A Condensed History Of The Failings Of The Bush Administration

Vanity Fair has accumulated a number of interviews, primarily from those in the Bush administration, to provide a look back at the last eight years. Following is a handful of selections from their article which help demonstrate the incompetence of the Bush administration and how they often allowed ideology to prevent them from facing reality.

A major problem with George Bush was his lack of intellectual curiosity.

Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser: We had a couple of meetings with the president, and there were detailed discussions and briefings on cyber-security and often terrorism, and on a classified program. With the cyber-security meeting, he seemed—I was disturbed because he seemed to be trying to impress us, the people who were briefing him. It was as though he wanted these experts, these White House staff guys who had been around for a long time before he got there—didn’t want them buying the rumor that he wasn’t too bright. He was trying—sort of overly trying—to show that he could ask good questions, and kind of yukking it up with Cheney.

The contrast with having briefed his father and Clinton and Gore was so marked. And to be told, frankly, early in the administration, by Condi Rice and [her deputy] Steve Hadley, you know, Don’t give the president a lot of long memos, he’s not a big reader—well, shit. I mean, the president of the United States is not a big reader?

This, along with many others who have described Bush in a similar manner, certainly contradicts the difficult to believe spin from Karl Rove regarding the number of books Bush has read.

Beyond Bush’s personal failings, I believe three events were most important in destroying the credibility of the Bush administration: 1) the questionable manner in which he took office, the mishandling of 9/11 and Iraq, and 3) the final blow was the mishandling of Katrina. A comment on the first.

Mark McKinnon, chief campaign media adviser to George W. Bush: My view is that civility was a heartfelt, well-intended objective that went right off the rails the day of the recount. The recount poisoned the well from the beginning. A good number of people in this country didn’t believe Bush was a legitimate president. And you can’t change the tone under those circumstances. There was a genuine effort, and I think there was some early success with Ted Kennedy and the education stuff. But it was acrimonious from the beginning.

There were many failings noted regarding the handling of terrorism, including mistakes which prevented the Bush administration from capturing or killing bin Laden.

Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser: We went into a period in June where the tempo of intelligence about an impending large-scale attack went up a lot, to the kind of cycle that we’d only seen once or twice before. And we told Condi that. She didn’t do anything. She said, Well, make sure you’re coordinating with the agencies, which, of course, I was doing. By August, I was saying to Condi and to the agencies that the intelligence isn’t coming in at such a rapid rate anymore as it was in the June-July time frame. But that doesn’t mean the attack isn’t going to happen. It just means that they may be in place.

On September 4, we had a principals meeting. The most telling thing for me about the attitude of these people was on the decision that had been pending for a long time to resume Predator [remote-controlled drone] flights over Afghanistan, and to now do what we couldn’t have done in the Clinton administration because the technology wasn’t ready: put a weapon on the Predator and use it as not only a hunter but a killer.

We had seen bin Laden when we had it in the Clinton administration, as just a hunter. We had seen him. So we thought, Man, if we could get this with a hunter-killer, we could see him again and kill him. So finally we have a principals meeting and the C.I.A. says it’s not our job to fly the Predator armed. And D.O.D. says it’s not our job to fly an unarmed aircraft.

I just couldn’t believe it. This is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of C.I.A. sitting there, both passing the football because neither one of them wanted to go kill bin Laden.

Beyond failing to pay attention to pre-9/11 intelligence which might have prevented the attack, the Bush administration made the tragic error of using the attack to promote their pre-existing goals as opposed to responding to the actual problem.

Richard Clarke: That night, on 9/11, Rumsfeld came over and the others, and the president finally got back, and we had a meeting. And Rumsfeld said, You know, we’ve got to do Iraq, and everyone looked at him—at least I looked at him and Powell looked at him—like, What the hell are you talking about? And he said—I’ll never forget this—There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks.

And I made the point certainly that night, and I think Powell acknowledged it, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. That didn’t seem to faze Rumsfeld in the least.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It really didn’t, because from the first weeks of the administration they were talking about Iraq. I just found it a little disgusting that they were talking about it while the bodies were still burning in the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center.

They didn’t care that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and didn’t care about the opportunity the attack raised for bipartisan cooperation. The Bush White House preferred to play politics as opposed to responsibility responding to the threat:

Matthew Dowd: Karl wasn’t receptive to ideas that would’ve called the country to certain things and brought them to a common purpose and a sense of shared sacrifice. Karl came from a perspective of: you defeat people in politics by calling one side bad and one side good.

