Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Leffler Assesses Bush Administration’s History and Legacy Ten Years after the Invasion of Iraq

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003

President George W. Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003, announcing the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. PD-USGOV-POTUS

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. In a new article for Diplomatic History, Melvyn P. Leffler, Faculty Associate in the Miller Center’s GAGE Program and Edward Stettinius Professor of American History in the History Department at the University of Virginia, reviews what officials from the George W. Bush administration have written about selective key foreign policy events during the administration. Leffler acknowledges that while memoirs can be self-serving, they can also offer “valuable insights into the motives, thoughts hopes, fears and personal relationships within an administration.” In the article, Leffler highlights areas of agreement and disagreement between the officials. He also assesses the foreign policy decision-making process in the administration and the leadership style of the president.

According to Leffler, Bush administration officials generally agree that foreign policy was not a top priority when they entered office. Rather, the Bush administration’s main agenda focused on tax cuts and education reform. With regards to national security, the main focus centered on accelerating the ballistic missile defense program and transforming the Pentagon. “Nowhere in these memoirs,” writes Leffler, “is there any indication that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Ashcroft or Rice assigned high priority to a prospective terrorist attack, an omission that would come to haunt administration officials, and no one more than Rice.” After the September 11, 2011 attacks, the overriding concern of President Bush and officials in his administration was to prevent another attack. The memoirs also reveal that after the attack, the administration operated under fear and deep uncertainty.

Despite accounts otherwise, Leffler shows that the memoirs reveal that planning for the war in Iraq only began in the wake of 9/11, the anthrax scares and signs that al Qeada might have been seeking WMD. Leffler finds that not all administration officials believed that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 or even necessarily to al Qaeda. While Vice President Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz did believe it, President Bush did not and Donald Rumsfeld was uncertain. Meanwhile CIA analyst Paul Pillar, Richard Clarke and Colin Powell thought it was nonsense. However, the Bush administration was convinced that they had reason to act and they were impelled by a sense of power to do so. According to Leffler, the memoirs inadvertently illuminate:

the hubris and self-confidence of officials who believed the country had been savagely attacked, and who felt they had the power and right to wage war, wreak revenge, topple defiant (and much weaker) regimes, and spread American values and institutions – values and institutions that in their view had proven their vitality and appeal in the victories over communism, fascism and Nazism.