I have a confession to make. I kinda like George W. Bush. (Insert caveats.)
I was reminded of this Thursday as I watched what his fellow former President Bill Clinton amusingly dubbed "the latest, grandest example of the struggle of former presidents to rewrite history," the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
I met Bush rather briefly when he was governor of Texas and found him to be intelligent and funny. Though he certainly turned out somewhat differently than I anticipated back in 1999, when I told a friend at The Nation that he was not to be underestimated because "he's like Bill Clinton with a glint of steel." (Writer Marc Cooper, who would join me in 2000 in working with Arianna Huffington on the Shadow Conventions, has joshed me on more than a few occasions over that line.)
By the time we did those conventions, presenting unrepresented issues in mirroring the 2000 Republican national convention in Philadelphia, where our Shadow keynoter was Senator John McCain -- whom I had supported in the primaries, and who promptly earned hoots from the crowd by endorsing Bush at the beginning of his speech -- and the Democratic gathering in Los Angeles, where our keynoter was my old friend and boss, former Senator Gary Hart, it was clear that Bush was no one to underestimate. Not that many did not continue to underestimate him.
A day after the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, violence in and around Iraq's capital Baghdad killed at least 20 people. It was the latest in a series of attacks following a deadly police raid on anti-government protesters in Hawija on Tuesday. Demonstrations against the Shia-led government began in December. But they may have reached a turning point, as Sunni tribes are now calling for the gathering of arms against the pro-Iranian government.
When I met with Ralph Nader, also one of our Shadow Convention speakers, to discuss working on his third party campaign, he said he believed that Al Gore would win handily and that there was thus no danger of his Green candidacy playing a spoiling role in the election. I didn't agree.
Bush ran and was elected -- let's put aside for present purposes the egregious Florida recount -- on a platform of "compassionate conservatism" leavened with concern for the environment and climate change. His campaign also disdained Clintonian notions of nation-building and what many on the right derided as reflexive interventionism (Clinton engaged in a successful limited intervention in the Balkans). Which of course is mordantly amusing considering what was to come.
Every presidency has its problems and, well, the Bush presidency was to have more than most, bequeathing his successor the worst economy since the Great Depression, a climate on fast-cook, and, oh yes, not one but two foreign war debacles.
I'm going to zero in on one issue, mindful that there can be debate over multiple causes of the financial and economic meltdown, and that the climate cooked during the Clinton years, too.
Any real-world American president would have retaliated for the 9/11 attacks. (Yes, I know that there is a small but persistent group of folks who believe that America deserves to be attacked, just as there is a larger but still decidedly minority element who believes that Islam is an evil religion that must be defeated.)
The question was what form America's retaliation for 9/11 would take.
Bush started off well, using air and special ops elements, working closely with nationalist forces within Afghanistan to take down the al-Qaeda bases there and displace the Taliban regime which had granted bin Laden safe harbor. (Whether the US could have done a deal before 9/11 to supercede bin Laden's with the Afghan Taliban, which showed no interest of their own in expansive jihadism, is an interesting question.)
But Bush and company let bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora, then embarked on a half-baked nation-building scheme in Afghanistan, which President Barack Obama subsequently escalated to what I'm sure is his private dismay.
Far worse, the neoconservative ideologues around Bush convinced him to go off on a massive tangent, one of the biggest in history, in invading Iraq. Not only had Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, nor did he have the vaunted weapons of mass destruction, ending his regime removed the region's effective counter-weight to Iran.
If all that wasn't bad enough, the decidedly non-surgical approach Bush took in responding to 9/11 made it look like America was trying to occupy big swathes of the Islamic world.
And the melodramatic "Long War" rhetoric that accompanied it all made it sound like such an occupation would exist in perpetuity.
What better way to erect a massive signpost of recruitment for future jihadists and America-haters? Aside from blowing up Mecca, of course.
In an interview with CNN the night before the dedication of his presidential library, Bush allowed as how "tactical errors" had been made in Iraq but insisted that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Nothing like a little stubbornness, is there?
While Bush isn't the rich kid dummy that so many on the left imagine him to be -- just as Obama is not the affirmative action-empowered idiot their doppelgangers on the right delude themselves about -- he didn't prove to be very intellectually curious or reflective. Certainly not in his first term, when events that will take decades to sort out were set in motion.
Reading through Bush-era memoirs it seemed that the Bush/Cheney Administration was a remarkable den of intrigue and mutual hatreds, in which Bush himself finally detached himself from his mentor vice president. This wasn't a huge surprise, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell's views were not exactly unknown, and I'd encountered Bush National Security Advisor-turned-Secretary of State Condi Rice when she was a young Stanford professor serving on an advisory board to Gary Hart's presidential campaign think tank, the Center for A New Democracy.
But the damage was done.
It's simply a bad idea to have large numbers of American troops fighting Muslims in Muslim countries. Just as it is a bad idea to have large numbers of American troops fighting Asians in Asian countries, as we learned in the Vietnam War.
That doesn't mean withdrawing from the world. It doesn't even necessarily mean jettisoning some interests which are clearly deleterious in the long-term, namely our fossil fuel fixation. Though 40 years after the first Arab oil embargo immediately followed our intervention on Israel's side in the Yom Kippur War, you would think we would have made more progress in an absolutely needed energy transition.
It does mean understanding the limits of what is feasible. Large numbers of American troops occupying -- or seeming to occupy -- Islamic countries is a bad idea. That's a recruitment program for people who will become America's enemies. Turning carefully targeted drone strikes against transnational jihadist operatives into a more wholesale attack on Islamic radicals has the same effect, as the Obama Administration may be learning.
That these things should be obvious obviously did not make them so. Most of the country went along with Bush and, more to the point, his vice president in the invasion of Iraq.
Will Americans of the future embrace Bush anew, turning what looks like a disastrous presidency into a retrospective success? I don't think so. His signature act of invading Iraq set so many bad things in motion that unwinding it all will take a very, very long time. If, in fact, it's ever accomplished.
Does this make him one of history's villains? Again, I don't think so. He wasn't out to screw up the world. Some good things happened during his presidency. But it will all hang forever in the shade of Iraq.
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