On January 20, 2009, the United States completed a changing of the guard. As was customary, the outgoing president attended the new president’s swearing in before flying out of town. On MSNBC, Chris Matthews made an uncharacteristically lucid remark about George W. Bush’s flight from Washington: “It’s going to be like the Romanovs, too, and I mean that. There’s a sense here that they are fallen from grace, that they’re not popular, that the whole family will now go into retreat.”
Matthews’s remark raised objections from his fellow talking heads. Keith Olbermann (yes, that Keith Olbermann) reminded him that many predicted Richard Nixon and those around him would be similarly exiled, only for them to reemerge as public figures in the years after Watergate.
“Let’s not even put George W. Bush anywhere in the category of Richard Nixon,” Matthews retorted. “Richard Nixon was tragic, and he made terrible mistakes, he did wrong things, but he was a major president.”
Richard Nixon may very well have been, as Matthews asserted, “trickier” than Bush. Yet Matthews was ironically whitewashing Nixon, referring to him as a president who made major accomplishments while tragically making mistakes — foreshadowing the contemporary rehabilitation of Bush.
During the Donald Trump years, Bush was bizarrely celebrated as a sort of anti-Trump, with a majority of Democrats viewing him favorably. Recently, Bush, lacking any sense of self-awareness, has reemerged to condemn Russia’s illegal and morally abhorrent invasion of Ukraine. His gaffe this week, where he confused Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with his own invasion of Iraq, reveals why he probably should have gone into hiding.
In a speech at his presidential center, Bush condemned Putin for rigging elections and suppressing dissent, saying, “The results are a lack of checks and balances in Russia and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq. I mean, of Ukraine.”
As someone who was politicized by Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and who spent time during the Bush years listening to the firsthand accounts of antiwar veterans about the brutality of the occupation, it is difficult to explain in words my deep, visceral reaction to this video. War is a crime. And Bush’s invasion of Iraq was entirely unnecessary and unprovoked. It was an act of unmitigated aggression with a staggering human toll. And all of this death and destruction was a choice by the Bush administration.
To see Bush hypocritically condemning others for carrying out the same crimes is bad enough. But to see him in the process accidentally invoke his own war crimes, make a joke about it, and then have the audience laugh along with him is a loathsome spectacle. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime, it seems like rigged elections, the suppression of dissent, and unjustified and brutal invasions are topics he would have the decency to avoid weighing in on.
But rigged elections, suppression of dissent, and unjustified and brutal invasions are perhaps the only topics Bush is equipped to opine on, which may be why he briefly confused his war with Putin’s. Many in the Beltway press will find the comparison unseemly. But the facts speak for themselves, and they’re worth revisiting if for no other reason than because Bush’s illegal and disastrous war has largely been flushed down the memory hole, despite being launched less than two decades ago and shaping so much of the world we inhabit today.
Pining for War
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was murderous. It was a massive assault on an already devastated nation. According to the United Nations, the 1991 bombing of Iraq under President George H. W. Bush was “near apocalyptic” and brought the country “to a pre-industrial age.” US sanctions, which President Bill Clinton kept in place, not only prevented Iraq from rebuilding but led to mass death of Iraqi children. And by the end of Clinton’s term, the US was bombing Iraq once every three days. One of Bush’s first acts in office (a full two years before the Iraq War) was to dramatically escalate this bombing.
From the perspective of Iraqi citizens who had lived under consistent US bombing for over a decade, the US was already waging war on them. But Bush’s Iraq War officially began on March 20, 2003. The opening salvo, “Shock and Awe,” was the brutal aerial bombardment of a largely powerless nation by the world’s sole remaining superpower. The long-term occupation of Iraq, documented by US soldiers who turned against the war, required high levels of lethality.
The US has never truly dealt with the death toll of this war. The total number of casualties has unsurprisingly been a contentious subject. As media watchdog FAIR repeatedly pointed out, the US media has worked to obscure the truth about how many Iraqis died. The Iraq Body Count project puts the total number of deaths at 288,000. Peer-reviewed studies in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, and PLOS Medicine put the total number of dead at 151,000, 650,000, and 461,000, respectively. British polling agency ORB put the death count at 1.2 million.
Whichever death count you use, it’s monstrous. And what was all this killing done for? Bush’s two cited reasons for the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein was connected to the attacks of September 11, 2001, were lies. Bush’s connection of 9/11 to Iraq was perhaps the deadliest conspiracy theory, fake news, or disinformation of the twenty-first century.
