Analysis — Over the course of the past year, something remarkable has happened to George W. Bush. The former president, once detested by many Americans for the numerous debacles that marked his presidency, seems to have shed most of his infamy – becoming reborn, as one paper put it, as the “internet’s favorite grandpa.”
Bush has made several media appearances over the past year, first to promote his paintings of wounded veterans, maimed in wars he began, with appearances on programs like the Ellen DeGeneres show, the Today show, and Jimmy Kimmel Tonight. Media coverage of these appearances sought to immortalize the “funniest moments” from his media tour. Publications, once critical of Bush, sang his praises for his portraits of “astonishingly high” quality and his evolution into “an evocative and surprisingly adept” artist. Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker called the paintings an “exercise of Bush’s never-doubted sincerity and humility,” despite his having “obliviously made murderous errors” for which the former president now “atones.”
The media blitz was instrumental in changing long-standing attitudes regarding the former president. Reagan Wright, a college student in Arizona, explained to the New Statesman that, though her opinion of Bush “was almost always negative” and she long considered him to be “less than smart,” she now finds his antics “so cute” and says her opinion of him totally changed upon watching his appearance earlier this year on the Ellen DeGeneres show. A YouTube clip from his “Ellen” appearance now boasts over 2.6 million views.
Then, several months later, Bush again garnered significant amounts of positive media coverage after he gave a speech last week critical of President Donald Trump — though without naming Trump at any point. The former president was widely praised for the “genius of his words,” largely because he had joined mainstream political discourse in criticizing the current president — not for his warmongering or myriad conflicts of interests — but for his “nationalism” and vulnerability to “conspiracy theories.”
Watch | George W. Bush Rails On Donald Trump At The Bush Institute
Don Sipple, a former political ad maker who worked with Bush, told the LA Times that the speech came as a result of Trump’s behavior, which “has stretched the bounds of decency to a point where Bush is highly offended on part of the nation.” Bush the “compassionate conservative” has now replaced Bush the war criminal.
The media’s rehabilitation of Bush has had a dramatic effect, particularly on the American left. A poll released last week revealed that, while 85% of Democrats viewed Bush negatively in 2009, 51% of them — a majority — now view him positively.
Dems now approve of George W by a 51-42 margin. Abnormalizing Trump may be more of a problem than normalizing him. https://t.co/uL79QKkjzc
— Doug Henwood (@DougHenwood) October 25, 2017
The enemy of my enemy . . .
George W Bush’s rehabilitation through positive corporate and social media coverage highlights a growing tendency among parts of the American left to ignore the actual record while embracing any figure who criticizes the current president.
The whitewashing of Bush’s lengthy record of war crimes as president is also notable, as his much-praised “humanizing” portraits of Iraq War veterans do nothing to commemorate the half a million Iraqis who were killed or the wanton destruction of their country by a foreign power acting in defiance of international law. While Bush may be perceived to be “honoring” veterans through his portraits, the Iraqi victims of U.S. military crimes during the Bush-era receive no such treatment and their suffering remains voiceless in mainstream American political discourse.
Given the ease with which most Americans seem to forget political history, it may seem easy to fall into the ideological trap that Bush “meant well” — one meme used with similar success to whitewash the U.S.’ motivations for, and subsequent war crimes committed during, the Vietnam war. However, the documentation of Bush’s war crimes as commander-in-chief is as extensive as the facts are chilling.
George W. Bush, as president, deliberately misled the American people to justify the invasion of Iraq — a war that killed countless civilians, fomented sectarian divisions, created a refugee crisis by displacing millions, and led to the rise of Daesh (ISIS). The U.S. military openly committed atrocities – such as the killing of nearly 700 civilians, including pregnant women, for coming “too close” to military checkpoints – and engaged in the widespread torture of suspected “terrorists,” while also instructing the new Iraqi military in these same abhorrent tactics.
Though this year’s Bush apologists seem to earnestly believe that Bush “meant well” in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, they overlook the fact that, when confronted with evidence from the CIA contradicting the WMD narrative, the White House responded “this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change.” The subsequent and very lucrative contracts given to corporations with close ties to the Bush administration, like Halliburton, to “rebuild” Iraq remove any doubt to the effect that the invasion was an “honest mistake” born out of Bush’s “dream of democratizing the Middle East.” Nor is Bush trying to “atone” for the Iraq War as some have recently suggested. Indeed, he wrote an entire book defending his decisions as president – including the invasion of Iraq. His misdeeds do not haunt him.
