Bob Schieffer, George W. Bush, And The Echoes Of The Iraq War

Celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, CBS's Face The Nation this week touted sit-down interviews with President Obama and former President George W. Bush. As expected, the Obama interview featured more policy questions, as well as queries about the president and the Democratic Party's recent political failures.

By contrast, Bush, who's promoting a biography he wrote about his father, was treated to softer questions from host Bob Schieffer, with a strong emphasis on Bush's family and whether his younger brother Jeb will decide to run for president. Schieffer did raise questions about one key Bush administration decision -- Bush's defining policy of invading Iraq -- though the queries seemed rather perfunctory on the CBS host's part.

There was nothing especially scandalous about Schieffer's decision to treat the former president differently than he did the sitting president, who, by definition, continues to face pressing issues and grapple with unforeseen crises. And yet, there was something noteworthy about the way Schieffer just tossed off Bush's answers about the Iraq War and didn't ask a single obvious follow-up question. The performance nicely captured the double standard that seems to have always existed between Bush and the Beltway press.   

It's the kind of casual dual standard that's been in place for so many years, and has become so normal and accepted, that it barely register a response anymore. It's to the point where most people don't think it's odd that Bush's old golfing buddy is paid to lob him softball questions on a national news program.

It's true. Bob Schieffer “struck up a golfing friendship with George W. Bush during the 1990s,” according to a 2004 Mother Jones article. Schieffer attended “dozens” of baseball games with Bush and even traveled down to baseball's spring training season with the future president. In fact, the Face The Nation host once conceded that when it comes to Bush, “It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally.”

Why the close Schieffer/Bush connection? Because Schieffer's brother Tom helped make George W. Bush a very rich man. Tom Schieffer and Bush were both part of the ownership group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989, and as the team's president Schieffer played a key role in making that investment a profitable one.(Bush invested $600,000 and earned a $25 million return just nine years later.) Bush then turned around and made Tom Schieffer the U.S. ambassador to Australia and then to Japan.

But these facts haven't been discussed much in public over the years, and they certainly weren't emphasized for Schieffer's sit-down interview with Bush on Face The Nation. (Portions of the interview also aired on CBS Sunday Morning.) Instead, the CBS host allowed Bush to make nonsensical proclamations about the failed Iraq War; a conflict that continues to tax the U.S. Treasury and haunt our national security.

SCHIEFFER: Do you have any regrets about that, Mr. President?

BUSH: Ah, no. I have regrets that, uhh--[deep breath]--that--

SCHIEFFER: I mean, do you ever feel that maybe it was the wrong decision?

BUSH: No, I think it was the right decision. My, my regret is that, uhh, a violent group of people have risen--risen up again. This is [long pause; shakes head] al-Qaeda plus. And, um, I put in the book that they need to be defeated. And, uh, I hope we do. It's, uh--I hope that the strategy works.

There were no follow-up questions from Schieffer, at least no follow-up questions that aired on CBS. Bush announced he had no regrets about the Iraq War and that's all the host needed to hear. Here are some rather obvious follow-up questions Schieffer could have posed to the former president:

-CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen recently wrote that, “ISIS, the brutal insurgent/terrorist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, has seized much of western and northern Iraq and even threatens towns not far from Baghdad. From where did ISIS spring? One of George W. Bush's most toxic legacies is the introduction of al Qaeda into Iraq, which is the ISIS mother ship.”

How do you respond?

-According to a report produced by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, The U.S. war in Iraq has cost this country $1.7 trillion, not including an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans. With interest, the full bill could reach more than $6 trillion over the next four decades.

So why did your administration originally project the cost of the war to be just $50 billion?

-A study out of the University of Washington in Seattle estimated the Iraq war and the occupation claimed 500,000 Iraqi lives from 2003 to 2011. In 2005, you estimated just 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the war.

What's your best estimate now? 

Instead, it was polite silence from Schieffer. Just like when Bush suggested it was Saddam Hussein who decided to wage war in 2003:

SCHIEFFER: But you thought that he would believe you and that he-- he would leave?

BUSH: I thought that there was a chance. Yeah, I certainly hope so, but he didn't. And so that's why I put in the book he chose war. Twice he did, he chose war during [Bush] 41 and [Bush] 43.

Saddam chose to go to war with the United States in 2003? That's a creative re-telling of events.

Fact: Bush launched a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq based on the premise that Saddam was sitting on a stockpile of WMDs that could be used to strike the United States, and that he enjoyed a murderous association with Al Qaeda. Neither allegation proved to be true. Yet Schieffer didn't flinch when Bush claimed Saddam “chose” to wage war with America in 2003.

Was the silence because Schieffer didn't see anything wrong with Bush's fanciful interpretation? Remember that in 2005, while the Iraq War was imploding for the United States, Schieffer agreed that when the Bush administration was making its case for war,  “I thought there was no other choice for the president to make,” but to launch an invasion of Iraq. Regarding the administration's trustworthiness, Schieffer stressed, “I still give them the benefit of the doubt,” adding, “I don't think they deliberately misled people.”

Was it any surprise that in 2005 when Dan Rather was ousted as anchor of the CBS Evening News and was replaced by Schieffer, CBS chairman Les Moonves quipped, “obviously the White House doesn't hate CBS anymore with Schieffer in the anchor chair.”

Five years after leaving office, Schieffer and the Beltway press remain uninterested in holding Bush accountable for a war that still plagues America.