Vanity Fair has a striking account of the Bush years from the people inside and around the White House. It’s extensive, so here are some excerpts that jumped out at me. Itals indicate VF’s summaries of events leading into a quote.
On the intellectual rigor of Bush 43:
Richard Clarke, chief White House counterterrorism adviser:
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?
On the new administration’s approach to climate change:
Rick Piltz, senior associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program: Christine Todd Whitman, the E.P.A. administrator, was one of several people in the Cabinet, along with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who strongly supported a proactive position on climate change. And she was, I think, in Europe telling European governments that the U.S. position was to regulate carbon dioxide. And when she got back home, she had an interaction with the president in which she was very brusquely told that that was off the table. The turning point, essentially, was that Cheney grabbed hold of this issue and took down the whole notion of regulating CO2.
On the preparedness of the admin to navigate Washington politics:
May 24, 2001 Vermont senator Jim Jeffords, a Republican, changes party, and control of the Senate shifts to the Democrats, making Tom Daschle the Senate majority leader and testing the administration’s public face of bipartisanship.
David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: I went to a communications meeting the day after Jeffords switched. I remember feeling like I was looking at people who had won a reality-game ticket to head up the White House. There was this remarkable combination of hubris, excitement, and staggering ignorance.
On the admin’s immediate response to Sept. 11:
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.
On the wasted national opportunity in the shadow of Sept. 11:
September 27, 2001 At O’Hare International Airport, Bush advises Americans on what they can do to respond to the trauma of September 11: “Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Matthew Dowd: He was given a great, great window of opportunity where everybody wanted to be called to some shared sense of purpose and sacrifice and all that, and Bush never did it. And not for lack of people suggesting various things from bonds to, you know, some sort of national service. Bush decided to say that the best thing is: Everybody go about their life, and I’ll handle it.
There’s this West Texas thing in him, which is the—you know: Bad people are comin’ to town. Everybody go back to their house. I’ll take the burden on. Which, you know, may work in a Western town, but doesn’t work for a country that wants to be part of that conversation.
On the shifting of focus from Afghanistan to Iraq:
Bob Graham, Democratic senator from Florida and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee: In February of ‘02, I had a visit at Central Command, in Tampa, and the purpose was to get a briefing on the status of the war in Afghanistan. At the end of the briefing, the commanding officer, Tommy Franks, asked me to go into his office for a private meeting, and he told me that we were no longer fighting a war in Afghanistan and, among other things, that some of the key personnel, particularly some special-operations units and some equipment, specifically the Predator unmanned drone, were being withdrawn in order to get ready for a war in Iraq.
That was my first indication that war in Iraq was as serious a possibility as it was, and that it was in competition with Afghanistan for matériel. We didn’t have the resources to do both successfully and simultaneously.
The admin disses and dismisses UN weapons inspectors:
June 1, 2002 In a graduation speech at West Point, Bush advances a new strategic doctrine of pre-emption, stating that the United States reserves the right to use force to deal with threats before they “fully materialize.” Preparations for war with Iraq are not yet publicly acknowledged, but earlier in the spring, as Condoleezza Rice discusses diplomatic initiatives involving Iraq with several senators, Bush pokes his head into the room and says, “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.”
Hans Blix, chief U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq: The most remarkable thing was the talk that we had with the vice president before we were taken to Mr. Bush. To our surprise, we had no idea we would be taken to Mr. Cheney first, but we were, and we sat down, and I thought it was more a sort of a courtesy call before we went on to President Bush.
Much of it was a fairly neutral discussion, but at one point he suddenly said that you must realize that we will not hesitate to discredit you in favor of disarmament. It was a little cryptic. That was how I remembered it, and I think that’s also how Mohamed [El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was present], remembered it. I was a little perplexed, because it was a total threat, after all, to talk about the discrediting of us. Later, when I reflected on it, I think what he wanted to say was that if you guys don’t come to the right conclusion, then we will take care of the disarmament.
