Monday, March 7, 2016

A Refresher Course on How Bad George W. Bush Was

With Donald Trump as the current front-runner, there seems to be an understandable impulse, as I've discussed before, to see him as an unprecedented danger. The idea of a President Trump has good reason to be terrifying, as there are few ways he could be less qualified to hold the office. He's a power-hungry madman with the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old who gets D's in most of his classes, and the self-discipline of a pig that's high on crack. It's easy to see why people would think that Trump as president would be the worst thing our country has ever seen.

But I think to maintain that idea--or at least to think he would be far and away our worst president--requires either irresponsible ignorance or a bad case of amnesia. The latter is forgivable. It's been seven years since George W. Bush left office, and a lot has happened since then. We've definitely seen Republicans that make some of his ideas look moderate, even liberal, in comparison, and his gaffe-prone clownishness doesn't have the same pathological vibe to it that the sheer insanity we've heard from Republicans in the years since does.
Bush (taken from Blacklised News)

But don't let that fool you. Bush was an absolute disaster of a president, and that's the nice way to put it. Before you get yourself into a frenzy about how Trump would be the American Hitler, and how even Bush looks good in comparison, you need to keep in mind what Bush really was. I won't cover every bad thing in his presidency--it would take a whole book to do that justice, and some have been written--but I want to go through his presidency from beginning to end and bring back to memory some of the highlights, or lowlights perhaps, of his reign.

As we know, Bush took office in January of 2001, after a closely contested election where he lost the popular vote but was handed the presidency on a silver platter by five conservative Supreme Court Justices. Not long after the new president had taken office, he began to receive information about the threat posed by that Saudi rogue who had been behind the embassy bombings, Osama bin Laden. Kurt Eichenwald writes:
By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.
Bush and his puppet-master vice president Dick Cheney were not interested. They were more focused on the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had supposedly tried to kill Poppa Bush. Bin Laden, Bush's neoconservative administration believed, was just trying to distract the US; Saddam was the real threat.

Intelligence agencies saw through this idea as war-hungry gobbledygook it was:
“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.
The administration was uninterested, and the pattern continued, climaxing with the infamous "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US" brief barely more than a month before the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration took no meaningful action as they continued to be frantically warned about impending threats. Years later, the head of the 9/11 commission, a Republican appointed by Bush, would say the attacks were preventable and that people in the government had failed to do their job properly, seeming to implicitly point a finger at the Bush administration.

We don't have too much time to linger on this point, but suffice it to say that within the first year, Bush failed dramatically to take account of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Had he, perhaps the 9/11 attacks wouldn't have happened; that seems to be the view of the chair of the committee he appointed. Before the first year of Bush's term had ended, 3,000 Americans had died because his administration was obsessively focused on Iraq.

Bush's response to 9/11 was hardly better--and I'm not even referring to the Iraq War. Not yet. Shortly after the attack, the US began to bomb Afghanistan. The bombings may have looked like a strong response, but they created widespread destruction, and were carried out in an unyielding, chillingly coldblooded fashion. When the Taliban offered to turn over bin Laden in exchange for an end to the bombing campaign and evidence that he was behind the September 11 attacks, the US paid no heed.

Because Afghanistan was (and is) a poor country, and aid workers were reluctant to venture into areas where they might be blown to bits, UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson called for a pause in the bombing, warning that continuing it could result in millions of deaths from starvation. No pause happened. While we don't know the death toll with any precision, Jonathon Steele of the Guardian wrote that "As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention." He wrote that in May of 2002.

On the domestic front, within a couple months of the terrorist attacks, Bush signed the PATRIOT Act, which I believe we all know pretty well. This gave the government new abilities to spy on the populace, theoretically to prevent terrorism. It would often be used in ways that went far beyond the prevention of terrorism.

The law would later be used, for instance, to prevent the Humanitarian Law Project from teaching a couple of groups on the State Department's terrorist list how to nonviolently resolve conflicts, as this was considered a form of "material support" for these groups. Noam Chomsky referred to this as "the first major attack on freedom of speech in the United States since the notorious Smith Act back around 1940."

The Bush administration quickly revealed itself to be either dishonest or grossly incompetent (though we could gather that much from its handling of the earlier mentioned briefs) after 9/11. Said Condoleezza Rice, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would...try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane[.]" In fact, the threat of suicide hijackings had been known for some time.

Of course, amidst all of this, the Bush administration had not forgotten their foreordained enemy Saddam Hussein, who Bush viewed as a figure of Biblical evil. Accordingly, the administration launched a campaign of misinformation and propaganda to scare the public into supporting a war of aggression against Iraq. Jon Schwarz of The Intercept lists a few instances of deception (hyperlinks his):
  • Former Vice President Dick Cheney kicked off the push for war in August 2002 by claiming: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Cheney’s speech had not been vetted by the CIA, and John McLaughlin, the CIA’s deputy director, shortly afterward told Congress that the likelihood of Iraq initiating a WMD attack “would be low.” Another CIA official later recalled that the agency’s reaction to Cheney’s speech was, “Where is he getting this stuff from?”
  • The Bush administration said that aluminum tubes Iraq had tried to import were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs” — even as Bush himself was being told the State Department and Energy Department believed (correctly, of course) they were intended to be used as conventional rockets. 
  • Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union address that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” even though his administration had been repeatedly warned this was dubious (and it turned out to originate with crudely forged documents). 
  • Colin Powell doctored intercepted Iraqi communications for his U.N. presentation to make them appear more alarming.
The administration and the press also successfully bamboozled the people into thinking Saddam was linked to 9/11, somehow, despite the incoherence of the idea that a secularist dictator was coordinating with an Islamic fundamentalist group.

