George W. Bush was unquestionably the worst American president in the two and a quarter centuries of the country's existence.
After all, James Buchanan, the previous aspirant to the title, merely did nothing while the South seceded. Hah! You'll have to do better than that, Jimmy, if you want to wear this crown!
Bush did far better, of course. It would appear to be the one thing in his entire life he actually worked hard at, and the one challenge he was able to meet successfully. This was an astonishingly destructive presidency, that's true even despite the fact that we don't really know much about his administration, because in addition to being the worst, it was also the most secretive ever. (I'm sure that's just a coincidence, too.) Moreover, that's also even considering that most Americans still vastly underestimate the depravity of Team Bush. As I have argued previously, if you think they were ‘merely' arrogant bunglers with exceptionally bad politics, you've grossly underestimated them. In fact, they were predators who launched their class warfare agenda behind the smoke-screen of national security, faux patriotism and secret government.
Does this record of unparalleled devastation mean that Bush never did anything right in eight years? No, though it's pretty much the case that he never did anything right on purpose.
Unquestionably, however, Bush did make some positive contributions to American life, even if they were completely inadvertent, and even if they were dwarfed by the swath of destruction he left all across the landscape. Put simply, George W. Bush's greatest success was that he gave a very bad name to very bad things.
Like the Republican Party, for example. Or conservative ideology. Or theocracy. Or presidents with the last name of Bush. Or emotional midgets who seek the White House as a salve for their personal psychological neediness.
We can be grateful for all these contributions, and I certainly am - though "thanks" is not likely what I would say if I had the pleasure of relating my assessment of Mr. Bush to him directly. More likely it would be something closer to the gracious words Dick "Dick" Cheney had for Patrick Leahy early on in the administration, when the two bumped into each other on the Senate floor. Those remarks were not, shall we say, fit for print in a family newspaper.
But I digress.
George Bush left us many gifts, but perhaps the greatest of them is that he has ruined the sport of imperialism in America, maybe forever.
Admittedly, that may of course be wishful thinking. Woe be unto the world, for example, should there be another 9/11 type of event. Somebody somewhere would have to pay in spades, and they likely wouldn't be nice white folks.
And god only knows, alternatively, what Americans might be capable of under conditions of real resource deprivation. Considering what we've already done while being the richest and most powerful country in the world, it's scary to think of what we could do with our back genuinely to the wall.
But leaving those unusual situations aside, it must be said that, after Iraq, the fun has really gone out of eviscerating small foreign countries, even those foolish enough to locate themselves on top of our oil.
Imperialism used to be a fairly sporting avocation for gentlemen of a certain class. You could occupy hapless Latin American countries, topple Iranian democracies, and simultaneously sponsor apartheid suppression of whole populations, still having time left by mid-afternoon for a couple belts with the boys down at the club, all in celebration of a good day's work at the office. It was jolly good fun for all. Except, of course, for all for whom it wasn't.
Unfortunately, that latter category included more or less the entirety of the southern hemisphere, and not a few in the north to boot. But, so what? We're Americans! Caring about the morality of imperialism is for pre-dictatorship revolutionary anti-colonialist leaders and washed-up European former empires who can't get it up anymore.
Truth be told, we're now closer to being in that latter category than not, and we can thank George W. Bush for that, one of the few contributions of this complete and utter disaster going by the name of the 43rd presidency.
I'd say we're more than a bit lucky for that outcome, too. Imagine if Iraq had been a success. Imagine if it had been the cakewalk they obviously thought it would be. Indeed, one of the great ironies of American politics is that Iraq probably readily could have been a ‘great success', at least in terms of what could be marketed as such to a foolish American public.
In that sense, we are really quite fortunate, in a perverse sort of way, that Bush was as much a lazy boob as he was a warmonger. We are lucky that Rumsfeld was as dogmatic about his 21 century military ideas as Cheney was a completely psycho amoral sociopath. For had they simply run an occupation that was as carefully planned and as adequately staffed as the invasion, or had they toppled Saddam and then promptly left, "Mission Accomplished" would have been a lot more than some banner duct-taped onto the bridge of an aircraft carrier.
