ROSS DOUTHAT isn’t a big fan of George W. Bush, but he does think a lot of the liberal critique leveled at the time seems “misguided or absurd” in retrospect. Mostly on domestic policy issues, but on foreign and security issues as well:
The continuities between Bush and Obama on civil liberties, presidential power and the war on terror make the same point: In order to critique Bushism appropriately, you need to recognize that on many, many issues, his presidency was much more centrist and establishmentarian than it was radical or right-wing.
There may be some issues on which George W. Bush was “centrist and establishmentarian”, but his stances on civil liberties and the war on terror were not among them. The only reason they may appear so now is that the Bush administration and the Republican Party succeeded in shifting the political debate so far towards militarism and unchecked security-statism in the previous decade that it now feels normal. We’ve been right so long it looks like centre to us. It is hard to tell how much personal responsibility Mr Bush bears for many of the most egregious precedent-setting violations of human rights that took place during his tenure, since he was a relatively ill-informed and often disengaged chief executive who delegated an unusual level of power in these areas to his vice-president. But we were talking about the administration, not just the man. On civil liberties, it was the Bush administration that decided that America ought to torture people and imprison them without trial indefinitely (ie, possibly forever) in extra-territorial jails. On the war on terror, it was the Bush administration that decided that America ought to launch preemptive wars against other countries in defiance of international public opinion, based on a delusional belief in the irresistible glory and rightness of American power. I would call that radical and right-wing. I can think of some meaner words, too.
On the question of “presidential power”, Mr Douthat is right that most administrations tend to want more of it rather than less. Certainly Barack Obama has not been eager to ramp back his prerogatives. In other continuities, the Obama administration has presided over the expansion of drone-based targeted killing programmes that have killed thousands of civilians across the Middle East, has expanded domestic surveillance powers, and has used the same reprehensible personality-destruction techniques on Bradley Manning that the Bush administration used on José Padilla. All of which is lousy. But how sharp a shift was really possible? The Obama administration inherited a security apparatus swollen to a multiple of its previous size, full of people who had spent the previous eight years carrying out the Bush administration’s policies. Those people had a very strong interest in defending those policies, not least because a number of them were guilty of ordering or carrying out torture. Torture is a crime against humanity. America has signed treaties that oblige it to try its own officials when they commit crimes against humanity. And yet you can feel how far the Bush administration moved politics permanently to the right when you speak the words “officials who ordered people tortured should be tried for crimes against humanity”, and realize that you sound like a ranting far-left extremist.
Maybe Barack Obama could have reversed course more sharply on civil liberties and held Bush-era officials accountable for torture, if he had been willing to stage a partisan ideological battle on those grounds that would have left him unable to accomplish much else. I’m not convinced it would have achieved anything; Mr Obama has been trying to close Guantánamo since the day he took office, but has failed in the face of congressional opposition. Either way, it’s absurd to believe that America would have started torturing people or invading countries unprovoked if Barack Obama, Al Gore, Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush had been in the White House on September 11th, 2001. That is George W. Bush’s historical responsibility, and it’s what he should be remembered for—along with the financial crisis, the rich-skewed tax cuts that left us with a half-trillion-dollar structural deficit, the listless cronyism that hollowed out the SEC and FEMA, a couple of positive public-health initiatives marred by corporate giveaways (PEPFAR, Medicare Part D), and the decision to doom the world to global warming by opposing the Kyoto Protocol. On balance, a legacy worthy of contempt.
By: M. S., Democracy in America, Published in The Economist, April 26, 2013
Like all such monuments that former presidents construct to edify the public, the George W. Bush Presidential Center – opened with great ceremony in Texas yesterday — is mounted from its subject’s point of view.
My own invitation to the festivities must have been lost in the mail, so I have yet to view the super-cool interactive exhibitions that reportedly allow visitors to become “the decider” on Iraq and other debacles. But the point seems to be that the 43rd president came under sustained pressure and, if he screwed up to an unprecedented degree, then he doesn’t think you or I would have done any better.
That pointless comparison would no doubt elicit Bush’s trademark smirk. He is said to feel well-satisifed with himself, no matter what the world thinks.
Still the overall tone of the remarks by President Obama, former President Clinton, and others who attended the library dedication was appropriately generous, as befits such a civic occasion in a democracy – even in honor of a man who ascended to office by trampling democratic values. Obama drew attention to the good works that Bush did to combat HIV/AIDS while in office, perhaps his single most important achievement, as did Clinton, who also generously praised Bush’s fitful effort to reform immigration and his work with Clinton in post-earthquake Haiti.
