In 1899 President William McKinley explained to a delegation of Methodist clergymen why he had decided to occupy the Philippine Islands. Conscience prevented him from returning the archipelago to Spain following the Spanish–American war, turning it over to another colonial power or granting the Filipinos independence, because “they were unfit for self-government”. A long night of prayer had convinced him “that there was nothing for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them”. The churchmen accepted McKinley’s rationale. The Filipinos, about 90 per cent of whom were Christian already, did not. Nor did Mark Twain, who condemned the military onslaught that would go on to kill 20,000 rebels and up to 200,000 civilians. History has judged McKinley harshly, despite the domestic popularity that won him a second election to the White House in 1900.
Like McKinley, George W. Bush professed a moral imperative for invading and occupying Iraq in 2003. He too won re-election. Yet by the time he left office he was a laughing stock. Even his most ardent cheerleaders had distanced themselves from a military adventure that was nothing short of disastrous for Iraq, the US military and America’s global reputation. A rare exception is Melvyn P. Leffler, whose Confronting Saddam Hussein exonerates Bush and goes so far as to praise his “energy, discipline, self-confidence and good humor”. Can this be the same president who gave his name to the word “Bushism”, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “a verbal error made by and considered characteristic of former US president George W. Bush”, eg “They misunderestimated me” or, on the Taliban, “They have no disregard for human life”?
Leffler blames others for all that went wrong in Iraq: “The president’s advisors did not serve him well.” This judgement sits uneasily beside another of his assessments: “The invasion of Iraq turned into a tragedy, but not, as some accounts have it, because of an ineffectual chief executive easily manipulated by neo-conservative advisers”. Leffler neglects to add that Bush himself selected those advisers, albeit from a pool of third-rate neoconservative ideologues and two veterans of Richard Nixon’s disgraced presidency: vice president Dick Cheney and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld. Bush, the self-described “decider”, led an administration that the author calls “dysfunctional” while apparently excusing the effects of that dysfunction.
Leffler portrays Bush’s intentions as honourable,…
Read the full review in the Times Literary Supplement here.
CONFRONTING SADDAM HUSSEIN
George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq
240pp. Oxford University Press. £21.99 (US $27.95).
Melvyn P. Leffler