Scott McClellan, deputy White House press secretary and later press secretary: I remember Karl Rove was out there talking at some events about how we’d use 9/11, run on 9/11 in the midterms, and that it was important to do so.

The Bush administration also took advantage of the country being preoccupied by the attack to increase government secrecy.

November 1, 2001 A presidential executive order exempts presidents, vice presidents, and their designees from provisions of the 1978 Presidential Rec ords Act and permits unclassified archived materials to be kept sealed in perpetuity, rather than being released after 12 years, as the law allows.

Robert Dallek, presidential biographer: I’ve testified twice before the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, protesting this executive order. Now, there are two constraints that operate in relation to all executive materials. One is that if you’re going to violate someone’s privacy you are constrained from releasing the material. A much bigger issue is one of national security, and that’s what causes years to go by before many, many documents are released. So those are the two constraints.

But broadening this—and not only in relation to the president, but in relation to the vice president—reflects, I think, the Cheney proposition that the Watergate crisis put too many limitations on executive power.

And so we now have the issue of what sort of documentary record we’re going to find. I mean, this is a separate issue, I guess, but will they have sanitized the rec ords?

Not only did the Bush administration fail to take the threat of bin Laden seriously before 9/11, but they also messed up an excellent chance to capture him at Tora Bora.

December 2001 Osama bin Laden and many of his followers have taken refuge in the mountains of Tora Bora, on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, where an attempt to dislodge and capture them proves unavailing. A decision by Washington has the effect of allowing bin Laden to escape into the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Gary Berntsen, C.I.A. intelligence commander at Tora Bora: We knew he was there—he had fallen into the mountains with about a thousand of his followers. That’s why we threw a BLU-82 [the bomb known as a “daisy cutter”] at him. At one point we knew where he was; we allowed food and water to go in to him. And then we came in with a 15,000-pound device. Bin Laden was outside the lethal effects of that blast. I understand he was injured.

I got a message out and made my request for inclusion of what I believed was needed—800 Rangers. The army of the Eastern Alliance on the north side had blocking positions there, so al-Qaeda couldn’t get back out into Afghanistan. But I was always concerned about the Pakistani side. I explained clearly that this was our opportunity to, so to speak, kill the baby in the crib. I was very concerned about them breaking out [south] into Pakistan, because I knew, if they did that, containing this thing would be a significant problem.

Unfortunately, the decision was made at the White House to use the Pakistani frontier force. What the White House didn’t understand is that the frontier force had cooperated with the Taliban. So they used individuals who were very, very sympathetic to the Taliban to set up purported blocking positions.

Iraq was far from the only area where ideology blinded the Bush administration from reality.

February 14, 2002 The Bush administration proposes a Clear Skies Initiative, which relaxes air-quality and emissions standards. This is followed by a Healthy Forests Initiative, which opens up national forests to increased logging. Climate change becomes a forbidden subject.

Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: At the beginning of the Bush administration, Ari Patrinos, a very senior science official who had run the Department of Energy’s climate-change research program for many years, and a half-dozen high-ranking federal science officials were brought together and told to explain the science and help develop policy options for a proactive climate-change policy for the administration. They moved into an office downtown, and they worked very hard and were briefing at the Cabinet level, in the White House. Cheney was there, Colin Powell was there, Commerce Secretary [Don] Evans was there. They were making the case on climate change.

And one day they were told: Take it down, pack it up, go back to your offices—we don’t need you anymore.

A couple additional descriptions of George Bush:

David Kuo: Every time you had a conversation with him, he would make it clear the subject was important. Bush would say, I care about this. Let’s get this done. But it was like a ship whose wheel is not attached to the rudder.

Jay Garner: I think a lot of the problem the president had is: people around him were doing what he said, and nobody was doing the analytical questioning of the things we were doing where you could do all the puts and takes and say, O.K., Mr. President, here’s all the pros to do this and here’s all the cons to do this, and here’s the likely outcome. Now, let’s make a decision.

I don’t think that ever happened. I never saw anything like that. And I think the Defense Department was enamored with what they felt they’d accomplished in Afghanistan with a very small force of basically special-ops guys and the air force. And they looked at it as a high-tech thing. Nation building is a low-tech thing. Get a whole bunch of you. Roll up your sleeves. Get a bunch of shovels, and then everybody goes out and busts their ass every day. We just didn’t have enough soldiers to do that.

