Editor’s Note: In our March 14 issue, we had a piece by Jay Nordlinger: “43 and His Theme: A visit with George W. Bush.” This week, he is expanding the piece in his Impromptus. For Parts I-III, go here, here, and here.
I say to Bush, “There is a lot of nose-holding in foreign policy. In geopolitics. You have to deal with unsavory regimes, out of national interest. If you can join hands with Josef Stalin to win a world war, you can do anything.”
He knows what I’m talking about, of course. And he knows — because I signaled this before coming to Dallas — that I want to hear about Saudi Arabia. He says,
“Let me talk about the Saudi government, at least when I was there, and I’m not there now, obviously. But King Abdullah and I became friends.” (Abdullah was king of Saudi Arabia from 2005 until his death in 2015.) “The first thing you gotta do, working with anybody, is understand their problems. One of my favorite questions was, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ And then I would tell them, what kept me up at night was a terrorist attack.
“But His Majesty understood the need for liberating his society. He was just at a pace that others just didn’t agree with. Nevertheless, I’ll never forget sitting and listening to him talk about the opening of a university where men and women study side by side. He was very proud of that. But he also gave me an in-depth description of how he had to navigate the power centers in Saudi.
“To me, there was no holding my nose when I was dealing with Saudi because I understood the difficulties.”
‐A pivot: “Some of the leaders were disdainful of the freedom agenda. He wasn’t. [Meaning, Abdullah.] Just so long as one didn’t make public extraordinary demands. And I never did that, because I didn’t like it when people made public extraordinary demands on me, which was quite frequent.
“You know, President Mubarak never came to see me in my second term. I think that’s true, and I think if we researched that, one would view that as an oddity.”
It’s true. Mubarak did not visit Washington in Bush’s second term. He returned to Washington in the summer of ’09, President Obama’s first year.
Why did Mubarak stay away during those Bush years? “Because he didn’t like the freedom agenda,” says Bush, “and there’s a reason he didn’t like the freedom agenda, because he liked power. And it cost him.”
I mention Ayman Nour, the political prisoner.
“Nour and a lot of others,” says Bush. “Prison is one thing, but disenfranchising educated, smart people is in a way a prison, but he didn’t listen, and therefore ended up in the stockade.”
Bush doesn’t seem too upset at Mubarak’s fall. (Neither am I.)
‐While in Israel, Bush indicated that he thought we should have bombed Auschwitz. We should have done something to prevent the Holocaust.
This visit took place in January 2008. Bush was in Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. That place, of course, will stir you up.
To read a news story about Bush at Yad Vashem, go here.
I bring this up with Bush, because I want to talk about U.S. governmental power: What should we do, or can we do, to prevent atrocities, the worst of which is genocide? This is, of course, a big question in American foreign policy. Rwanda and all that. “The responsibility to protect.”
Bush says, “You know, I read Jay Winik’s latest book about that.” He means the U.S. and the Holocaust. And the book must be 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History. Bush goes on to mention and praise other Winik books. (I join in.)
Then he says, “You know, first of all, it’s like asking me would I have bombed Japan.” He is referring to the atomic bombing. “And the answer is, I think it was the right decision. But it’s easy, 60 years later, to second-guess your predecessors.”
Bush asks, “Would it have saved lives?” He’s now talking about bombing and the Holocaust.
He says that his comments in Israel were influenced by his environment: the museum, the survivors, the relatives of the murdered. These people said, Yes, the U.S. should have bombed.
With me, Bush mulls the question a bit. I’m reminded that presidents have to decide things that the rest of us merely comment on.
I think Bush would have, yes: ordered some military action to prevent, or lessen, the Holocaust. But Bush is highly aware that leaders must make decisions in the moment. And he is loath to criticize his predecessors, even by implication.
‐I want to ask Bush something, and I set it up this way: “It’s one thing to be U.S. president, and another thing to be, let’s say, the leader of Norway, and …”
“Must be a lot of fun,” Bush interjects.
“Yeah,” I say, “you give speeches, or you can do symbolic stuff — you might influence the Nobel Peace Prize.”
I mention that I wrote a history of the prize. This is probably why I’ve thought of Norway as an example.
