking WMD and starting a war every few years? Syrian forces, 30 years in Lebanon? Yasser Arafat stealing the Palestinian people blind and refusing to have peace?"
'A lot of it wasn't handled very well'
Rice considered the war nothing less than "the realignment of the Middle East. On one side, you've got Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states" supporting non-extremists. "At the other side, you've got the Iranians, Hezbollah, Hamas," with Syria shifting sides, she said. She felt there had never been a greater cohesion of American allies in the Middle East than in 2008, even if those countries didn't want to be on the front lines supporting the United States publicly.
"There's nothing that I'm prouder of than the liberation of Iraq," she said without hesitation. "Did we screw up parts of it? Sure. It was a big, historical episode, and a lot of it wasn't handled very well. I'd be the first to say that."
She agreed that on Inauguration Day 2009, no new president, Democrat or Republican, was going to say that the Bush administration had fixed the Middle East. But she asserted that over time, a democratic Iraq would emerge, Iran would be transformed or defeated, Lebanon would be free of Syrian forces, and a Palestinian state would exist.
"We didn't come here to maintain the status quo. And the status quo was cracking in the Middle East. It was coming undone. And it was going to be ugly one way or another. . . . With the emergence of Iraq as it is, it's going to be bumpy, and it's going to be difficult but big. Historical change always is. There are a lot of things, if I could go back and do them differently, I would. But the one I would not do differently is, we should have liberated Iraq. I'd do it a thousand times again. I'd do it a thousand times again."
By the summer of 2008, Vice President Dick Cheney was getting ready to move on. After four decades in government, he believed he'd had quite a run. The administration had planted a democratically elected government in the heart of the Middle East and, he maintained, administered a major defeat to al-Qaeda. The Bush anti-terrorist policies, in his view, were sound. Despite the controversy and allegations of torture, he believed that the administration had established an effective and necessary interrogation program for high-value detainees, even though harsh techniques such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding, or simulated drowning, had been used against multiple detainees.
Early on, Cheney set out to make his vice presidency a consequential one. He had been at the center of the action, shaping policy and working to strengthen presidential powers. But everything had its price: If his chosen path meant leaving office as a symbol of belligerency and excess, he was willing to pay.
Cheney's hard-nosed approach to the vice presidency mirrored his view of the presidency itself. "What's the definition of the job of president?" I asked him in a 2005 interview. "My definition," I said, "is to determine what the next stage of good is for the majority of people in the country . . . and then develop a plan to carry it out."
'Very pleasant things'
"That's not the way I think about it," Cheney replied. "I tend to think about it more in terms of there are certain things the nation has to do, things that have to get done. Sometimes very unpleasant things. Sometimes committing troops to combat, going to war. And the president of the United States is the one who's charged with that responsibility. . . .
"The stuff you need the president for is the hard stuff. And not everything they have is hard. They do a lot of things that are symbolic, and the symbolic aspects of the presidency are important. And they can inspire, they can set goals and objectives — 'Let's go to the moon' — but when they earn their pay is when they have to sit down and make those really tough decisions that in effect are life-and-death decisions that affect the safety and security and survival of the nation, and most especially those people that we send into harm's way to guarantee that we can defeat our enemies, support our friends and protect the nation.
"That's the way I think of it."
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In our final interview, on May 21, 2008, the president talked irritably of how he believed there was an "elite" class in America that thought he could do nothing right. He was more guarded than ever, often answered that he could not remember details, and emphasized many times how much he had turned over to Stephen J. Hadley, his loyal and trusted national security adviser. There was an air of resignation about him, as if he realized how little he could change in his eight months left as president.
He alternately insisted that he was "consumed" by the war, "reviewing every day," before adding, "But make sure you know, it's not as though I'm sitting behind the desk and totally overwhelmed by Iraq, because the president's got to do a lot of other things."
'Don't let it fail'
By his own ambitious goals of 2001, he had fallen short. He had not united the country, but had added to its divisions and had become the most divisive figure in the country. He acknowledged to me that he had failed "to change the tone in Washington." He had not rooted out terror wherever it existed. He had not achieved world peace. He had not attained victory in his two wars. Bush himself has noted this, declaring in a Sept. 15, 2007, speech that success in Iraq "will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement beyond my presidency."
As the Bush presidency becomes history, the wars he began will become part of another president's story. "There's going to be a new president-elect who will come in here," I said in our final interview. "Not as a Democrat or a Republican, but as the president, what are you going to say to the new leader about what you are handing off in Iraq?"
Bush thought about it for a moment. His answer seemed to reflect his revised expectations. "What I'll say is, 'Don't let it fail.' "
Brady Dennis and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.