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How Historians judge George W. Bush

Shanet Clark

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By David Shanet Clark, M.Ed.

DeKalb County Historical Preservation Commission

Teacher, Tucker High School , Tucker, Ga.

E.I. Woodruff Fellow in History

Wm. R. Hearst Foundation / United States Senate Scholar

Organization of American Historians

Historians make great dinner party guests. We can add facts and analysis to hunches and rumors that people are curious about. When people disagree on points of religion, politics and race, the historian is often the one to referee the debate. The War in Iraq , the Geneva Conventions violations, the failure of the Iraqi government – how will future historians critique the Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush era?

The White House since 2001 has misinterpreted or twisted history to suit its needs. It has confused Iran with Iraq , it has confused the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with international communism, and it has neglected to study Gamal Abdul Nasser or the situation in the Balkans (formerly communist Yugoslavia ). It has failed to heed the lessons of basic military history. It has squandered the global support it enjoyed after 9/11 and it has used Colin Powell himself to destroy the post-Vietnam consensus policy called the ‘Powell Doctrine.’ The Bush administration failed to heed the lessons of the Roman Republic and the lessons of American foreign imperialism. They ignored lessons learned from Napoleon, Wellington and even the Third Reich. Historians, like other early critics, can say “we told you so, America ” because we knew THEN what is clear NOW.

First, Iran and Iraq . Apparently the neoconservatives wanted to turn the clock back to the days before Jimmy Carter “lost” Iran . The Shah of Iran was a solid western ally, taking about $15 billion dollars in military aid from the US in the 1970s. When Iran fell to the “student” forces of the Ayatollah Khomeini in late 1978, the US lost a grand chess piece. After 9/11 with Saddam Hussein as a poster boy for bad behavior, Wolfowitz, Perle, Cheney and Rumsfeld saw the opportunity to regain something similar. Rather than invade Iran itself, nearby Iraq became the coveted new chess piece. American overseas adventures could be sold to the public via fear. Colin Powell went to the United Nations (like Adlai Stevenson) and presented aerial photos of trucks and warehouses. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was simultaneously destroying his own reputation, the resilience of the post-Vietnam War “Powell Doctrine” and the memorable successes of JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

With the Iran-like (or Iran Light?) target in place, Bush linked Saddam to Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks without any historical evidence. Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were deduced and hysterical claims were used to browbeat the U.N. and Congress to authorize the use of force falsely (mushroom clouds and long range missiles were mentioned by the President and Secretary of State). The Secretary of Defense then over-ruled his own chiefs of staff and used only one third of the necessary ground troops to secure Iraq . Any first semester Military History 101 class will teach the necessity of large numbers of infantry troops being necessary after initial artillery barrages. Mr. Rumsfeld joined us in watching the “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad on CNN, but he put fewer than 200,000 troops on the ground to secure the large Middle Eastern target country. “Mission Accomplished” the signs said, but the reality was that the one man, Donald Rumsfeld, had made a colossal strategic error, and the U.S. would never secure the ground he had bombed and then weakly invaded. His new super-high-tech army was overloaded with batteries and lacked body armor, and the infantry simply could not secure and hold Iraqi territory rapidly enough. Major and simple historical conclusions were ignored; the lessons of Napoleon, Wellington , Vietnam , D-Day and the first Gulf War were lost.

More major strategic errors mounted up in the years following the poorly planned invasion. Baathists were purged and Sunnis generally ostracized in the new Iraq .

State Department diplomats who knew the symbolic power of Baathism to the area were ignored. Many Iraqi families tolerated Baathism under Saddam Hussein because it was the party of Egypt ’s charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser. Nasser had invented the secular, authoritarian nation in the Middle East , and Saddam Hussein and Moamar Qadddafi stayed in power because of the powerful ability of these Nasserite lieutenants to hold together religiously divided regions under firm Baathist nationalism. Bush and his Cabinet misread or ignored all of this history. They failed to recall the crisis of Yugoslavia after Tito, the strongman, fell. They had no inkling that a state bundled together from old colonial provinces could fall apart if the strong man was toppled. The lessons of Serbia , Bosnia and Kosovo were lost. Mosul , Basra and Baghdad provinces were cobbled into state called Iraq only after World War One after the Turkish Empire collapsed, so the similarities between the Balkan crisis and Iraq should have been obvious. They failed on their own terms.

