Michael Kinsley’s Review of Decision Points

Michael Kinsley has reviewed George Bush’s book Decision Points for The New York Times Sunday Book Review. At times I felt Kinsley was going soft on Bush, considering how much damage the former president did to the country. I imagine it is acceptable to point out that there were two things Bush tried to do right:

While George the elder talked a good “kinder, gentler,” but did little about it, George the younger has two real achievements along those lines: first, his many efforts, only partly successful but starting immediately after 9/11 (and therefore, it seems, instinctive) to prevent an explosion of anti-Muslim prejudice; and his leadership in the fight against AIDS in Africa.

Seeing the degree of Islamophobia being spread by the right wing, it is notable that Bush was preferable on this issue to the current conservative position.

Bush did concede two errors on the war, but Kinsley was far too soft on him here:

Which brings us to Iraq. Bush admits to just two errors in prosecuting that war. One was to have been unprepared for the “contingency” of a law-and-order breakdown in Baghdad after the Hussein government was toppled. This surely was closer to a certainty than a contingency. “Saddam had warped the psychology of Iraqis in ways we didn’t fully understand,” Bush says. But what country’s capital would not descend into chaos and anarchy if it had no government and a steady rain of bombs was destroying its infrastructure?

Bush’s other error, of course, was those weapons of mass destruction. His defense is that virtually everyone — including his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and his 2004 rival, John Kerry — also believed there were such weapons, or the ability to build them. Bush is enraged by the slogan “Bush lied. People died.” He wasn’t lying! He honestly believed that Hussein had these weapons hidden away somewhere — believed it just like everyone else. Furthermore, Hussein was a stinker whether or not he had W.M.D. He deserved his fate. And wasn’t bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq reason enough for our actions?

So if Bush wasn’t  lying, he was utterly incompetent for going to war based on such flimsy evidence. Saying that others such as John Kerry thought there was WMD at one time is hardly justification for going to war considering that in the run up to the war Kerry repeatedly urged Bush not to rush to go to war. Kerry insisted on only going to war as a last resort, and argued it was not necessary at the time. Kerry even called for regime change in Washington at the onset of the war–something Kerry unfortunately came just a little short of accomplishing in 2004.

Kinsley did far better in discussing Bush’s opposition to stem cell research:

There is one big issue during Bush’s presidency that he not only got wrong, but seems to have totally misunderstood. That is stem cells. “At its core,” Bush writes ponderously, “the stem cell question harked back to the philosophical clash between science and morality.” He announced to his aides that “I considered this a far-reaching decision,” and “I laid out a process for making it. I would clarify my guiding principles, listen to experts on all sides of the debate, reach a tentative conclusion and run it past knowledgeable people. After finalizing a decision, I would explain it to the American people. Finally, I would set up a process to ensure that my policy was implemented.”

To call this a question of science versus morality is to stack the deck. Obviously morality wins. But what is immoral about stem cell research? Bush talks about how “new technologies like 3-D ultrasounds” will help “more Americans recognize the humanity of unborn babies.” He seems to think an embryo is like a fetus — a tiny human being — rather than what it is: a clump of a few dozen cells, invisible without a microscope, unthinking and unfeeling. Nature itself — or God himself, if you’re a believer — destroys most of the embryos it creates every year in miscarriages (usually before a woman even knows she’s pregnant). Thousands more are created and destroyed or frozen in fertility clinics — which Bush has no problem with and may even have used himself. (He and Laura, he says, tried unsuccessfully to have a baby and were ready to adopt when suddenly they had twins.) A very few of those surplus embryos from fertility clinics are used in stem cell research. By what logic do you bar the use of those few to do some real good, while ignoring all the others that come and go without doing any good for anyone?

Although President Obama lifted the ban on ­government-subsidized stem cell research, Bush’s policy continues to do damage by leaving the impression that stem cells are controversial and require some sort of compromise between science and morality. They don’t. And Bush seems to think that the advent of adult stem cells offers a morally uncomplicated alternative that vindicates his policy. It doesn’t. You don’t shut down one promising area of research just because another one has opened up.

The stem cell decision came early in Bush’s presidency. It would be nice to say that Bush grew in office — like Henry V, the wastrel youth and son of a famous father to whom he was often compared. But judging from this book, it didn’t happen. Although Bush is admirable for stopping, he probably was more fun when he drank.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a comment