This comment places the failings of the Bush administration to adequately respond to al Qaeda into perspective. They never really did care about al Qaeda:

Lawrence Wilkerson: John [Bellinger] and I had to work on the 9/11-commission testimony of Condi. Condi was not gonna do it, not gonna do it, not gonna do it, and then all of a sudden she realized she better do it. That was an appalling enterprise. We would cherry-pick things to make it look like the president had been actually concerned about al-Qaeda. We cherry-picked things to make it look as if the vice president and others, Secretary Rumsfeld and all, had been.

They didn’t give a shit about al-Qaeda. They had priorities. The priorities were lower taxes, ballistic missiles, and the defense thereof.

One curious contradiction of the Bush years is that their relationship with the religious right. This was the best years for the religious right in the Republican Party. The Bush administration did more to pursue their goals than in the past, and Bush left office with the religious right appearing to be a dominant force in the party. Despite this, many in the Bush administration held the long-standing antipathy towards the religious right held by establishment Republicans who pandered to them for votes.

David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: After the 2004 election they cut the White House faith-based staff by 30 percent, 40 percent, because it became clear that it had served its purpose.

There’s this idea that the Bush White House was dominated by religious conservatives and catered to the needs of religious conservatives. But what people miss is that religious conservatives and the Republican Party have always had a very uneasy relationship. The reality in the White House is—if you look at the most senior staff—you’re seeing people who aren’t personally religious and have no particular affection for people who are religious-right leaders. Now, at the end of the day, that’s easy to understand, because most of the people who are religious-right leaders are not easy to like. It’s that old Gandhi thing, right? I might actually be a Christian myself, except for the action of Christians.

And so in the political-affairs shop in particular, you saw a lot of people who just rolled their eyes at everyone from Rich Cizik, who is one of the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals, to James Dobson, to basically every religious-right leader that was out there, because they just found them annoying and insufferable. These guys were pains in the butt who had to be accommodated.

A general comment on achieving peace, which might have been of value during the presidential campaign when Obama was attacked by Hillary Clinton and John McCain for expressing the importance of talking to our enemies:

Lee Hamilton, former Indiana congressman and vice-chair of the 9/11 commission: I was in the Congress when we began talking to members of the Supreme Soviet under the old Soviet Union. I’d get up and give a speech. My Soviet counterpart would get up and give a speech. Then we’d toast each other with vodka and say that we were for peace in the world and prosperity for our grandchildren, and then we’d go home. And we did that year after year after year. After doing it 10 or 15 years, we put aside the speeches and we began to talk with one another. That was the beginning of the thaw.

It might not take 40 years with the Iranians, but it’s going to take a long time. You’re going to have to have patience. You have to put on the table not just our agenda but their agenda as well. But the conversation is critical, and I don’t know how you deal with differences without talking to people. If you know a way to solve problems without talking to people, let me know, because I haven’t found out about it yet.

While Bush’s first term was a disaster, it wasn’t until Katrina that most Americans realized how bad the Bush administration was.

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director and later counselor to the president: Politically, it was the final nail in the coffin.

Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn’t matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn’t matter. P.R.? It didn’t matter. Travel? It didn’t matter. I knew when Katrina—I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We’re done.

A second example of how ideology trumped science on climate change:

December 6, 2005 nasa scientist James Hansen gives a lecture on climate change at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco. nasa reacts by ordering his future public statements to be vetted in advance. Earlier in the year Rick Piltz had resigned from the Climate Change Science Program over other instances of political interference.

Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: To me, the central climate-science scandal of the Bush administration was the suppression of the National Assessment of Climate Change Im pacts report. In the 1997–2000 time frame, the White House had directed the Global Change Research Program to develop a scientifically based assessment of the implications of climate change for the United States. It was a vulnerability assessment: If these projected warming models are correct, what’s going to happen? And over a period of several years a team made up of eminent scientists and other experts produced a major report. To this day, it remains the most comprehensive effort to understand the implications of global warming for the United States.

And the administration killed that study. They directed federal agencies not to make any reference to the existence of it in any further reports. Through a series of deletions it was completely excised from all program reports from 2002 onward. It was left up on a Web site. There was a lawsuit filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is an ExxonMobil-funded “denialist” group, demanding that the report be deleted from the Web. Myron Ebell of the institute said, Our goal is to make that report vanish.

The Bush administration, and especially Dick Cheney, was remarkable for its disdain for the constitutional limits on the executive branch.

