Ballot Box

The Best of George W. Bush

The bravest thing he ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of George W. Bush—and what they leave out.

The story: “Last November, the U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution finding Iraq in material breach of its obligations, and vowing serious consequences in the event Saddam Hussein did not fully and immediately comply. When Saddam Hussein failed even to comply then, President Bush, on March 17th, gave him and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq. … I have watched for more than a year now as President Bush kept the American people constantly informed of the dangers we face, and of his determination to confront those dangers. There was no need for anyone to speculate what the President was thinking; his words were clear, and straightforward, and understood by friend and enemy alike. When the moment arrived to make the tough call—when matters came to the point of choosing, and the safety of the American people was at stake—President Bush acted decisively, with resolve, and with courage.” (Vice President Cheney, July 24, 2003)

Reality check: The course was actually set in the summer of 2002, when the United States intensified its bombing of Iraqi military targets to soften them up for the invasion. By the eve of the invasion, there was no “tough call” to be made. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops had been sent to the Persian Gulf, at a cost of many billions of dollars. It would have been far more politically difficult to pull them back than to send them in.

Launching the war required no domestic political courage on Bush’s part, since polls consistently showed majority support for it. Far more courage was required of the prime ministers of Britain and Spain, who took part in the war despite overwhelming opposition in their countries. The resolve Bush showed was precisely in defying the U.N. Security Council, which, contrary to Cheney’s story, refused to authorize the war. Even then, Bush lacked the courage to put the authorizing resolution to a Security Council vote. Once it was clear he would lose the vote, Bush withdrew the resolution.

As to keeping Americans constantly informed, Bush held only nine press conferences in the first two and half years of his presidency, the lowest rate since Herbert Hoover. It’s true that he issued warnings about dangers Americans faced from Iraq, but many of these warnings were discredited. * In August 2003, more than 100 days after Bush declared victory, Bush had produced so little evidence that Howard Dean was able to declare, “The president told us that there was a deal between al-Qaida and Iraq. That was not true. The president told us that Iraq was buying uranium to make atomic weapons. That was not true. The vice president told us that Iraq was imminently about to have nuclear weapons. That was not true. The secretary of defense told us he knew exactly where the weapons of mass destruction were near Tikrit and Baghdad. That was not true.”

Correction, Aug. 26, 2003: The article originally and incorrectly cited, as an example of Bush’s discredited warnings, “the claim that Iraq had bought aluminum tubes to make missiles.” The administration’s claim was that Iraq could have bought the tubes only to enrich uranium. Iraq claimed that the tubes were for rocket launchers, and evidence emerged that this claim was plausible, though it has never been confirmed. (Return to the corrected sentence.)