Bush is also responsible for numerous other affronts to values that the American left claims to hold dear, including the Orwellian Patriot Act, the creation of the unwinnable-by-design “War on Terror,” the disastrous response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the still on-going war in Afghanistan, the creation of the NSA’s warrantless mass spying program, and the devastating 2008 financial crisis. Yet, now, the American left seems to view Bush as a lovable goof who struggles with wearing rain ponchos — in willful ignorance of his record as president.
Donald Trump’s gift to George W. Bush: popularity
Another factor that has contributed to the ease with which many on the left have forgotten Bush’s true legacy is their shock and horror regarding the current president, Donald Trump. Indeed, so reviled is Trump that his unfavorability among Democrats has been jet fuel to Bush’s sudden surge in popularity. Indeed, the poll that found more Democrats like Bush than dislike him came only a week after Bush rebuked some of Trump’s policies in a “stunning attack.”
Central to Bush’s “attack” on Trump as well as criticisms of Trump raised by other establishment politicians, is the idea that Trump’s policies are weakening U.S. hegemony and ultimately go against “American values” and American exceptionalism. Thus, many on the left who consider themselves to be “anti-Trump,” are now finding themselves embracing the “exceptional” U.S. empire and military-industrial complex they once condemned under former presidents like Bush.
For instance, a piece by journalist Murtaza Hussain, published by the Intercept last month decried Trump’s commitment to nationalism as an indication that he was letting American hegemony fade away. Hussain wrote:
Through a network of nearly 800 military bases located in 70 countries around the globe, in addition to an array of trade deals and alliances. […] American leaders helped impose a set of rules and norms that promoted free trade, democratic governance — in theory, if not always in practice — and a prohibition on changing borders militarily, using a mixture of force and suasion to sustain the systems that keep its hegemony intact.”
Another article, published earlier this year at Slate, bemoans “America’s Abdication” under Trump from protecting the “liberal world order.” Journalist Yascha Mounk writes:
Trump’s ascent to power marks the first time in living memory that the liberal world order no longer has a powerful defender.” America’s critics, he warns “will quickly discover that the consequences are rather less liberating than they have told themselves.”
These criticisms of Trump, from leftists, echo criticism made by the establishment right and particularly neo-conservatives. This has created a bipartisan movement — “the resistance” — that acts as though the reigning foreign policy consensus of the United States, built on perpetual war and imperial expansion, is in danger. However, Trump’s first year in office has made it clear as this is hardly the case, as his administration is currently led by a junta of generals, frequently referred to by the corporate media as the “grown-ups” in the White House.
Trump’s successful push for a massive increase in military spending, his decision to unilaterally bomb Syria without evidence, and his push for U.S. military intervention in North Korea and other nations are all ignored when he is accused by Democrats and Republicans alike of “abdicating United States leadership of the world.” Indeed, his policies – in terms of U.S. war-making – are hardly distinguishable from the now “lovable” Bush or his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama.
The left mops itself into a corner
By casting Trump as anathema to both corporate political parties and also decrying the imaginary threat he represents to American empire, the mainstream American left is being pushed into embracing the wars it was once against, particularly if Russia is the target. For instance, “liberal” comedian Bill Maher recently made the case that the U.S. should “fight back” against Russia over accusations of Russian “meddling” collectively known as Russiagate.
Journalist Jeet Heer, writing in the New Republic, asserts, in a piece titled “Why the Anti-War Left Should Attack Putin, Too,” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to create “an international alt-right.” He adds that “Fighting Trumpism in America is not enough. Leftists have to be ready to battle it in all its forms, at home and abroad.”
Thus, “the resistance” to Trump, ostensibly championed by Democrats, has led swaths of the American left not only to embrace a once-despised former president and war criminal but also to erase all semblance that it was once the party that opposed America’s perpetual wars. Trump – instead of dividing America – is uniting those opposed to him on both sides of the aisle into what is essentially a single party that supports American exceptionalism and its license to wage endless war around the world. Ironically, this very precept is fervently embraced by Trump himself, making “the resistance” a cleverly disguised means of both rewriting American history and dismembering any real resistance to American empire.