The Legacy of George W. Bush: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Even before he became president, George W. Bush and his neoconservative vanguard espoused grand, unilateralist ambitions for American foreign policy.

by Monti Narayan Datta

American foreign policy must be more than the management of crisis. It must have a great and guiding goal: to turn this time of American influence into generations of democratic peace.

--George W. Bush, November 19, 1999 in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library during his first presidential campaign

Even before he became president, George W. Bush and his neoconservative vanguard espoused grand, unilateralist ambitions for American foreign policy. Striving to build upon the hegemonic dominance of the United States in the post-Cold War era and cement America’s unequivocal political, economic, and military might throughout the world, Bush and his cronies adjudicated that America not only had the military wherewithal but also the moral authority to coerce renegade regimes into complying with democratic norms. President Bush put this philosophy to the test in the wake of the calamitous events on September 11, 2001, when he decreed rogue states such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were part of an “axis of evil” and warned, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” Applying the doctrine of political realism—the belief that diplomacy is ineffective and states only respond to the use of force—the Bush Administration spearheaded invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan to sow the seeds of democratic reform. Yet, the purportedly universal value of democracy with which President Bush has invoked during “the war on terror” has ironically proven to be his undoing, forming a legacy more tragic than heroic, more lamentable than glorious. Although George W. Bush sincerely believes democracy is a one-size cure-all solution for all troublesome states, experience suggests such is not the case. Sadly, as the newly elected democratic government in Iraq slips into the depths of civil war, as America’s behavior abroad inspires the next generation of Al Qaeda, and as the US continues to strip its very own citizens of their civil liberties in the name of homeland security, one must give pause and reflect upon the extent to which President Bush’s moral absolutism has cast a legacy more “bad” and “ugly” than “good.”

THE GOOD

To be fair, the legacy of George W. Bush is not without its merits. There is certainly much to admire about the President, both personally and professionally. On a personal level, reports abound of the President’s good-humored nature, unyielding loyalty, and boyish Texan charm. Unlike other contemporary heads-of-state, President Bush does not evoke a stuffy aristocratic air when he speaks and interacts with the public; rather, his frequent self-deprecation creates an impression of instant familiarity and accessibility, that he’s simply an ordinary fellow who happens to occupy an extraordinary job. More substantively, on a political level, there are at least two aspects of President Bush’s legacy upon which history will look favorably: his paternalistic devotion to protect the American people in the wake of 9/11, and his commitment to diversification within the highest echelons of federal government, particularly within the Oval Office.

President Bush Acted Heroically Days after 9/11

The days after 9/11 were a horrible, chilling reminder that America faces murderous enemies spanning the globe, and to his credit, it was President Bush who reassured and led our nation in a time of unimaginably harrowing grief. Reeling from watching endless media images broadcast of the twin towers collapsing in New York, and the Pentagon smoldering in Washington DC, Americans were finally able to find some semblance of relief upon seeing and hearing President Bush address a crowd of citizens and New York firefighters, as he held aloft a bullhorn and paternalistically delivered words of assurance and calm amid the ashes and rubble of the World Trade Center, as the following transcript evokes: President Bush: Thank you all. I want you all to know -- it [the bullhorn] can't go any louder -- I want you all to know that America today, America today is on a bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens Rescue Worker: I can't hear you! President Bush: I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon! President Bush Addressing a crowd of citizens and New York Firefighters shortly after the attacks upon the World Trade Center, Source: White House (www.whitehouse.gov)

President Bush received strong accolades for his off-the-cuff remark, “I can hear you!” as New Yorkers whistled and cheered “Go get’em George!” and chanted, “USA! USA! USA!” Americans began to feel safe again under the president’s watchful gaze and unscripted rhetoric. When he later remarked extemporaneously that he wanted Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive” the American people understood at a gut-level that here was a man who shared in his nation’s agony and thirst for swift retribution. Public approval of the President soared to ninety-percent. The President enjoyed an unprecedented amount of political capital, and for a time was able to unify Congress into a coherent legislative body not seen since the Great Depression, eager to pass any legislation he proposed, without question. Although many will come to judge President Bush by the policies he enacted thereafter, he cared for the American people during one of their gravest hours, and that shall remain an indelibly heroic part of his legacy.