But does that mean Bush may now take for granted the verdict of historians, many of whom consider him America’s worst president? Not so fast, please: There are a few salient questions that Bush (or at least his library) ought to address before the rehabilitation begins.
Everything changed abruptly after September 11, 2001, as the Bush library depicts so dramatically – but what should have changed in the White House before that horrific day? Why did Bush and Cheney ignore the warnings about al Qaeda delivered by Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, and other authoritative figures when he took office? What were they trying to conceal when the Bush White House first opposed and then tried to weaken the 9/11 Commission?
Why did he and Dick Cheney (barely mentioned in the Bush library, according to NBC’s David Gregory) permit Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to escape from Tora Bora after allied forces invaded Afghanistan? Was it wise to neglect the Afghan conflict while launching an invasion of Iraq?
The library portrays Bush as a dauntless advocate for “freedom” around the world. But did the invasion and occupation of Iraq establish liberty in that country and if so, for whom? Why is the authoritarian Shiite government in Baghdad now among the closest allies of the theocratic dictatorship in Iran? (And wasn’t that a predictable outcome of Bush’s Iraq policies?)
Finally, do the library’s exhibits or archives mention anywhere the hundreds of thousands of people killed, crippled, wounded, and driven from their homes as a consequence of the Iraq invasion? Is any attention devoted to the total financial cost of the war, last estimated to be approaching three trillion dollars?
Those traumas will always haunt the Bush presidency, no matter how many coats of red-blue-and-whitewash are applied in Dallas during the years ahead. And that is why Barbara Bush, his acerbic mother, sounded so wise when she said of the potential presidential candidacy of his brother Jeb, “we’ve had enough Bushes.”
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, April 26,2013
Former vice president Dick Cheney reportedly issued a stern warning on North Korea to Congressional Republicans Tuesday, and in the process raised an important question: Why on Earth would anyone listen to Dick Cheney’s foreign policy advice?
According to a CNN report, a cowboy hat-wearing Cheney told the attendees of a GOP leadership meeting that “we’re in deep doo doo” with regard to North Korea.
“Here’s a young guy we don’t know very much about — have very little intel on him, so we just need to make sure that we don’t assume why he’s doing what he’s doing because he could be doing what he’s doing for any number of reasons,” Cheney told the Republican lawmakers, according to Representative Steve Southerland (R-FL).
Cheney attended the meeting as an invited guest of the third-ranking Republican in the House, majority whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
The notion that House Republicans would seek out Cheney’s counsel is rather mind boggling. Should a group with a pathetic 24 percent approval rating really be taking advice from a man who left office at a startling 13 percent?
It’s not as if Americans rejected Cheney for no reason. On almost every major foreign policy issue — including Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, climate change, and everything in between — Cheney pushed the Bush administration in often catastrophically wrong directions.
North Korea is no exception. As Fred Kaplan explained in a 2004 piece for Washington Monthly, the Bush administration entered the White House with the stage set for diplomatic progress — only to have the neoconservative foreign policy team shut down all negotiations. Kaplan singled out Cheney for resisting engagement, describing the vice president’s general position as “As long as the North Koreans were pursuing nuclear weapons, even to sit down with them would be ‘appeasement,’ succumbing to ‘blackmail,’ and ‘rewarding bad behavior.’”
As a result, the Bush administration all but ignored North Korea’s steady march towards construction of a nuclear weapon — even intentionally covering up information on North Korea’s nuclear program to avoid distracting the public from its misguided case for war in Iraq.
By 2002 the administration’s approach had proven so ineffective that James Kelly — then the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs — told Kaplan that then-South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun told him, “‘I wake up in a sweat every morning, wondering if Bush has done something unilaterally to affect the [Korean] peninsula.”
So if America is now in “deep doo doo” with a nuclear North Korea, Cheney has no one to blame but himself and his former Bush administration colleagues. And if House Republicans insist on trying to bring back the Bush foreign policy team, then they will have no one to blame but themselves when their approval rating plummets all the way down to Cheney territory.
By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, April 11, 2013
This week has been filled with Iraq War recriminations and re-evaluations. While official Washington was strangely silent about the 10th anniversary of the start of the conflict, journalists and intellectuals have been (predictably) more vocal. Prominent neocons have reaffirmed, with minor caveats, their support for the war. Some (erstwhile) liberal hawks have issued full-throated mea culpas. Other liberals, meanwhile, have tried to have it both ways, denouncing the war they once supported while praising its outcome. And of course, lots of people who opposed the war from the beginning, on the right and left, have declared vindication.
