For more than six years, George W. Bush has maintained a professional silence on the actions of his successor in office. Bush has repeatedly said that the job of President is difficult enough without having former occupants of the White House criticizing from the sidelines, and has even mostly held his tongue about his own actions, with the exception of his memoir more than four years ago, Decision Points. Are the gloves coming off now? Josh Rogin says yes — at least privately:
In a closed-door meeting with Jewish Donors Saturday night, former President George W. Bush delivered his harshest public criticisms to date against his successor on foreign policy, saying that President Barack Obama is being naïve about Iran and the pending nuclear deal and losing the war against the Islamic State.
One attendee at the Republican Jewish Coalition session, held at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas with owner Sheldon Adelson in attendance, transcribed large portions of Bush’s remarks. The former president, who rarely ever criticizes Obama in public, at first remarked that the idea of re-entering the political arena was something he didn’t want to do. He then proceeded to explain why Obama, in his view, was placing the U.S. in “retreat” around the world. He also said Obama was misreading Iran’s intentions while relaxing sanctions on Tehran too easily. …
Bush then went into a detailed criticism of Obama’s policies in fighting the Islamic State and dealing with the chaos in Iraq. On Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of 2011, he quoted Senator Lindsey Graham calling it a “strategic blunder.” Bush signed an agreement with the Iraqi government to withdraw those troops, but the idea had been to negotiate a new status of forces agreement to keep U.S. forces there past 2011. The Obama administration tried and failed to negotiate such an agreement.
Well, maybe, but that’s not how Leon Panetta and Robert Gates remember it. Both men in their memoirs criticize Obama for failing to succeed in getting that agreement, and both former Secretaries of Defense make it known that Obama didn’t want to keep troops in Iraq anyway. Obama was certainly happy to brag about the total withdrawal from Iraq until the “jayvees” of ISIS began their sweep through Syria and Iraq.
Bush told his audience that ISIS is just al-Qaeda under a slightly different banner:
Bush said he views the rise of the Islamic State as al-Qaeda’s “second act” and that they may have changed the name but that murdering innocents is still the favored tactic. He defended his own administration’s handling of terrorism, noting that the terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was captured on his watch: “Just remember the guy who slit Danny Pearl’s throat is in Gitmo, and now they’re doing it on TV.”
Bush’s criticisms seemed primarily aimed at Obama’s policies regarding Iran and Iraq, at least from Rogin’s recounting of his source’s notes. He mentioned Vladimir Putin in a somewhat lighter vein, but warned that Putin’s hold on power was considerable, thanks to his ties to the oligarchy and his own grip on state media. “Hell, I’d be popular too,” Rogin quotes Bush as saying, “if I owned NBC News.”
Clearly, Bush has become concerned enough about the Iran deal and the state of affairs in Iraq and Syria to overcome his usual reticence about criticizing his successor. That may be part of the answer to the “why now” question, as the Iran deal has become an acute issue, especially with the front-loaded loosening of sanctions that has already gone into effect. Bush worries that Obama has gone too far in unleashing Tehran, and for good reason. He’s also concerned that the US still has not had an effective response to ISIS, and that Obama and his team have had more than enough time to find one.
The other part of the “why now” question, though, is obvious: Jeb Bush. Obama has spent the last six years blaming the older brother for any failure that takes place, and GWB had no real incentive to respond. He does now, if only to attack the conventional wisdom that Obama and his team have created in order to give his younger brother space to argue for a return to a more muscular and intelligent foreign policy. The risk is that Bush won’t actually change the conventional wisdom, and end up hanging it around Jeb’s neck, but let’s face it — that will happen whether GWB defends himself or not. At this point, it’s probably not a risk with a ton of downside, and it has to give the former President some satisfaction to offer his own side of the issues after six years of silently absorbing the attacks from the White House.