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Days of Fire

New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker examines George W. Bush's presidency – a presidency, Baker argues, that rises or falls with the decision to invade Iraq.

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Days of Fire,
by Peter Baker,
Knopf Doubleday,
816 pp.

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George W. Bush frequently told his critics that he would let history judge his actions. Five years have passed since he left office, and the bad news for President Bush is that here comes history. Peter Baker, a reporter for the New York Times, has just published Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, an encyclopedic and even-handed account of the Bush years. By historical standards, it is early days yet. But it’s not looking good for 43.

A few years’ perspective confirms that Bush’s presidency rises or falls with the decision to invade Iraq. All indications to date are that the war was a grievous mistake. Not only was it premised on a threat of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist; not only did it tear apart a country in a volatile region and end the lives of over 100,000 people – it shredded the United States’ image abroad by revealing an America that tortures captives and sends them to Guantanamo. As Baker shows, the war also eclipsed the campaign in Afghanistan – the country that had, after all, harbored the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 – and almost completely disrupted Bush’s domestic agenda.

Although "Days of Fire" is very much a journalistic account, Baker offers clear-eyed perspective on the fateful decisions of a decade ago. In the smoke-filled days of rubble and bullhorns, President Bush became intoxicated by the possibilities of the moment:

"His successes at toppling the Taliban fed the desire to hit another target," writes Baker. "Bush did not want to be like Clinton flailing ineffectually at shadows. Taking on tyrants, rooting out terrorists, confronting rogue states with weapons of mass destruction, even planting a seed for democracy were missions worthy of a great president."

In researching the book, Baker interviewed hundreds of insiders, including Vice President Dick Cheney (although not Bush himself). The kaleidoscopic, behind-the-scenes narrative reveals that true dysfunction reigned in the White House during the first term, and that the president was too conflict-averse to quell it. The ferocious and incorrigible Donald Rumsfeld, squinting lethally at the incompetence all around him, clashed with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, dressing them down and guarding his turf as he nevertheless avoided personal responsibility for controversial decisions.

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