Smiling, Bush says, “Did they have any busts?” At first, I’m confused, because I’m thinking of a bust of Alfred Nobel. He clarifies, “Any of the Nobel-prize winners busts? Failures?” Now grinning, he says, “Never mind …”
I say that the Nobel committee has done some good: giving the prize to Sakharov, for example, and to Aung San Suu Kyi. I also mention what Lech Walesa told me: that, without his receipt of the prize, his Solidarity movement could not have succeeded.
“Really?” says Bush.
“Yes,” say I. “So that’s on the positive side of the ledger, and, of course, there’s a lot of negative.”
“Maybe Arafat, for example?” says Bush.
“Well, the problem there,” I respond, “is that Rabin and Peres won it with him. And they were happy to share the award.”
“But it didn’t take!” Bush exclaims. He means that the Oslo peace process, for which the three won the prize, did not take — because Arafat didn’t want it to.
Yup, that’s exactly right. And, as I mention to Bush, a member of the Nobel committee resigned, rather than see the prize — even a third of it — go to Arafat.
(I’ll never forget something I heard a Palestinian journalist say: “You know why I admire Bush? Because Arafat told him one lie, and Bush divorced him.” This lie concerned a ship laden with arms, the Karine A. “Arafat always lies, to everyone — including American presidents. No one cares. But Bush did!”)
‐If you’re the leader of Norway, you can do relatively little. You have “soft power,” as they say, but not much in the way of hard. If you’re the president of the United States, by contrast, you can do a lot: You have hard power. It must be something of a temptation to use it, to do good or counteract evil, I say.
No, says Bush. It is not at all tempting. “Because it’s life-changing for many of the people you put in when you use the military, and therefore it’s the last resort, not the first.
“On the other hand, I believe in the power of coercive diplomacy, when you’re dealing with tyrannical figures. I believe that oftentimes diplomacy is an escape mechanism to kind of play out the clock, and therefore there had to be some muscle behind the diplomacy. There had to be consequences, and sometimes a sanction is a good consequence, but sometimes the military is an effective consequence.”
‐Bush moves to Iraq (unasked). “The biggest surprise to me was that — not the biggest surprise, but a surprise for me was that — Saddam Hussein made the choice to ignore a universal demand by the U.N. and test our resolve. And I’m told that an FBI interrogator said, ‘Why? Why did you let this happen?’ He said, ‘I didn’t believe Bush.’
“You know, one of the interesting historical questions is why. Why didn’t he? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe someday we’ll know.”
I say that we learned many things from those FBI interrogations. Often, Saddam was in a confessional mood. I used something he said about his sons for my recent book (Children of Monsters).
Bush says, “Those boys weren’t the model citizens — Uday and whatever the other guy’s name was” (Qusay).
True. They were monsters, I say, like their dad.
Bush says, “It’s interesting to think back to the reactions to the liberation of Iraq.” Yes, people were consumed with the question of WMD. “But I don’t remember any great joy in realizing that Iraqis had a chance to live outside of the brutality, outside of the brutality of rapists and thugs.”
I tell Bush, “I always quote you on the question of WMD and the invasion of Iraq. You said, over and over, before we went in, ‘There are risks of action and risks of inaction. I have to weigh them.’”
“Yup,” says Bush. “Exactly.”
I continue, “And how did we know that Saddam didn’t have WMD on the shelf and ready to go? Because we went in and saw. We were blind to what he was doing, and then we weren’t.”
“The question,” says Bush, “is, ‘Why didn’t he let us see?’ His excuse was, ‘I didn’t want the world to know I didn’t have any.’ Then the question is, ‘Was somebody talking to you, to convince you that Bush wasn’t serious?’ I don’t know. To me, that’s going to be one of the really intriguing questions of history, and you know, I can speculate, but that would make huge news, therefore I’m not going to, but …
“It may be he was just hard-headed. To me, that’s the most plausible explanation right now.”
“Vain?” I say.
“Vain. Could be.”
“Shame-honor society?” I say.
“Could be that. Could be allies, people that he was talking to, said, ‘You don’t have to worry, we’re going to stop him from doing this.’ I don’t know. But what people didn’t realize, and still probably don’t, is, it was his choice to make. He was the person who made the choice. We were trying to solve this.”
Thank you for joining me, and George W. Bush, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll conclude this series tomorrow.