Alex Massie: Dubya: arrogant ignorance

IT IS a measure of the United State’s fall that one immediate reaction to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings was to wonder whether he might receive a proper trial or whether, as some leading Republican senators insisted he should be, he would be considered an “enemy combatant”.
Many  mistakenly  drew comfort from the experienced foreign policy hands such as Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice that surrounded George W Bush
Picture: GettyMany  mistakenly  drew comfort from the experienced foreign policy hands such as Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice that surrounded George W Bush
Picture: Getty
Many  mistakenly  drew comfort from the experienced foreign policy hands such as Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice that surrounded George W Bush Picture: Getty

This is George W Bush’s America. This is his legacy. The rule of law, previously considered something worth upholding, is something to be parsed or negotiated rather than a standard to be upheld. It is a depressing thought. The Shining City on the Hill shines less brightly than once it did.

Today, no fewer than 15,000 supporters and donors will gather at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for the formal dedication of the George W Bush Presidential Centre and library. After four years of forgetting him, attention will once again turn to George W Bush.

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Efforts to rehabilitate the 43rd president’s reputation have begun. This is a labour that would test Hercules, let alone Washington’s finest spin-shops or hack historians on the party payroll. Nevertheless, Bush’s loyal supporters claim he was seriously – even, deliberately – misunderstood. History’s judgment, they insist, will be kinder than that of his peers. Dubya will, one day, be seen as a “misunderestimated” Commander-in-Chief.

Well, maybe. Bush has sunk into retirement, retreating to his Texas ranch where, by all accounts, he leads a contented life filling his days by painting, playing golf, clearing brush and, above all, avoiding publicity. He is not in hiding, it only feels as though he might be. Bush slunk from office as he had entered it: quietly. His first months in power were utterly undistinguished. Far from making a mark on Washington, he gave every impression of being little more than a placeholder president keeping the Oval Office warm for the next guy. Osama bin Laden changed that. Bush now found himself plunged into the arena. Awkward though it is to recall this, the rest of the world, already worried by his inexperience in foreign affairs, drew some comfort from the fact that Dubya was surrounded by experienced foreign policy hands such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. This callow, incurious president would at least be well advised.

It did not quite turn out that way. When Cheney told the world that the “War on Terror” would often be fought “in the shadows”, we scarcely glimpsed half of what he meant. Securing the “homeland” became the Bush presidency’s chief mission. Bush’s defenders stress his success in thwarting terrorist attacks on American soil. By this reading, Bush should be given a mulligan for 9/11. This, to put it gently, seems generous.

Moreover, we were treated to a succession of absurd claims, including the notion that the United States was fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq so that it would not have to fight terrorism within the United States.

But even this success (if such it can be deemed) came at a dreadful price. Extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay and “enhanced interrogation techniques” soiled American policy and destroyed Washington’s moral authority.

The enthusiastic embrace of torture – something with which neither the Republican party nor, more generally, the American people have fully come to terms – is an indelible and shameful stain upon the United States. No amount of spin can wash it away.

America had little choice but to fight in Afghanistan. But history now records that senior figures within the Bush administration were preoccupied with Iraq. Kabul was merely a diversion on the road to Baghdad.

There was no “conspiracy” to go to war, but there was a damaging willingness to suspend scepticism that hurtled the US and its allies along the road to war. The evidence was not cooked, but nor was it subjected to rigorous analysis. The administration believed the worst about Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons of mass destruction programmes because it wanted to believe the worst.

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Those of us who supported the war must, if we are honest, look back and wonder what we were thinking. It is not quite good enough to argue that we had no idea the post-invasion “planning” would be non-existent or that we expected the Americans to make a better fist of the occupation than proved the case. Removing Saddam remains a prize worth having, but it came at a terrible cost. So much so, in fact, that Bush’s Mesopotamian misadventure rivals the Vietnam War as the greatest American foreign policy blunder since the Second World War.

Domestically, Bush’s record remains negligible, where it wasn’t calamitous. Unfunded tax cuts combined with the ballooning costs of his foreign wars to produce the monstrous deficits that have severely cramped Barack Obama’s room for manoeuvre. The financial crash which, like 9/11, occurred on Bush’s watch, exacerbated these difficulties but was not the prime contributor. Half-hearted attempts to reform social security went nowhere, while an expensive expansion of healthcare entitlement for pensioners was as fiscally reckless as the war in Iraq was militarily imprudent. And then there was Hurricane Katrina and the administration’s botched response to the devastation of a major American city. Heckuva job, that.

Even Bush’s grander moments – notably his declaration that the US had coddled and propped-up too many dictators for too many years – are problematic. Democracy promotion across the Middle East may still prove the best long-term hope for the region, but the short-to-medium term picture is more complicated.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment lies in Africa. Bush’s record on Aids prevention overseas is one area in which his record is unimpeachable. That is to his credit. Domestically, however, his “compassionate conservatism” proved another damp squib.

The days, months and years after 9/11 could only ever be difficult. Mistakes and blunders were inevitable. But the scale of those errors was not. Bush’s team practised a bitter brand of politics at home, just as it did overseas. It is telling that a president who promised to be a “uniter not a divider” was re-elected on a “core vote” strategy rather than one that targeted the middle ground of American politics.

Bush’s team liked to boast that it made its own reality. Facts were for wimps. The presumption inherent in that suggestion remains startling to this day. This breathtaking combination of arrogance and ignorance destroyed Bush’s presidency and America’s international reputation in equal measure.

Dubya’s defenders cling to the hope that history will re-evaluate his presidency. Harry Truman was considered a hopeless scrub when he left office. Few contemporaries guessed that Dwight Eisenhower’s reputational stock would soar in the decades following his departure from the Oval Office. History’s judgment moves slowly.

There is something forlorn about this thirst for rehabilitation. The best that may be said of Bush is that he was a decent man overmatched by the presidency. An administration bookended by the worst terrorist attack in American history and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression is, in the end, a presidency that is unsalvageable. Drawing attention to Bush’s record, as the opening of his library will do, can only make matters worse.

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Indeed, Bush’s presidency proved so disastrous that the American people were persuaded that a young, little-known, inexperienced African-American should succeed Dubya since no-one else could more fully be considered the anti-Dubya. In that respect, Bush enjoys a historic legacy – but it is not the one his defenders have in mind.