Cass Sunstein

George W. Bush's gracious silence: The case of the former president who won't complain about the current president

Responding to the US Senate's release of the CIA torture report, Mr Bush paid tribute to the patriotic and hard-working employees of the CIA - and pointedly declined to take a shot at the Obama administration.
Responding to the US Senate's release of the CIA torture report, Mr Bush paid tribute to the patriotic and hard-working employees of the CIA - and pointedly declined to take a shot at the Obama administration.PHOTO: REUTERS

In the domain of foreign affairs, 2014 has brought heated national debates on an impressive range of subjects: Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Syria, Ebola, immigration policy and, most recently, torture, North Korea and Cuba. One of the more remarkable features of all these discussions has been the consistent grace of former president George W. Bush.

This month, Mr Bush offered a rare comment on a public debate. Responding to the Senate's release of the CIA torture report, he said: "We're fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf. These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base."

Note that Mr Bush paid tribute to the employees of the CIA - and pointedly declined to take a shot at the Barack Obama administration.

No one doubts that, on some important questions, Mr Bush is in profound disagreement with his successor. Nonetheless, he has maintained silence. In March, he explained: "I don't think it's good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president; I think it's bad for the presidency for that matter."

To many Republicans, that crisp explanation is not convincing. But Mr Bush has made an honourable calculation.

He was president for eight years, and the substance of his own views is hardly absent from public debate today - whether or not he raises a personal objection while out of office. He is aware that whenever a former president speaks out against the current one, the criticism gets amplified beyond its merits.

Mr Bush does not want to exploit his past role in that way. "I really don't long for publicity," he said. "I'm perfectly content to be out of the limelight."

Contrast that statement with the case of Mr Leon Panetta, President Obama's former CIA director and secretary of defence. In his book Worthy Fights, he discloses internal debates that officials expected to remain private, and complains that the White House was "so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests".

In an interview promoting his book, he said of Mr Obama: "These last two years, I think he kind of lost his way."

Similarly, in his book, Duty, Mr Robert Gates, who was secretary of defence under both Mr Bush and Mr Obama, writes that, in 2010, he concluded that, with respect to Afghanistan, Mr Obama "doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out." Mr Gates adds that "agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient."

It should go without saying that if Mr Panetta and Mr Gates had not had the privilege of working in the Obama administration, few people would pay attention to their books. The contrast with Mr Bush could not be greater: Mr Panetta and Mr Gates have exploited their own roles.

Unlike a former president, moreover, former Cabinet members owe a duty of loyalty to a sitting president, not least because they have been able to participate in internal discussions.

In those discussions, officials generally deserve to be able to speak on the understanding that what they say will not appear in a book - certainly not while the president remains in office.

Sure, confidentiality and loyalty have limits. If a former official was exposed to genuine wrongdoing - for example, in the form of illegality, as opposed to policy disagreements - he or she may have a duty to speak out. But neither Mr Panetta nor Mr Gates points to such wrongdoing.

Public figures are ordinarily rewarded for what they say, not for what they don't.

Grace is an underrated virtue; gracelessness is an insufficiently acknowledged vice. For his understated remarks about the CIA and his continued silence about his successor, a salute to Mr George W. Bush - along with the hope that, when he leaves office, Mr Obama will follow the example.

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