Skinseki gets the Iraq troop numbers right, and is forced out of the Army because of it:
February 25, 2003 General Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, tells a congressional hearing that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” will be required to mount a successful occupation of Iraq. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz publicly rebukes Shinseki, stating that the general’s estimate is “wildly off the mark.” Shinseki is forced to retire early.
Jay Garner: When Shinseki said, Hey, it’s going to take 300,000 or 400,000 soldiers, they crucified him. They called me up the day after that, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. They called me the next day and they said, Did you see what Shinseki said? And I said yes. And they said, Well, that can’t be possible. And I said, Well, let me give you the only piece of empirical data I have. In 1991, I owned 5 percent of the real estate in Iraq, and I had 22,000 trigger pullers. And on any day I never had enough. So you can take 5 percent—you can take 22,000 and multiply that by 20. Hey, here’s probably the ballpark, and I didn’t have Baghdad. And they said, Thank you very much. So I got up and left.
The depth of Rumsfeld’s utter wrongness and flippancy begins to show:
March 19, 2003 The Iraq war begins. Two weeks of “shock and awe” bombardment herald the invasion by ground forces. U.S. and British troops make up 90 percent of the “international coalition,” which includes modest support from other countries. The defeat of Iraqi forces is a foregone conclusion, but within days of the occupation Baghdad is beset by looting that coalition forces do nothing to stop. Rumsfeld dismisses the breakdown of civil order with the explanation “Stuff happens.” Kenneth Adelman, a Rumsfeld-appointed member of a Pentagon advisory board, and initially a supporter of the war, later confronts the defense secretary.
Kenneth Adelman, a member of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board: So he says, It might be best if you got off the Defense Policy Board. You’re very negative. I said, I am negative, Don. You’re absolutely right. I’m not negative about our friendship. But I think your decisions have been abysmal when it really counted.
Start out with, you know, when you stood up there and said things—“Stuff happens.” I said, That’s your entry in Bartlett’s. The only thing people will remember about you is “Stuff happens.” I mean, how could you say that? “This is what free people do.” This is not what free people do. This is what barbarians do. And I said, Do you realize what the looting did to us? It legitimized the idea that liberation comes with chaos rather than with freedom and a better life. And it demystified the potency of American forces. Plus, destroying, what, 30 percent of the infrastructure.
I said, You have 140,000 troops there, and they didn’t do jack shit. I said, There was no order to stop the looting. And he says, There was an order. I said, Well, did you give the order? He says, I didn’t give the order, but someone around here gave the order. I said, Who gave the order?
So he takes out his yellow pad of paper and he writes down—he says, I’m going to tell you. I’ll get back to you and tell you. And I said, I’d like to know who gave the order, and write down the second question on your yellow pad there. Tell me why 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq disobeyed the order. Write that down, too.
And so that was not a successful conversation.
On losing American lives in Iraq:
Charles Duelfer, U.N. and U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq: One Iraqi colonel told me, You know, our planning before the war was that we assumed that you guys couldn’t take casualties, and that was obviously wrong. I looked at him and said, What makes you think that was wrong? He goes, Well, if you didn’t want to take casualties, you would have never made that decision about the army.
On Bush’s successes in Africa:
May 27, 2003 Bush signs legislation authorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for aids Relief (pepfar). He visits Africa, a main focus of the legislation, soon thereafter. pepfar commits some $15 billion for aids prevention and treatment over a period of five years. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof concludes, “Mr. Bush has done much more for Africa than Bill Clinton ever did.”
Michael Merson, M.D., international aids researcher, who has evaluated the relief program: Look, pepfar is the largest commitment ever made by any nation for a global health activity that’s dedicated to a single disease. I mean, that’s just not disputable. It has a prevention component, a treatment component, and a care component, but treatment is the centerpiece. The last number I’ve seen is that this initiative has led to treatment of more than 1.7 million people, most of them in Africa. Now, that’s not all the people who need treatment, but it’s a huge amount. pepfar at least tripled our aid flow to Africa—I’m talking about total aid flow.