Jack Goldsmith, legal adviser at the Department of Defense and later head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel: Every president in war time and in crisis—Lincoln, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, just to name three—exercised extraordinarily broad powers. They pushed the law and stretched the law and bent the law, and many people think they broke the law. And we’ve largely forgiven them for doing so because we think that they acted prudently in crisis. So Lincoln—he did all sorts of things after Fort Sumter. He spent unappropriated moneys. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

Now, there’s a way of looking at the Cheney-Addington position on executive power which is not unlike some of the most extreme assertions of Lincoln and Roosevelt. But there are important differences. One is that both Lincoln and Roosevelt coupled this sense of a powerful executive in times of crisis with a powerful sense of a need to legitimate and justify the power through education, through legislation, through getting Congress on board, through paying attention to what one might call the “soft” values of constitutionalism. That was an attitude that Addington and I suppose Cheney just did not have.

The second difference, and what made their assertion of executive power extraordinary, is: it was almost as if they were interested in expanding executive power for its own sake.

Having taken advantage of 9/11 to justify their desire to attack Iraq, and having little real interest in dealing with al Qaeda, the Bush administration failed to pay attention to problems in Afghanistan, once again being blinded by ideology.

Anthony Cordesman, national-security analyst and former official at the Defense and State Departments: We can all argue over the semantics of the word “surge,” and it is fair to say that some goals were not met. We didn’t come close to providing additional civilian-aid workers that were called for in the original plan. And often it took much longer to achieve the effects than people had planned. But the fact was that this was a broad political, military, and economic strategy, which was executed on many different levels. And credit has to go to General Petraeus, General Odierno, and Ambassador Crocker for taking what often were ideas, very loosely defined, and policies which were very broadly stated, and transforming them into a remarkably effective real-world effort.

It’s important to note that we made even more mistakes in Afghanistan than we did in Iraq. We were far slower to react, but in both cases we were unprepared for stability operations; we had totally unrealistic goals for nation building; at a political level we were in a state of denial about the seriousness of popular anger and resistance, about the rise of the insurgency, about the need for host-country support and forces; and we had a singularly unfortunate combination of a secretary of defense and a vice president who tried to win through ideology rather than realism and a secretary of state who essentially stood aside from many of the issues involved. And in fairness, rather than blame subordinates, you had a president who basically took until late 2006 to understand how much trouble he was in in Iraq and seems to have taken till late 2008 to understand how much trouble he was in in Afghanistan.

While Bartlett earlier considered Katrina the final nail in Bush’s coffin, he later pointed to Iraq as Bush’s major failing. Regardless of the ranking of the two, Bartlett is correct that a presidency cannot survive going to war based upon a lie:

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director and later counselor to the president: At the end of the day I think the divisiveness of this presidency will fundamentally come down to one issue: Iraq. And Iraq only because, in my opinion, there weren’t weapons of mass destruction. I think the public’s tolerance for the difficulties we face would’ve been far different had it felt like the original threat had been proved true. That’s the fulcrum. Fundamentally, when the president gets to an approval rating of 27 percent, it’s this issue.

Going to war based upon a lie has serious repercussions, as does failing to meaningfully respond to the actual threat from terrorism:

Bob Graham, Democratic senator from Florida and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee: One of our difficulties now is getting the rest of the world to accept our assessment of the seriousness of an issue, because they say, You screwed it up so badly with Iraq, why would we believe that you’re any better today? And it’s a damn hard question to answer.

Meanwhile, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have relocated, have strengthened, have become a more nimble and a much more international organization. The threat is greater today than it was on September the 11th.

Some final thoughts on the failings of the Bush administration:

David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: It’s kind of like the Tower of Babel. At a certain point in time, God smites hubris. You knew that right around the time people started saying there’s going to be a permanent Republican majority—that God kinda goes, No, I really don’t think so.

Matthew Dowd, Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: You know, the headline in his presidency will be missed opportunity. That is the headline, ultimately. It’s missed opportunity, missed opportunity.

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  1. 1
    hmmm says:

    A very good summery of the Bush/republican madness of the last 8 years. its interesting to see from the perspectives of those that had to deal with and try to mitigate the disasters caused by idiots that have been in power for the last decade.

    However it is a new year with a new president (elect). One hopes that the future will be brighter this coming year.

    Happy new year everyone 🙂

  2. 2
    Andrew Yu-Jen Wang says:

    Bush’s mental illnesses explain his failures.
    “Anyone familiar with the psychological profile put forth in my book, Bush on the Couch, shouldn’t be surprised. So much of what Bush has done—drinking, stopping drinking, and embracing faith, certainty, physical discipline, and ultimately sadism—can be traced to his desperate attempt to silence the voices that have plagued him since childhood.”

    Submitted by Andrew Yu-Jen Wang
    B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
    Messiah College, Grantham, PA
    Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993

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