As a fan of the zombie genre, perhaps I should welcome the resurrection of George W Bush. The former president has been largely discreet and absent since his calamitous reign ended more than seven years ago: perhaps hoping that, if temporarily forgotten, we would all forget his misdeeds, and history would eventually look at his presidency more kindly. But as he takes to the stump in an effort to re-energise his brother’s flagging presidential campaign, there is little doubt that Jeb Bush is a victim of the political polarisation his elder sibling helped unleash.
Not that it’s as simple as to say we live in the world Dubya built. A US foreign policy that, all too often, engaged in disastrous wars and backed dictatorships and terror groups predates his reign: so does the stagnation of living standards for millions of Americans. US power – after its temporary post-Soviet boost – was already in relative decline. And faced with the ranting demagoguery of Donald Trump, a certain nostalgia for Bush’s refutation of anti-Muslim bigotry is almost understandable.
But if history ever does one of those “Ah, was he really all that bad?” revisions, the answer has to be: “Yes, he was.”
One reason Barack Obama hasn’t always received the scrutiny he deserves – there would be justifiable howls of fury if the horror show that is the Libya war had taken place with Bush in the White House – is because of the sheer relief at Bush’s departure. From the orange jumpsuits of Guantánamo Bay to the foreclosures of the subprime mortgage crisis, from piles of prisoners surrounded by sickly grinning soldiers at Abu Ghraib to the white phosphorus dropped over Fallujah, the world remains stalked by Bush’s demons.
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Bush proclaimed a “war on terror” in 2001 with the mission of eradicating terrorism: more than 14 years later, terrorist and fundamentalist extremist groups are more powerful than they have ever been. The incalculable reputational damage suffered by the United States because of his policies – Guantánamo has still not closed, the use of torture and the illegal invasion of Iraq - has not dissipated. He bequeathed his successor the most disastrous economic situation since the 1930s, and we still remain in the aftermath.
With US power severely weakened, and the living standards of Americans continuing to fall, no wonder there is such appetite for radical solutions: on the one hand, the optimistic vision of a socially just US offered by Bernie Sanders, on the other, the miserable, immigrant-blaming, Muslim-bashing politics of fear propagated by Trump. But the rise of both owes so much to the legacy of Bush, allowing Trump – a Republican candidate – to bash the former president with such abandon.
In some parts of Republican America Bush is remembered with affection. But few presidencies can claim such a disastrous legacy. We live with the misery he inflicted. Loyalty may be compel him to champion his brother. But if this is the beginning of an attempt to rehabilitate his pernicious reign, it must – and will – be resisted.