Twenty years ago, the Bush administration claimed that Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, had “weapons of mass destruction” that justified an invasion not just to keep people in the United States, but the whole world, safe.
They lied. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Bush administration officials misrepresented intelligence again and again to justify an unnecessary invasion. It was a decision that cost thousands of US service members and countless Iraqis their lives.
Today George W. Bush is the target of a perverse rehabilitation campaign, rooted in the idea that his criticism of Donald Trump’s election lies makes him some kind of savior of our democracy. Yet Bush and Trump and more alike than not — two presidents who used their power to inflict horrible harm around the world, often in contravention of domestic and international laws, and who faced no meaningful repercussions for their actions. Their similarity lays bare the ways that our governing system fails to deliver accountability for leaders who make destructive choices with the violent means at their disposal.
Though little discussed by his new defenders, Bush’s appalling record is easy to remember. The images from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison are still horrifying. The photos of US soldiers smiling behind naked Iraqis who they had piled on top of each other like corpses, and the photo of a soldier giving a thumbs up to the camera and smiling while she sews up a prisoner who had been bitten by a dog, are still sickening. To this day, not a single senior official in the Bush administration who created the culture that led to these events has been held accountable for these instances of torture and sadistic abuse.
There is also the Haditha massacre, in which US Marines executed twenty-four Iraqis — including children, women, and a man in a wheelchair — at close range, and then attempted to cover up the abuse. Of the Marines who were involved, only one was put on trial, and after being offered a plea deal, his only accountability was a loss of title and pay decrease; the others involved had their charges dropped. Again, no senior official was ever held responsible.
Bush and his advisors also escaped accountability for the effects of their destructive policies at home. I remember his famous “Axis of Evil” speech, and how in the days and years afterward more people looked at me with suspicion, how a child I worked with in afterschool care asked me if I was a terrorist simply because I was born in Iran. My stories aren’t unique — if anything, they’re tame. The proliferation of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes and discrimination under the Bush administration has been well documented.
The lack of accountability for the lies, the needless invasion, and the human rights abuses in Iraq isn’t just morally reprehensible — it still mars our politics today. When Trump took office, he entered a system designed to provide leaders who made catastrophic decisions that cost lives, made us less safe, and eroded our democracy with a comfortable retirement, and he acted accordingly. To work to restore our democracy without addressing the harms of the Bush era is to ignore a core component of the problem.
To address the damage done by the Iraq War, we need to move from a mindset of providing aid to Iraq to one of providing reparations. A crucial move toward accountability is basic reparative reforms like making payments to the families of people killed and injured by US airstrikes and fixing our broken refugee resettlement system to allow people endangered by their interactions with US forces to get to safety. We also need to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — the law that authorized the invasion of Iraq — which has no sunset clause and has not been modified in any way, even after it was discovered to be based on falsehoods.
Finally, we need to be more diligent in questioning politicians who tell us that violence will make us safe. Today the same frame of good versus evil that Bush used to justify invading Iraq is reemerging in discussions of China. Already, members of Congress who are Asian American have had their loyalty questioned. Over the last few years there’s been a clear uptick of hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, and an assumption that the threat, or actuality, of violence will keep our country safe. If we learn anything from the Iraq War, let it be to not only question that assumption, but to outright reject it, given the harm it causes and the threat it poses to our safety and democracy.