On losing two centuries of moral high ground:
Bill Graham, Canada’s foreign minister and later defense minister: We were there in Washington for a G-8 meeting, and Colin suddenly phoned us all up and said, We’re going to the White House this morning. Now, this is curious, because normally the heads of government don’t give a damn about foreign ministers. We all popped in a bus and went over and were cordially received by Colin and President Bush. The president sat down to explain that, you know, this terrible news had come out about Abu Ghraib and how disgusting it was. The thrust of his presentation was that this was a terrible aberration; it was un-American conduct. This was not American.
Joschka Fischer was one of the people that said, Mr. President, if the atmosphere at the top is such that it encourages or allows people to believe that they can behave this way, this is going to be a consequence. The president’s reaction was: This is un-American. Americans don’t do this. People will realize Americans don’t do this.
The problem for the United States, and indeed for the free world, is that because of this—Guantánamo, and the “torture memos” from the White House, which we were unaware of at that time—people around the world don’t believe that anymore. They say, No, Americans are capable of doing such things and have done them, all the while hypocritically criticizing the human-rights records of others.
The horrors of Abu Ghraib become known around the world:
Alberto Mora, navy general counsel: I will tell you this: I will tell you that General Anthony Taguba, who investigated Abu Ghraib, feels now that the proximate cause of Abu Ghraib were the O.L.C. memoranda that authorized abusive treatment. And I will also tell you that there are general-rank officers who’ve had senior responsibility within the Joint Staff or counterterrorism operations who believe that the number-one and number-two leading causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq have been, number one, Abu Ghraib, number two, Guantánamo, because of the effectiveness of these symbols in helping recruit jihadists into the field and combat against American soldiers.
“They didn’t give a shit about al-Qaeda”:
July 22, 2004 The bipartisan 9/11 commission—whose creation was fiercely opposed by the administration—issues its report. It provides a detailed reconstruction of events leading up to the attacks, and of the attacks themselves; an earlier staff report found “no credible evidence” of a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The final report also determines that many warning signs of an impending attack were ignored.
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.
On Colin Powell’s role in the admin:
Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: I’m not sure even to this day that he’s willing to admit to himself that he was rolled to the extent that he was. And he’s got plenty of defense to marshal because, as I told [former defense secretary] Bill Perry one time when Bill asked me to defend my boss—I said, Well, let me tell you, you wouldn’t have wanted to have seen the first Bush administration without Colin Powell. I wrote Powell a memo about six months before we were leaving, and I said, This is your legacy, Mr. Secretary: damage control. He didn’t like it much. In fact, he kind of handed it back to me and told me I could put it in the burn basket.
But I knew he understood what I was saying. You saved the China relationship. You saved the transatlantic relationship and each component thereof—France, Germany. I mean, he held Joschka Fischer’s hand under the table on occasions when Joschka would say something like, You know, your president called my boss a fucking asshole. His task became essentially cleaning the dogshit off the carpet in the Oval Office. And he did that rather well. But it became all-consuming.
On the role of the religious right in the admin:
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.
On who is really running Iraq:
Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister and vice-chancellor: The big problem was that the administration was in a permanent state of denial—that they are doing the job for Tehran. That’s another irony, a very tragic one. Because if you look to the basic parameters of Iran’s capability or strategic strength, this is not a superpower—they’re far from a superpower. They never could have achieved such a level of dominance and influence if they would have had to rely only on their own resources and skills. America pushed Iran in that way.
I was invited to a conference in Saudi Arabia on Iraq, and a Saudi said to me, Look, Mr. Fischer, when President Bush wants to visit Baghdad, it’s a state secret, and he has to enter the country in the middle of the night and through the back door. When President Ahmadinejad wants to visit Baghdad, it’s announced two weeks beforehand or three weeks. He arrives in the brightest sunshine and travels in an open car through a cheering crowd to downtown Baghdad. Now, tell me, Mr. Fischer, who is running the country?
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.