My own position on the war fits into none of these categories. Ten years ago, I was working as an editor at First Things, a monthly magazine that’s aptly been described as the New York Review of Books of the religious right. (And no, that’s not oxymoronic.) The magazine strongly supported George W. Bush’s original conception of the War on Terror, and so did I. In his speech to Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001, Bush stated that the United States would seek to decimate al Qaeda as well as every other terrorist groups of global reach. To this day I remain committed to that goal and willing to support aggressive military action (including the use of drone strikes) to achieve it. But thanks in large part to the Iraq War, I no longer consider myself a Republican or a man of the right.
The reason I continue (like President Obama) to support the original vision of the War on Terror is that it was and is based on a correct judgment of the fundamental difference between (stateless) terrorists and traditional (state-based) military opponents. Even the most bloodthirsty tyrant will invariably temper his actions in war out of a concern for how his adversary will respond, and he will likewise act out of a concern for maintaining and maximizing his own power. Political leaders can thus be deterred by actions (and threats of action) by other states. Members of al-Qaeda-like groups, by contrast, seek in all cases to inflict the maximum possible number of indiscriminate deaths on their enemies and demonstrate no concern about the lives of their members. They are therefore undeterrable, which means that the only way to combat them is to destroy them.
Unfortunately, the right began to disregard the crucial distinction between terrorists and states right around the time of the January 2002 State of the Union speech, when President Bush broadened the scope of the War on Terror to include an “axis of evil” consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. After that, the mood among conservatives began to grow fierce. Some columnists denied the effectiveness of deterrence against states and advocated unilateral preventive war to overthrow hostile regimes instead. Others openly promoted American imperialism. Still others explicitly proposed that the United States act to topple the governments of a series of sovereign nations in the Muslim Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
And these were the intellectually respectable suggestions, published in mainstream newspapers and long-established journals of opinion. Farther down the media hierarchy, on cable news, websites, and blogs, conservatives of all stripes closed ranks, unleashing a verbal barrage on any and all who dissented from a united front in favor of unapologetic American military muscle. The participants in this endless pep rally were insistent on open-ended war, overtly hostile to dissent, and thoroughly unforgiving of the slightest criticism of the United States abroad. Self-congratulation and self-righteousness ruled the day.
Alarmed by the transformation on the right and in the magazine’s offices, I wrote a lengthy email in October 2002 to a number of my fellow conservatives, explaining why I thought it would be a serious mistake to turn Iraq into the next front in the War on Terror. My reasons had nothing to do with the administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; like all commentators on the right, most independent observers, and large numbers of intelligence agencies around the world, I assumed that Hussein either possessed or was actively working to acquire such weapons. Neither was I overly concerned about worldwide public opinion. I objected to what I judged to be three erroneous assumptions on the part of conservatives inside and outside the Bush administration.
First, I believed the administration was wrong to claim that Hussein could not be deterred. In fact, he already had been. In the first Gulf War, Hussein refrained from using chemical weapons against our troops on the battlefield and against Israel in his inept Scud-missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Why? Because before the start of the war James Baker and Dick Cheney sent messages through diplomatic channels to the Iraqi dictator, informing him that we would respond to any use of WMD with a nuclear strike. Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Arens made similar threats. And they worked. Yes, Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he could be deterred.
Second, it was foolish to believe (as Paul Wolfowitz and others on the right apparently did) that overthrowing Hussein would lead to the creation of a liberal democracy in Iraq that would, in turn, inspire democratic reforms throughout the Middle East. This view displayed an ignorance of (or, more likely, indifference toward) the competing ethnic and religious forces that prevailed in different regions of Iraq as well as a typically American optimism about the spontaneous capacity of all human beings in all times, places, and cultures for self-government. Rather than inspiring the formation of liberal democracies throughout the region, an Iraqi invasion could very well empower the very forces of radical Islam that the War on Terror rightly aimed to destroy.
Third, the right was making a serious mistake in assuming that doing nothing about Iraq was inevitably more dangerous than doing something. The U.S. got caught with its pants down on 9/11, and the fear of it happening again was leading the Bush administration to formulate policies based entirely on negative evidence. The super-hawks advocating preventive war seemed more persuasive than those urging a more cautious approach because the former placed an ominous black box at the core of their deliberations — a black box containing all the horrors of our worst post-September 11 nightmares. But reasoning on that basis could be used to justify absolutely anything, and so, I concluded, it was a reckless guide to action.
None of my friends and colleagues on the right responded to the arguments in my email, and few even acknowledged receiving it. By breaking from the right-wing consensus in favor of unconditional bellicosity, I had gone rogue. Over the next year and a half, as the victorious invasion became a bloody mess of an occupation and these same friends and colleagues refused to admit — to me or to themselves, let alone to the public — that they had made a massive mistake, I drifted away from the right and never looked back. (There were other factors, too.)
