Like the star of a third-rate horror film, George W. Bush is back, scaring the American public. The former president has a memoir to sell, and he’s busy defending his militaristic and profligate presidency. It’s a record Americans should reject today as firmly as they did when he left office nearly two years ago.
As President Barack Obama nationalizes health care, increases spending and expands the Afghan war, and threatens civil liberties, some people are asking: what’s not to like about the Bush presidency? A lot, actually.
President Bush was temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. Not stupid, he was worse: willfully ignorant. He almost joyfully tried violent social engineering in lands about which he knew nothing.
“Bush believed in limited government and federalism only when convenient.”
Bush treated appointments to government like filling fraternity offices. Knowledge was irrelevant, along with competence and experience. Instead, he preferred buddies, political supporters, sycophants, and above all loyalists.
The president also judged people and information by whether they matched his ideological presuppositions. Those who suggested that events in Iraq failed to match his rosy scenario earned dismissal as defeatists.
President Bush’s philosophy was even worse than his mode of decision-making. He abandoned most conservative — or at least limited government — principles once he took office. It was a presidency that only a committed statist could truly love.
First was spending. George W. Bush turned a large surplus into a huge deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reported a $13 trillion deterioration in federal finances over 10 years. The single biggest factor was increased outlays.
It was hard to find a program for which expenditures did not go up under President Bush. Indeed, much of the bailout spending blamed on President Obama, such as the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), began under Bush.
Second, Bush believed in limited government and federalism only when convenient. His “No Child Left Behind” legislation expanded national control over education. The president believed in no limits to national political power.
Third, Bush adopted promiscuous but incompetent war-making as the basis of his foreign policy. After mistakenly downplaying the threat posed by al-Qaida, the Bush administration ousted the Taliban government after 9/11.
But the administration provided too few troops to capture al-Qaida’s leaders, blithely accepted deadly Pakistani double-dealing in Afghanistan, and prematurely withdrew U.S. forces in order to attack Iraq. As a result, we are foolishly engaged in bloody but ineffective nation-building nine years later.
In Iraq the President treated the most serious decision which a president can make as a casual choice. He and his top aides simply assumed success, ignoring facts on the ground, failing to plan for obvious contingencies, disdaining outside advice, providing too few military personnel, and attempting to rule Iraq from Washington.
There were no weapons of mass destruction to find or terrorists to root out. Yet nearly 5,000 American and other allied military personnel have died. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many of them permanently maimed.
The best estimates of the number of dead Iraqis start at around 200,000 and climb upwards to a million. Violence remains high and Iraq’s future remains unclear at best.
At the same time, Iran has been significantly strengthened and anti-American terrorists have gained another grievance with which to recruit acolytes.
In Iraq the U.S. so far has squandered $750 billion, with at least another trillion dollars or more to be spent caring for American wounded in coming years. U.S. military forces have been weakened.
Finally, according to the president, he could declare an endless war in which the United States was the battlefield. He could initiate wide-ranging surveillance activities, searches and seizures, and arrests with no oversight or accountability of any sort, either from Congress or the courts.
A president could order the arrest of an American citizen on American soil and hold him in communicado — for as long as desired. And if he so decided, he could order that captives be tortured.
Perhaps most striking was President Bush’s assertion that these powers were both unreviewable and perpetual. So long as he, or any other president, decided that the “war on terrorism” continued, America’s chief executive was an elective dictator in all but name.
“Miss me yet?” ask billboards picturing George W. Bush. Not just no, but hell no. His is not a legacy which can be remade. Not after the passage of two years. Not after the passage of 20 years. Or more.
President Bush should go back into retirement in Texas. He can live out his life, unlike those who have died in his wars. If the Republican Party hopes to regain its role as America’s governing party, it should look at the Bush administration to learn what not to do.