And that would have been very bad news indeed for the rest of the world. Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba - there's no telling where they might have gone next, and likely with the full support of the American public, at that point popping the buttons off their jingoistic shirts (made in Thailand, of course), their chests puffed out to the wall.
Americans were already growing dubious of regressive exploits in international adventurism, it seems to me. I remember laughing at the senior Bush, whose first pronouncement after defeating the pathetically under-matched Iraqi military in 1991 was "By God, we've licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" Yeah, he actually said that. All I could think at the time was, if you have to say it, dude, it ain't really happenin'. And all I can think now is, out of 300 million people in this country, did we really go to the Bush family twice to staff the presidency?
But, in fact, the Vietnam syndrome had not been licked. That war was a traumatic experience, and it changed public perceptions about the desirability of war itself. On top of which, America was not completely immune to the general Western post-World War II movement away from militarism as a means of settling disputes. Then there's always been our long-standing vision of ourselves as both peace-loving and anti-imperialistic - however absurd those perceptions often were in light of actual practice. These also provided at least a speed-bump along the road to war in all but the more obvious cases.
Indeed, two things about public opinion and war in America struck me as pretty notable, but not much noted, these last years. One is that there was a surprising - I thought - lack of blood lust after 9/11. I guess part of that was that there was no state enemy to be attacked, as there had been in the past, and part of that was the foregone conclusion that we would be invading Afghanistan. But, really, I'm surprised there wasn't a far more intense call for revenge. As one measure of the absence of this, consider that Osama bin Laden still has not been captured or killed, almost a decade (!) later, and that nobody seems much to care about that or mention it very often.
The other thing worth noting is that the public was, in fact, dubious about the Iraq invasion, right up until the weeks before. People realized that it was bogus, at some basic level, and they certainly had a hard time connecting it to 9/11. It took a marketing full-court press to eventually garner public support for the war (America's pathetic excuse for a Congress was a lot easier to roll). It never worked abroad (another reason Americans were a bit slower to come on-board), but in the context of post-9/11 fears, a general tendency to trust the president, and the regressive movement's prowess at equating militarism with patriotism, the Madison Avenue campaign finally produced a tenuous majority support for the Iraq invasion in the weeks right before it actually went down.
I think it's slightly encouraging that, even in that context, it still took a real effort to sell the war. It's also seriously discouraging, on the other hand, that it could be sold, and that it was. But, as noted, this was a tenuous acceptance. Had the war gone well it would have amplified the militarism in the Bush team and the country's willingness to let them run rampant. Since it went disastrously, it had the opposite effect.
Iraq is probably not the last time America will go to war. But I think it's fair to say that this country - its nose once more bloodied by a stupid imperial adventure, stupidly prosecuted - will be that much more reticent to repeat the experience. We do learn in America. It is often a painfully slow process, sometimes punctuated by reverse trajectories (can you say ‘creation science'), but we do occasionally exhibit the classic clinical signs of a student who can be taught, however reluctantly and inadvertantly.
And thus we owe a debt of gratitude to the Iraqis, perhaps a million of whom have been murdered, another four or five million dislocated, and countless others wounded - emotionally, if not physically, if not both - for helping us to learn. And the people of Syria and Iran and much of the rest of the developing world owe these Iraqis thanks as well, for giving the US pause from invading other countries at will.
America's place in the world is likely to be entering a new period now, for several reasons. One is that the low-key successes of the Obama administration will help underscore the sheer lunacy of the Bush years, and all the policies associated with them. Another is that we are rapidly coming face-to-face with the reality that empire is expensive. As our standards of living go from mere steady decline to sheer precipitous decline, you'll know that we've actually turned that corner when mainstream politicians finally have the courage to talk about scaling back expenditures on the obscenely bloated American military machine.
But, in the end, it may truthfully be said that no one did more to discourage American militaristic tendencies than Jingo George, himself, however odd that may seem.
And, who knows? If I ever met him, maybe I could even bring myself to thank him for that, after all.
But only, of course, from above, after I had decked him.