It's hard to overstate how horrific the ensuing war was. It was, and is, the worst crime of the century thus far; it turned a country where Sunnis and Shias intermarried into a country so sectarian that Sunnis were drawn to a fanatical gang of thugs like ISIS.

It's hard to know how many people died as a result of the (totally unnecessary) war. More conservative estimates--naturally, the ones that are more acceptable to report--have put the toll at around one hundred thousand, a bloodcurdling enough number. But those numbers have faced criticism for being too low. One survey, done by the British group ORB, put the total number of war casualties at 1.2 million.

I would be remiss, of course, if I failed to mention the massive amount of torture the US performed during this same period of time, under Bush. While Bush may have been misled by the CIA, given that he was in charge of the country, that hardly stands as a good excuse, and merely shows the danger of electing someone so grossly unqualified for the office. The torture went far beyond waterboarding at Guantanamo, as the recent torture report revealed.

It should also be noted that indefinite detention without charge went far beyond Guantanamo. Michael Haas writes:
The Bush administration decided to use six main detention facilities--two in Afghanistan, three in Iraq, and the one at Guantanamo Bay. Estimates of those held in American-run prisons in Afghanistan range from 1,300 to 2,000. Journalist Nir Rosen estimated in March 2008 that some 24,000 were being held in American-run prisons in Iraq without charges. [Bolding mine.] Together with the 274 at Guantanamo, the total worldwide was about 27,000 during mid-2008.
In addition, there have been at least eleven secret prisons run by the CIA. As of August 25, 2006, some 14,000 persons were being held secretly in detentions worldwide, though 14 were sent to Guantanamo in 2007.
Bush's VP Dick Cheney
(taken from Celebrity Net Worth)
Back in the United States, in 2005, another disaster struck--Hurricane Katrina. Unlike 9/11, Bush could hardly be blamed for failing to take measures to prevent the hurricane, but his response was yet another major failure in leadership. His response was inexcusably delayed, as he failed to cut short his vacation despite the catastrophe that had struck. The actions of Bush and his aides were panned by a later report done by Congressional Republicans, which, according to a Washington Post article, laid "primary fault with the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, singling out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center and the White House Homeland Security Council, according to a 60-page summary of the document obtained by The Washington Post."

Bush's leadership was hardly any better when the economy began to turn sour toward the end of his years in office. While the blame that can be put on him for the recession is less than a lot of Democrats would like to think--the policies that led to it went back to Clinton, Reagan, and even Carter--Bush had certainly not done much to change direction, and his pointless tax cuts and pointless war had not left the government in a good place to deal with a failing economy.

When Lehman Brothers was clearly in trouble, Bush was faced with a decision about what to do. As usual, he made the wrong one. James Mann writes:
Bush and [Treasury Secretary Hank] Paulson made the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail. On Monday, September 15, 2008, the firm declared bankruptcy.
[...]
After Lehman's bankruptcy, as Bush put it, "all hell broke loose." Credit immediately froze up as Wall Street firms refused to lend to one another or to Main Street businesses. Other major financial institutions were thrown into jeopardy as short-sellers drove stock prices down. On the day the bankruptcy was announced, the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 500 points.
When Bush didn't fail to do anything to address the crisis, the actions he did take were often hardly praiseworthy, as with the wasteful TARP bailout that gave no-strings-attached money to irresponsible financial institutions while neglecting troubled homeowners. Neil Barofsky, who served as the Special Inspector General of the program, was ultimately so disenchanted he wrote an entire book attacking TARP. The Daily Beast quotes him as saying that "we've fixed nothing. Nothing."

Not at all surprisingly, this all caught up to Bush, leading to John McCain's decisive loss in 2008 (after mostly running on continuing Bush's policies), and a 22% approval rating for the man himself when he left office. Bush doesn't seem to have been any sort of evil man, but he was horribly unprepared for the position he got elected to--a rich frat boy with no real understanding of the world, and a hollow-eyed soul-eater as his vice president.

Obviously, it's not as if Trump is different, let alone better, than Bush in every way. But before you fear that he would be far and away the worst president ever, keep in mind that compared to Bush, he does get some important things right: he condemns the Iraq War, he criticizes Bush for failing to prevent 9/11, and he rejects many of the economic policies Bush continued. While Trump's use of hatred and xenophobia may be Hitler-esque, it's hard to say it outdoes Bush's invasion of another country that poses no threat in terms of emulating the Austrian-born dictator.

Trump is far from an ideal candidate, and far from the sort of person who should ever be in the White House. But to fail to remember how truly awful Bush was is no help to us going into the future.

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