When the Bush administration ventured into global adventurism and “pre-emptive” war on false grounds, they failed to even secure the new turf. Bush and Cheney in their panic to react to the hated reigns of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, built secret torture prisons (which were poorly run, with guards emailing pictures of naked piles of captives to their friends), they “legalized” domestic wire-tapping and data mining, they got caught kidnapping people in Europe (Extraordinary renditions) and generally made our diplomatic situation in the world much harder while squandering almost all the goodwill the U.S. enjoyed.

When Bush pushed into his neo-imperial conquest of Iraq , he crossed the Rubicon. When Julius Ceasar crossed the Rubicon River he brought autocratic executive imperial powers to Rome , and ended Rome ’s long tradition of being a representative republic forever. Other historians point to avoidable mistakes in Iraq based on our historical knowledge of race, class, gender and religion. Hyper-masculine and self-defeating, the Bush imperialist executive probably does not see its adventure in Iraq as a generational issue. Historians who know about the post-Civil War generation drumming up the Spanish American War, they can see that eagerness to be tough “like Daddy’s generation” runs through this group, too. Ignorance and militant xenophobia along race, social class, religious and cultural lines are easily seen in the United States ’ occupation of Iraq today.

The secrecy will not stop history, and people will tell the tale of the Bush years. Corruption, incompetence, waste, Cheney’s own Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root squandering vast fortunes…this was all historically predictable from the experience in Vietnam and other colonial wars. The ignorance of Arabic, the ignorance of Sunni, Shia and Kurd conflicts, the ignorance of basic military ‘artillery and infantry’ relationships, all these factors put the US in today’s embarrassing position. Neo-conservative ideology and silly reaction trumped planning, research and prudence. We tried to export democracy at the point of a gun and we failed. The sole superpower is bogged down in Babylon , and the U.S. has gained nothing while billions of dollars and thousands of lives are lost. The failure to think about history makes the counter-productive Bush crew into a probable punching bag for moderate, liberal and conservative historians well into the future.


Edited by Shanet Clark
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I think Bush Jr. and his gang of theives will eventually be placed in the category of Caligula - pathologically power hungry and morally depraved.

You might be right, Peter, but even Caligula was somewhat interesting - and genuinely popular when he was very young. I've a feeling that comparing the Bush gang with Caligula doesn't do justice to their banality. I wonder, actually, if we aren't going to be able to discern a 'neo-liberal' (in European terms) or 'neo-conservative' (in US terms) movement which started with Goldwater's defeat, developed during Reagan's kitchen cabinet in California, and has met its denouement now. Let's just hope against hope that they'll have the same status in future that the Whigs have now. Still leaves us with the problem of unleashed global capitalism they're responsible for, though.

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Here I hope you're right and I'm wrong.

Me too - I think your scenario is more likely than mine, but I'm a bit of a born optimist.

I expect History to show that George W. Bush left office in 2009, appeared on the 2010 Season of "Dancing With the Stars" and was voted off in the first round. But then Call me a Pollyanna.

I've just marked a student essay about the Reagan Administration where she used Wikipedia and the Reagan Foundation as her only sources. The man was a saint, who single-handedly saved the world! She, like several others, was quite surprised to hear of Reagan's lack of a war record … you'd never guess from the number of pictures of him in uniform (it's just that he was acting in movies at the time!).

The neo-cons are desperate about their image, so I expect a repeat of the Nixon Presidential Library story: 20 years of propagating lies, with a very belated sanitization. I'd love to see Bush and Blair at the Hague … but I don't think it's going to happen. Bush will probably live to a ripe old age, getting loopier and loopier (from a very loopy baseline!) - and I bet there'll be an attempt to 'rehabilitate' him in about 2020 (hopefully Larry King won't still be doing sycophantic interviews by then - maybe Michael Moore'll have taken his spot, and then we'll really have some fun!). :rolleyes:

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