PBS has been airing a series on George W. Bush’s presidency. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it but I can see from the trailers that it is respectful and seems to regard Bush as a man of noble qualities with some big mistakes. Not so different from the Peter Baker New York Times article in which Bush calls for a bipartisan response to coronavirus. Bush the statesman.
It is plain that the mainstream is trying to, if not entirely resuscitate Bush’s reputation, make a sharp distinction between his presidency and the Reckless Authoritarian Narcissistic presidency of the man who leaves us all so rattled. Bush wasn’t that bad.
But he was.
Bush made the greatest executive mistake I’ve seen in my lifetime, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It was based on lies and a weakminded strategy about bringing democracy by gunpoint to the Middle East, and its wrongness was obvious at the time to among many others the millions who demonstrated against it. The tragic human rights consequences have spilled over for years since, throughout several countries. Hundreds of thousands of people died directly as a result of Bush’s decision. Millions of lives were disrupted, damaged, or shadowed by this grievous mistake. The strategy was inane, and helped rubbish America’s reputation.
There’s no point in deflecting the responsibility to Cheney or Rumsfeld or the neocons or the liberal interventionist press. Yes they all played crucial roles. This was Bush’s decision in the end. He was the Decider.
The damage far outstrips Trump’s damage, and I am including the Middle East bombings, the Muslim ban, the incitement of racism, the destruction of the Iran deal, and now the COVID-19 missteps.
No doubt Trump’s performance throughout the pandemic has been disgraceful and horrifying and deeply unsettling to any sense of order. But how many lives has he cost? That number is very hard to pin down; and he has competition from other world leaders who were blindsided and/or in denial. After all, the COVID matter is a forced error. Iraq was an unforced error.
As for the depression that seems to await us – again, this is a global phenomenon. And Bush had the great recession of 2007-09 to his credit; he surely missed a lot of signs. As he mishandled the public health crisis of hurricane Katrina in ’05.
Which brings us back to the Bush nostalgia we are seeing today. The Iraq war never really counts for all that much– because so much of the establishment was for it. And despite all the pain and suffering that it caused, there has been rather limited accountability for the many armchair-colonels of that decision in Washington and New York. Bill Kristol and Joe Biden are both unscathed. All the useful idiots Tony Judt once lined up are still hard at work in the media telling us how to think.
The pandemic is a terrible thing, but the people of Iraq and Syria and Gaza say that war is worse. When it comes to rehabilitating Bush’s reputation– a boyish clueless smirking jerk who was in way over his head with disastrous consequences– those victims are the ones we should be hearing from now.