President Bush Diversified his Cabinet

Another hallmark of President Bush’s legacy will most undoubtedly be his inclusion of diverse underrepresented groups within the federal government, especially within his cabinet. Although he was not the first president to invoke substantial changes of racial and gender composition at the highest levels of federal government—President Clinton had previously appointed seven African-American Cabinet Secretaries, not to mention the first female Attorney General and female Secretary of State—President Bush deserves much credit for crossing partisan lines and continuing the Clintonian tradition. Most notably, history will remember President Bush in part for appointing Condoleezza Rice as the first African-American National Security Advisory, and for nominating Colin Powell to become the first African-American Secretary of State, who would later pass the baton onto Dr. Rice. Furthermore, President Bush deserves recognition for nominating Elaine Chao as the first Asian-American Secretary of Labor, and Alberto Gonzales as the first Chicano Attorney General. Lest detractors simply shrug-off the President’s diverse cabinet appointments with sighs that such political appointees have been little more than modern-day incarnations of an “Uncle Tom”—a person of color who blindly aligns her loyalty to her white superiors—consider the following statement from Secretary Rice, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the age of Jim Crow segregation:

I probably have at one level, a better understanding, or perhaps, let me say a more personal understanding of what the dark side of human beings can look like. I remember very well in 1963 when Birmingham was so violent. When it acquired the name “Bomb-ingham”.

Secretary Rice’s family lived just two blocks away from the 16th Street Baptist Church, bombed on September 15, 1963, in whose childhood friend, Denise McNair was killed—her head ripped from her body during the blast. Although Secretary Rice may serve under President Bush, she is not without her own sense of ethnic identity and moral conviction. Indeed, it is perhaps due to Secretary Rice’s propensity to equate the war on terror with the war against Jim Crow terrorism that she has come out as so strong a proponent of President Bush. Thus, to make any claims that these appointees of President Bush may lack a deep appreciation of their rich ethnic heritage is simply to miss the point. By honoring the diversity of the American people with a more integrated federal government, President Bush has continued the Clintonian legacy and even helped pave the way for perhaps the first female African-American presidential candidate, as many speculate Secretary Rice may become the Republican Party’s nominee.

THE BAD

Although there are some commendable elements to the legacy of George W. Bush, much more is far worse, notably: the President’s dissemination of misinformation that predated the US-led invasion in Iraq, his alienation of American’s longstanding allies in Europe, and his degradation of Americans’ civil liberties in the United States and enemy combatants’ human rights in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Bush Misinformed the American People

President Bush misinformed—and may have even lied to—the American people, as his administration crafted a highly-stylized narrative that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda—misinformation that the Bush Administration would later begrudgingly regret as inaccurate but insist was the best available intelligence at the time. Repeatedly, in the months preceding the attack on Baghdad, the Bush Administration consistently and forebodingly painted a bleak portrait that unless the US preemptively act against the Iraqi government, the American people would most likely face another terrorist attack far more catastrophic than what happened on 9/11. Vice President Dick Cheney foretold doom on Sunday morning television news talk-shows, neoconservatives penned dire warnings in Op-Ed pages for the Wall Street Journal, and the President scared the nation on live broadcasts from the Oval Office. During his 2003 State of the Union Address, for instance, the President preyed upon the American people’s raw-nerves and cried: Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate, or attack. … Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. Like a master storyteller spinning a petrifying tale of horror, no matter how inaccurate the logic, President Bush transfixed the American people with his incessant message that Osama Bin Laden was synonymous with Saddam Hussein. Finally, after three years, as a single shred of evidence has yet to come to light of any pre-war association between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and as the US has yet to uncover even one weapon of mass destruction in Iraq, the American people have begun to articulate their dissatisfaction with the president, as voiced in the 2006 midterm elections, in which voters handed control of Congress back to the Democratic Party, inspiring the resignation of arch-neoconservative Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

President Bush Alienated Our Allies

Even more disturbing than the rampant misinformation that has become a signature of his administration is the great lengths to which President Bush has gone to distance himself from America’s traditional allies, including France and Germany, not to mention the entire United Nations—the international organization the US helped forge from the ashes of the Second World War. Like an amnesiac forgetting that it helped write the charter of the UN, the Bush Administration has gone to great lengths to dismantle its very core-precepts by invoking the “Bush Doctrine” and unilaterally invading Baghdad in 2003, over disagreements with its allies on how best to proceed in collectively confronting Iraq. Ironically, in espousing its drive to bring democracy to Iraq, the Bush Administration took undemocratic steps within the UN to have its way. The Pew Global Attitudes Project findings suggest global public opinion of the US has fallen steadily and dramatically among America’s traditional allies under President Bush’s watch.

The consequences of such political alienation are unclear. The fact that nearly all nations are economically bound to the United States within a highly complex network of international trade agreements perhaps mitigates the extent to which America’s erstwhile allies may seek retribution against the US due to anti-American sentiment. Nevertheless, at least within the context of the United Nations, the endeavors of the Bush Administration have politically weakened its position among its allies, which may come back to haunt the US in future UN interactions.

