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review: political memoir

Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.The Associated Press

George W. Bush is asking the impossible of us: to consider his legacy without passion.

In Decision Points, a plainly written tale of key moments during Bush's presidency, we are offered an uncomplicated account of an uncomplicated man devoid of Oedipal issues with his father, a devout Christian who gave up alcohol when he realized it was starting to control his life, a loyal friend who hung on to advisers longer than he probably should have because he didn't want to hurt their feelings.

This is an honest book in which the 43rd president acknowledges many mistakes and shortcomings: his "sickening" shock at discovering there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; his fatal delay in sending federal troops into New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the "false comfort" he took from early successes in Afghanistan.

There are frank mea culpas on everything from failing to anticipate the financial crisis of 2008 to the chaotic disorganization of the West Wing. Bush is clear-eyed about his shortcomings.

But that's because he has so many of them, his critics will reply. And there are so many critics. A recent ranking of presidents by 65 historians declared Bush to be one of the worst presidents in history, only slightly ahead of such winners as Andrew Johnson, who was impeached but not convicted, and James Buchanan, who stood by as the union disintegrated prior to the Civil War. George W. Bush inherited a hyper-power and bequeathed an America troubled by fears of decline.

So it's hard to read the former president's memoirs with a steady hand. As Bush calmly explains and justifies hidden wiretaps, the Guantanamo prison, torture - when he was asked for permission to waterboard a prisoner, he answered: "Damn right" - repeatedly invoking God as his witness and support, the reader is challenged to remain calm. This is a book you want to throw across the room.

Still, after you pick it up again, you learn things. You learn that Dick Cheney warned Bush that he might not be a suitable choice for vice president because his daughter was gay. (You also learn, as has been widely reported, that Cheney offered to step aside in 2004, and that Bush thought long and hard about accepting that offer.)

You learn that Bush was ready to fire Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence as early as 2004, but stayed his hand because "there was no obvious replacement for Don." There wasn't?

You overhear this delightful exchange between Bush and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin at the 2008 Olympics, as Russian tanks and troops rolled into Georgia. Putin claimed he had been provoked by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

" 'I've been warning you that Saakashvili is hot-blooded,' I told Putin.

" 'I'm hot-blooded too,' Putin retorted.

"I stared back at him. 'No, Vladimir,' I said. 'You're cold-blooded.' "

This of a leader Bush once said could be trusted because "I looked the man in the eye," and, "I was able to get a sense of his soul."

"In the years ahead, Putin would give me reasons to revise my opinion," Bush writes. Well, yes.

On the central question of Bush's presidency - Did he lie to the American people and the world about there being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or was he misled by faulty intelligence reports? - he defends his decision by quoting several intelligence memoranda that emphatically declared such weapons existed.

"If I wanted to mislead the country into war, why would I pick an allegation that was certain to be disproven publicly shortly after we invaded the country?" he writes.

"Nobody was lying. We were all wrong."

And anyway, he concludes, it was worth it to rid the world of a fearful dictator and introduce democracy into the Arab Middle East.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair makes the same argument in his memoirs, and far more eloquently. But whatever you think of the decision to go into Iraq, it is possible to assess the Blair legacy apart from that decision. That's not possible with Bush, because Iraq is the central fact of the one great priority of his administration: to frame the attacks of Sept. 11 as an act of war by Islamic terrorists, and to wage war against them in response.

The former president's good works in Africa, where the United States took the lead in fighting AIDS and malaria, and his landmark reforms in education and pharmacare, will never be more than footnotes in the historical record.

All that matters is the war on terror: the countless billions devoted to it, the lives lost because of it, and whether the fact that America was spared another attack made it all worth it.

As Bush observes at the end of his book, he won't be around when posterity renders its verdict. Probably none of us will. It will take that long for tempers to cool.

John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau chief, previously served in The Globe's Washington bureau.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this article contained incorrect information about the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. This online version has been corrected.