|Still giving the orders|
With the opening of the George W Bush library this week, there has been some re-examination of the Bush Presidency, which feels weird because there's been a pretty robust consensus that nobody would ever talk about him again, and he would be allowed to slink off into history the way the horror of a bad dream fades as the morning progresses. Even the odious former President has limited his public appearances, preferring instead to publish a book and learn to paint.
But in the course of revisiting the Bush White House, it becomes apparent that, in spite of the ultimate unmitigated disaster that was the Bush Presidency, there were a surprising number of issues, from AIDS to education to homelessness, even to health care where the Bush policies were well-meaning, compassionate and, most remarkably, effective. Now make no mistake - at the end of the day, GW Bush was an incurious, bumbling nitwit, utterly unqualified to be President of the United States, completely controlled and manipulated by government and party staff. And much of his National Security, Intelligence and Foreign policy was dictated by the Vice President's office, Cheney and his band of bloodthirsty armchair warriors.
Which leads me to wonder: Just how much of the horrors, madness and monumental failures of courage and vision of those years would have been avoided merely by the selection of a different running mate in 2000? How different might those years have been, and how many debacles - from torture to warrantless surveillance to indefinite detention to the invasion of Iraq - would never have happened at all, and what events and accomplishments might have stood in their place?
So often in the Bush era the actions of his Administration would engender the question "stupid or evil?" And sure enough, in the case of a presidency that resulted in such widespread disaster, there's room for both. But I can't help but believe that Bush mostly supplied the stupid, while the evil was largely contributed by Dick Cheney. It's hard to even fathom the depths of anger and inhumanity that the originally bookish politician Cheney turned to after 9/11. His lust for murder, torture and an odd, uncaring deployment of massive military force without any serious consideration of strategy, without any interest in post-combat planning, political or diplomatic management or any real advancement of American goals and interests is even more chilling in retrospect than it was at the time. He seemed only interested in inflicting maximum pain and suffering, destroying and killing without any thought to what would be accomplished. The most favorable interpretation of his random bloody-mindedness-as-policy is that he hoped to intimidate the world into kowtowing to some kind of Pax Americana. The less charitable, but more realistic assumption is that, at some point, he became a rapacious homicidal maniac in control of the most powerful military on the planet.
The costs were immense, and are still being counted. And not just the costs in blood and treasure. America used to hold a kind of moral high-ground, a place from which we could at least challenge those who would use undemocratic and extra-constitutional practices like torture, detention without due process and unlimited government surveillance in the court of world opinion. Now, of course, any brutal dictator, from Putin to Assad can invoke the generalized concept of "terrorism" to justify any act, no matter how horrific, and, if challenged, can point to that icon of human rights, the United States, as the model for their behavior.
So as we watch the attempt to rehabilitate the legacy of President GW Bush, two things should be uppermost in our minds. First, he was a disaster of the first order as President, an incurious and bull-headed ideologue uninterested in any knowledge beyond his own preconceptions, but he was ultimately probably not as bad as the actual legacy he leaves behind. A great deal of the real horror of the Bush years stains the hands of his Vice President.