My dissent had nothing to do with principles; it was a matter of prudence or judgment. On foreign policy, Republicans had become the stupid party. And so it remains 10 years later.
By: Damon Linker, The Week, March 22, 2013
Possibly you remember “Shock and Awe.” No, that’s not the title of a Rolling Stones concert tour, but of the United States’ bombs-over-Baghdad campaign that began exactly 10 years ago. American soldiers went pounding into Iraq accompanied by scores of “embedded” journalists seemingly eager to prove their patriotism and courage.
A skeptic couldn’t help but be reminded of spectators who rode from Washington in horse-drawn carriages to witness the battle of Bull Run in July of 1861. They too expected a short, decisive conflict. Even on NPR, invading Iraq was treated like the world’s largest Boy Scout Jamboree, instead of what it turned into: arguably the worst military and foreign policy blunder in U.S. history.
Skepticism, however, was in short supply. Spooked by 9/11 and intimidated by the intellectual bullies of the Bush administration, American journalists largely abandoned that professional virtue in favor of propaganda and groupthink.
Among scores of examples, the one that’s stuck in my craw was allegedly liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Reacting to Gen. Colin Powell’s anti-Saddam speech to the United Nations General Assembly—since repudiated by its author—Cohen wrote that “Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool—or possibly a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise.”
“War fever, catch it,” this fool wrote.
I added that to anybody capable of remembering past intelligence hoaxes, it wasn’t clear that Powell’s presentation answered any of the objections put forward by doubters like George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor, Gen. Brent Scowcroft.
“To any skeptic with a computer modem, moreover, it became quite clear why Powell’s speech failed to convert many at the UN,” my Feb. 5, 2003 column continued.
“Key parts of [his] presentation were dubious on their face. That alleged al Qaeda base in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq? If it’s what Powell says, why hasn’t it been bombed to smithereens? British and U.S. jets have been conducting sorties in the no-fly zone for months. Because it’s a dusty outpost not worth bombing, reporters for The Observer who visited the place quickly saw.
“The mobile bio-war death labs? Please. Even if [UN inspector] Hans Blix hadn’t told The Guardian that U.S. tips had guided inspectors to mobile food inspection facilities, anybody who’s dodged herds of camels, goats and sheep and maniacal drivers on bumpy Middle Eastern highways had to laugh. Bio-war experts told Newsweek the idea was preposterous. ‘U.S. intelligence,’ it reported ‘after years of looking for them, has never found even one.’
“Then there was the embarrassing fact that key elements of a British intelligence document cited by Powell turned out to have been plagiarized from magazine articles and a California grad student’s M.A. thesis based upon 12-year-old evidence.”
I could go on. In fact, I did.
“This isn’t conservatism,” I concluded. “It’s utopian folly and a prescription for endless war.” Although the short-term outcome wasn’t in doubt and Americans could be counted upon to rally around the troops, it struck me as almost mad to imagine that the U.S. could convert Iraq into a Middle Eastern Switzerland by force of arms.
That was basically the Frenchman’s conclusion too. Conservative Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that although “we all share the same priority—that of fighting terrorism mercilessly,” invading Iraq without just cause would likely “exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism.”
If it were up to me, the Post columnist’s byline would read like a prizefighter’s robe: Richard “Only a Fool or a Frenchman” Cohen. However, there are no penalties in Washington journalism for being proven dramatically wrong.
The safest place during a stampede is always the middle of the herd.
My own reward was getting Dixie Chicked out of a part-time teaching job halfway through a series of columns about Iraq. Supposedly, Hendrix College ran out of money to pay me. My most popular offering had been a course about George Orwell. Oh well.
But the purpose here isn’t to blow my own horn. (OK, maybe a little.) It’s to point out that not everybody got buffaloed. Many thousands of American and European citizens took to the streets to protest what they saw as imperialist folly.
I was also very far from being the only journalist to notice that the Bush administration’s case for Saddam Hussein’s imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” didn’t add up. Anybody reading the astringent dispatches of Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) reporters Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, John Walcott and Joe Galloway couldn’t help but know the score.
But the prediction I’m proudest of was a cynical observation I made after morons began smashing Dixie Chicks CDs and renaming fried potatoes “Freedom Fries.”
A former Hendrix student emailed me proof: a photo of a vending machine in a rural Arkansas truckstop.
Sold only for the prevention of disease: “Freedom Ticklers.”
By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, March 20, 2013