My friend and former colleague Bruce Bartlett has done a service by reminding us that after four years of the non-stop catastrophe that was the Trump administration, we should not lull ourselves with the illusion that the 45th president was some aberration that fell out of the sky.
His flamboyant criminality and relentlessly malignant personality may exert the same sick fascination as watching a grisly car crash, but in terms of creating disasters, Trump has nothing on George W. Bush.
As Bartlett points out, Bush’s presidency was filled with the same hubris, incomprehension of rational policy, and disdain for any government employee who told the president other than what he wanted to hear. There was much the same contempt for expertise (“I don’t do nuance.”). But understandably, Bartlett focuses on his own area of expertise, economics. National security gets only brief mention.
As one who spent a career in the national security field, I believe that’s where the real demons lay. It constitutes Bush’s true legacy.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 marked the rest of Bush’s presidency, gave him a convenient boost in popularity, and probably were responsible for getting him a second term. Yet he ignored so many indications of an impending attack that even the 9/11 Commission, replete as it was with equivocation, coverups, and pussyfooting generally, proclaimed that “the system was blinking red.”
Yet Bush preferred to spend that summer playing golf, telling the CIA briefer who informed him of the threat, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." That behavior strangely foreshadowed Trump’s dismissal of medical experts warning him of the coronavirus. Like Bush, he had better things to do—such as protecting Wall Street.
The almost incomprehensible ease with which the terrorists succeeded was such that a large portion of the American people simply could not believe it wasn’t a false flag operation. This paranoia was reinforced by the speed with which Bush and his cronies exploited the attack both for crass political gain, and (even worse) to provide a flimsy excuse to invade a country which had nothing to do with the attackers—but whose leader was a bête noir of the Bush family.
The bald facts of Bush’s incompetent negligence were bad enough and should have gotten him impeached. But his brazen use of the tragedy as an excuse to invade the wrong country gave impetus to a plague of conspiratorial thinking that now pervades and suffocates political thought. The bogus “technical” arguments of conspiracy buffs about the melting point of steel in the twin towers were merely the precursors of far-fetched theories about coronavirus being a hoax, and the victims being crisis actors. America’s mental hygiene has never been the same since that day in September.
The crippling human and material cost of Afghanistan and Iraq set our country on a downward spiral that continues to this day.
Future historians may view 9/11’s effect on the United States as spookily paralleling the 1914 terrorist incident in Sarajevo for its impact on the Habsburg Empire and the igniting of World War I. For us—although in a more protracted manner – 9/11 may have spelled the beginning of the end, just as Sarajevo did with the Habsburgs.
Initially, the government in Vienna thought the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at the hands of a Serbian gunman to be a tragedy, but by no means an existential crisis for the monarchy. But soon enough, the militant faction, led by Foreign Minister Berchtold and General Hötzendorf exploited it as a means to rid Austria of the Serbian “menace” once and for all. They contrived to send an ultimatum of demands to Serbia that no self-respecting nation could possibly accept. They succeeded in getting their war.
That eerily foretells how Bush administration gunslingers like Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld resolved to exploit 9/11. Rumsfeld jotted down in his notes,"Near term target needs—go massive—sweep it all up, things related and not.” Empowering the CIA or Special Forces to locate and neutralize the 9/11 plotters wasn’t enough. Bush and his paladins gave Afghanistan’s Taliban regime an ultimatum they could not accept, and, for good measure, proceeded to give Iraq the same treatment. We know the rest.
The crippling human and material cost of Afghanistan and Iraq set our country on a downward spiral that continues to this day. Those hideous misadventures spawned the Department of Homeland Security, the agency with the Orwellian name whose menacing potential is held in check mainly by incompetence. Former employees tell me it is far less than the sum of the agencies that were folded into it.
Yet, even as the twin disaster of Iraq and Afghanistan became evident to any thinking person, the combination of fear, vengeance, hatred, and hubris that the Republican propaganda machine whipped up got the public into lather. Foreign policy could no longer be viewed with detachment as an issue of national interests, cost, and risk. It became one more weapon in the culture wars arsenal. The 2004 was a referendum on Iraq, and, significantly, it remains the only time since 1988 that a Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote.
Congress entered a steep decline, sinking to the level of Franco’s cortes or the central committee under Stalin. Before the Iraq invasion, I conveyed my strategic concerns to a couple of congressmen. One of them slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand and said in mock regret, “Mike, I wish you hadn’t told me that!” But I didn’t change anyone’s vote (after all, I wasn’t a lobbyist with a checkbook). This, too, presages the behavior of Republican legislators toward Trump. Off the record, they are alarmed by him and disdainful. In public, they are as grovelingly adoring of him as Kim Jong Un’s subordinates are to the Dear Leader.
Bush’s disasters reverberate to this day. Our foreign policy establishment evidently feels toward Afghanistan as a man who has a wolf by the ears. He knows he can’t hold on forever, but he dares not let go. Iraq, where al Qaeda did not exist, spawned al Qaeda in Iraq, which begat ISIS, which then spread to Syria.
It is doubtful a president with the wisdom of Solomon could solve the Middle East problems that Bush created. And, as if to magnify the errors of his Republican predecessor, Trump abrogated the nuclear agreement with Iran, one of the few positive steps the United States has taken in that region in recent decades (and an agreement that Iran was complying with). For good measure, he gave a hearty thumbs up to the Saudi monarchy’s murderous bombing of Yemeni civilians.
In any case, time is not on our side. For a decade or more, liberals have congratulated themselves on projected demographic changes in the country that would mean a more diverse, better educated electorate. That change simply has not happened in an electorally beneficial manner, and is unlikely to do so in the medium term.
Indeed, because of our absurdly archaic electoral system, demographic sorting by region may actually exacerbate the inability to produce an electorate that will vote for moderate – let alone progressive—foreign and domestic policies that will not replicate the disasters I have described. And it could lead to an even more authoritarian GOP; the party that already produced Bush and Trump could stumble upon a Führer who was actually competent, and the game will be over.
Just as Austria’s cumbersome dual monarchy was not up to the challenges of the 20th century, so it is in the 21st century with America’s antique political system (there is only one example of an institution comparable to our own electoral college: the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, a state which ceased to exist in 1806). The very structure of our system, combined with an increasingly paranoid and disinformed electorate, means the likelihood of producing a dud occupying the Oval Office is roughly 50/50.
Austria, though, in its twilight at least produced Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Popper. We seem to be stuck with Ted Nugent and Kanye West.