President Bush Has Diminished Civil Liberties & Human Rights

Far worse than what the Bush Administration has done to its allies is the treatment it has subjected to the American people, most notably due to the Patriot Act, which ostensibly has provided the federal government with the legal jurisdiction and political capital to access the personal information of its citizens via routine wire-taps, searches of Internet and phone records, and searches of library and book-store purchases. For all intents and purposes, any personal communication within the United States—via phone, parcel post, or email—is no longer private. President Bush has effectively overturned some of the most basic civil liberties that most Americans have taken for granted, including Article IV of the Bill of Rights, which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” At the same time, more egregious than the stripping of civil liberties within the United States has been the eroding of human rights of those prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, allegedly for having some type of affiliation with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Since 9/11, the Bush Administration has detained hundreds of prisoners without trial, classified as enemy combatants, not entitled to any legal protection as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Most of the prisoners at Guantanamo have not received access to any court, legal counsel, or family visits. Moreover, allegations of torture at Guantanamo Bay have run rampant, inciting pleas for justice from the international community, including the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States. At least several dozen Guantanamo detainees have attempted suicide in protest of their plight. For such reasons, many in the international community have come to refer to the prison-complex in Guantanamo Bay as a “modern day gulag,” reminiscent of the concentration camps during World War II.

THE UGLY

More than anything else, history will most lamentably remember the legacy of George W. Bush for the debacle he tirelessly spearheaded in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of several thousand American soldiers, the murder of thousands of Iraqis (some which US soldiers tortured and raped), and the civil war in Iraq that now seems unstoppable, despite America’s efforts. In short, history will best remember George W. Bush for the blood on his hands, particularly for the blood he spilled in the Middle East.

Nearly 3,000 Americans Have Died in Iraq

Although more than three years have elapsed since President Bush landed cocksure on a naval aircraft carrier aloft with the banner “mission accomplished,” to signal the end of the war in Iraq, American soldiers are still dying in record numbers, with no apparent end in sight. Even neoconservatives are estimating that the war in Iraq is unwinnable. Yet, these statistics do not even begin to address the harrowing ordeal with which many of the thousands of US veterans from Iraq will have to contend, as the maimed and disabled return home to find unemployment, homelessness, and disenfranchisement from the very society they fought so bravely to protect. Although there have been many infrastructural advances in national psychiatric and health care systems since the Vietnam War, most of American society does not like to tend to the maimed and disabled, as they are lingering reminders of what the real horror of war is like.

America is Far Less Safe Because of President Bush

Finally, history will most likely remember George W. Bush for his tragic talent for garnering more enemies of the United States—particularly from the disaster at Abu Ghraib—and for weakening America’s geopolitical position in Asia and the Middle East. Ironically, by seeking to impose democracy within Iraq, President Bush (who insisted there had been a kinship between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Landen before the war, but who could never prove it) actually helped forge a bond amongst the vestiges of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the next generation of Al Qaeda. The President effectively created a self-fulfilling prophecy out of his belief that Iraq and Al Qaeda must share a connection. If they were not allies before the war on terror, they most certainly are now, due to the follies of President Bush. Iraq is now a hotbed of unrest and anti-American sentiment, the more virulent strains of which the American people may come to experience first-hand in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, North Korea and Iran—the other two villains of President Bush’s “axis of evil”—continue to play games of nuclear brinksmanship with the US, well-aware that the US has militarily overcommitted itself to Iraq and cannot engage in another military campaign elsewhere. Not only has President Bush empowered the “axis of evil,” but he has also broken any semblance of moral authority with which the US could have once legitimately invoked to fight a war on terror, as it had so earnestly and bravely during World War II, in the battle against fascism.

HOW WILL HISTORY JUDGE PRESIDENT BUSH?

The legacy of George W. Bush will be bleak. Here stands a man with essentially a good heart, and the right intentions—to help spread freedom and democracy around the globe. He has enjoyed the company of a brilliant cabinet in the Oval Office that has shared his ideological misadventures. Yet, the man has done more harm to the US national interest in the past five years than all other US presidents have over the past fifty-years combined. The US is more prone to another terrorist attack today than it was on 9/11 because President Bush’s policies have garnered hatred around the world, particularly in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has sharply curtailed some of Americans’ basic civil liberties in the name of homeland security, while allegedly engaging in torture of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tarring America’s image as a country of freedom and equality. Finally, Americans continue to die in record numbers in the Middle East. America is far less safe today because of one, and only one man—George W. Bush.

Monti Narayan Datta is a doctoral student in political science at UC Davis. His dissertation work focuses on the consequences of anti-Americanism for the US national interest.


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