The presidency of Donald Trump has been a godsend for George W. Bush. Starting with Bush’s bemused and pitch-perfect reaction to Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural speech—“That was some weird shit,” he allegedly said—the 43rd president has re-emerged in the national consciousness as a beacon of Republican sanity. Watching Bush make oil portraits, weep at funerals, condemn police brutality, and slip mints to Michelle Obama, it’s easy to forget why Bush left office in 2009 as the least popular president since Richard Nixon. Robert Draper’s marvelous new book, To Start a War, brings it all rushing back.
Draper’s focus is the 18-month interval between the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Drawing on declassified documents and hundreds of hours of interviews with key insiders—though not Bush himself—Draper delivers a scathing portrait of a “star-studded but tragically dysfunctional administration” run by the country’s first M.B.A. president. In the Bush White House, jackets and ties were mandatory and punctuality rigorously enforced; meetings “started and concluded earlier than scheduled, as if leading the free world amounted to a series of daily sprints.” To outsiders, the president’s insistence on brisk, orderly efficiency “created an illusion of extraordinary competence and engagement.”
It was deceiving.
Man of Faith
In Draper’s telling, Bush is a man distinguished by stubborn self-belief and chronic impatience with “small ball” or, worse, “nuance,” which “often meant ‘bullshit.’”
He cuts short an intelligence briefing on al-Qaeda one month before 9/11, telling the briefer, “Okay, Michael. You’ve covered your ass.” When Jordan’s King Abdullah II raises concerns about the consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the president can barely contain his fury. “Hyperventilation,” an aide observes in his notepad. Just before the start of the invasion, Bush meets for the first time with Jay Garner, the retired general chosen to lead the reconstruction of postwar Iraq. Rather than ask a single question about Garner’s strategy for stabilizing the country, Bush fixates on the provenance of Garner’s South Floridian accent. By way of parting advice to the would-be proconsul, Bush says, “Hey, Jay. Kick ass.”
In Bush’s view, dispatching 150,000 American troops to wage a pre-emptive war in the heart of the Arab world didn’t require broad international support or solid intelligence or contingency planning; all that mattered was his faith that it was the right thing to do. He modeled himself on Winston Churchill, whose bust he prominently displayed in the Oval Office, on loan from then British prime minister Tony Blair. “He stood on principle,” Bush told visitors.
Bush’s failure to weigh adequately the risks of going to war was unforgivable, but as Draper ably demonstrates, he didn’t act alone. The drive to oust Saddam was set in motion almost immediately after 9/11, spearheaded by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, enabled by C.I.A. director George Tenet, resisted only passively by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and abetted by a credulous news media. With a vengeful public intent on punishing America’s enemies, making the case for regime change in Baghdad was a mere formality. “The American people wanted somebody killed,” Powell tells Draper.
Bush modeled himself on Winston Churchill, telling visitors, “He stood on principle.”
Much of To Start a War reads like an espionage thriller in reverse. Rather than tales of spymasters’ racing to uncover a deadly plot, we see a motley cast of U.S. officials and Iraqi exiles conspiring to manufacture one. At one point, a C.I.A. official tries to quantify the size of Iraq’s alleged chemical-weapons stockpile. The agency’s analysts in the field report that Iraq could possess anywhere from zero to 1,000 metric tons of nerve agents. They didn’t know. “That’s not very helpful,” the official replies. So they settle on a compromise. The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, often cited by the administration, reported that while the U.S. had “little specific information on Iraq’s CW stockpile,” Hussein “probably has stocked at least 100 metric tons (MT) and possibly as much as 500 MT of CW agents.” The truth, of course, was that he was stockpiling none.
Draper’s book will have greatest appeal to readers who thrill to accounts of feuding bureaucracies and breakdowns in the interagency process. (I’m one of them.) It contains few revelations about the decision to go to war not previously reported in books by Bob Woodward, Tom Ricks, Peter Baker, and George Packer, among others. What distinguishes To Start a War is Draper’s exquisite narrative pacing and his gift for portraiture. Paul Wolfowitz’s “default expression was one of mildly skeptical consideration, as if perusing the menu at an overpriced restaurant.” Rumsfeld welcomed input from his subordinates “provided it was short, precise and brilliant, in which case one could expect that Rumsfeld would appropriate the idea as if it were his own.” C.I.A. director Tenet was “the son a Greek restaurateur … imbued with the importance of customer service,” a quality that caused him to overlook his own agency’s doubts about the intelligence being used by the “First Customer” to justify war.
The ultimate responsibility for the Iraq fiasco—for the tens of thousands of Americans killed or grievously wounded, for the trillions in squandered taxpayer dollars, for the sectarian hell unleashed on the Iraqi people—lies with Bush himself. “After 9/11, he regarded it as his sacred duty to protect free Americans from evil,” Draper writes; Bush soon convinced himself that “the entire world … yearned to be free from evil’s tyranny.” His greatest failure was not so much believing that America’s national security depended on spreading democracy, but that doing so was simple. Unlike his hero, Churchill, he didn’t sweat the operational elements until it was far too late. “At best, details were tactical, thus falling beneath Bush’s job description, or so he believed, as did many presidents before and since.”
In one of the book’s concluding scenes, Bush watches television footage in stunned silence as Iraq’s “liberated” cities descend into chaos. “Why aren’t they cheering?” he asks his equally perplexed aides. The president should have read his Churchill: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy.”
Romesh Ratnesar is an editor at Bloomberg Opinion and a fellow at New America. He covered the aftermath of the Iraq invasion for Time and served in the U.S. Department of State from 2015 to 2017