The truth is, Bush and his crew wanted war. A series of leaked British memos prepared by UK prime minister Tony Blair’s staff gives insight into Bush’s drive for war. In minutes from a June 2002 meeting between Blair and senior government officials known as “The Downing Street Memo,” the MI6 chief Richard Dearlove states bluntly, “Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
The foreign minister similarly relayed, “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”
Another leaked memo, this one recording a January 2003 meeting between Bush and Blair, documents how they discussed potential ways to provoke Saddam and create a justification for war. One idea was a proposed plot to paint a US reconnaissance plane in United Nations colors in hopes the Iraqi government would shoot it down.
The War That Never Ended
The Iraq War may be Bush’s most monstrous crime, but it is far from his only one. Bush’s entire political career was built on death.
As governor of Texas, Bush set records by presiding over 131 executions. His reputation for bloodthirstiness was parodied after his election in a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Bush told the defeated Al Gore, “Maybe I’ll start a war. Wars are like executions supersized.”
After Nixon’s fall from grace, the nation underwent a reckoning with the larger abuses of the security state. (Obama, in the signature accomplishment of his administration, made sure no such reckoning proceeded for Bush). Almost immediately after these reforms were made, the Right began trying to undo them. They lobbied for removing restrictions on the FBI and the CIA and refounding the House Un-American Activities Committee, one of the principal instruments of McCarthyism.
As the anti-communist mantra had been discredited, they turned to a new justification for ratcheting up counter-subversive repression at home and military aggression abroad: the threat of terrorism. While the revanchist defenders of an unchecked security state found their first messiah in Ronald Reagan, under Bush, they would realize their wildest dreams.
On September 11, 2001, members of al-Qaeda murdered nearly three thousand people on US soil. The gruesome and horrific tragedy of that day left Americans shocked and in mourning. In addition to recommending Americans go shopping (not doing so would be letting the terrorists win), Bush and his administration exploited a nation’s collective grief to achieve their long-desired expansion of the US security state.
Just days after the attack, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that was understood as authorizing a war in Afghanistan. In fact, it failed to mention a single country. It was a blank check for global war. To date, it has been cited to justify military actions in twenty-two countries.
Bush also argued that the resolution, and the inherent wartime authorities of the president, gave him the authority to wiretap without warrants, kidnap, and even indefinitely detain US citizens. Neither the courts nor Congress could stand in his way. For those not in the United States, Bush set up a prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and approved a global program of forced disappearances (“rendition”) and torture. While Afghanistan was frequently juxtaposed against Iraq as “the good war,” it was clearly never more than an unnecessary assault on a poor country.
On the home front, less than two months after 9/11 (and weeks after Bush had already set up a secret surveillance program at the NSA), the Bush White House rammed through the Patriot Act. This longtime wish list of previously politically unthinkable proposals expanded the scope of national security surveillance and obliterated many of the key post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s. The FBI and Department of Justice criminalized and hounded supporters of Palestinian rights in the name of the war on terror, while Bush helped to censor information about the Saudis’ role in the 9/11 attacks. The Saudis were, of course, longtime business partners of the Bush family.
Bush rightfully left office disgraced. He was viewed as an illegitimate usurper of the presidency before ever taking office. Not only did he lose the popular vote, but many Americans had doubts that without the intervention of the Supreme Court, he wouldn’t have won the electoral college either.
He launched two brutal invasions, decreed a global war without boundaries and limits, and shredded democracy at home. In spite of priding himself on his ability to keep Americans safe, this was exposed as a complete fallacy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The public watched in real time as poor and working-class, mostly black, Americans were left to die on rooftops by a cruel and uncaring federal government run by a man who boasted his base was “the haves and the have mores.”
During Bush’s final years in office, the economy suffered the worst crisis since the Great Depression. While a global economic crisis had far deeper roots than one president, it added yet another ignominious failure to Bush’s already packed résumé.
While in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush had the highest approval ratings of any president (92 percent), Bush’s ratings would later plummet to 19 percent. Such a low was not achieved by Richard Nixon or Donald Trump. By the end of his term, 41 percent of Americans believed Bush was not just a bad president but the worst president in US history.
Days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush told the nation of his impending wars, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Three administrations later, it’s still taking a while. The effects of this crusade have been disastrous for the people of the Middle East who live on the other side of US bombs. Our democracy, which Bush degraded, has never recovered from his crusade either.
If Bush is not going to stand trial for war crimes, he should at the very least have the decency to avoid appearing in public as a moral authority on unjustified invasions. Instead, as Bush’s recent gaffe and his audience’s clear amusement at his misstatement demonstrate, neither Bush nor US society has ever really reckoned with the consequences of his imperialist crusade.