The Bush Burden

Former President George W. Bush | AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Former President George W. Bush | AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

By TIMOTHY EGAN

He’s there in every corner of Congress where a microphone fronts a politician, there in Russia and the British Parliament and the Vatican. You may think George W. Bush is at home in his bathtub, painting pictures of his toenails, but in fact he’s the biggest presence in the debate over what to do in Syria.

His legacy is paralysis, hypocrisy and uncertainty practiced in varying degrees by those who want to learn from history and those who deny it. Let’s grant some validity to the waffling, though none of it is coming from the architects of the worst global fiasco in a generation.

Time should not soften what President George W. Bush, and his apologists, did in an eight-year war costing the United States more than a trillion dollars, 4,400 American soldiers dead and the displacement of two million Iraqis. The years should not gauze over how the world was conned into an awful conflict. History should hold him accountable for the current muddy debate over what to do in the face of a state-sanctioned mass killer.

Blame Bush? Of course, President Obama has to lead; it’s his superpower now, his armies to move, his stage. But the prior president gave every world leader, every member of Congress a reason to keep the dogs of war on a leash. The isolationists in the Republican Party are a direct result of the Bush foreign policy. A war-weary public that can turn an eye from children being gassed — or express doubt that it happened — is another poisoned fruit of the Bush years. And for the nearly 200 members of both houses of Congress who voted on the Iraq war in 2002 and are still in office and facing a vote this month, Bush shadows them like Scrooge’s ghost.

In reading “Lawrence in Arabia,” Scott Anderson’s terrific new biography of one outsider who truly understood the tribal and religious conflicts of a region that continues to rile the world, you’re struck by how a big blunder can have a titanic domino effect. The consequences of World War I, which started 100 years ago next year, are with us still — particularly the spectacularly bad decisions made by European powers in drawing artificial boundaries in the Mideast. Syria and Iraq are prime examples.

Until the Syrian crises came to a head, we had yet to see just how much the Bush fiasco in Iraq would sway world opinion. We know now that his war will haunt the globe for decades to come. Future presidents who were in diapers when the United States said with doubtless authority that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction will face critics quoting Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney with never-again scorn.

The parallels are imprecise and many degrees apart: Iraq was a full-scale invasion, Syria is a punishment. But there it is — the Bush hangover, felt by all.

At the least, when the main cheerleaders for the last war talk about what to do now, they should be relegated to a rubber room reserved for Bernie Madoff discussing financial ethics or Alex Rodriguez on cheating in baseball.

Rumsfeld has been all over the airwaves with fussy distinctions about this war and his, faulting Obama for going to Congress for approval to strike. Like the man he served in office, he shows not a hint of regret or evidence that he’s learned a thing.

“You either ought to change the regime or you ought to do nothing,” he said this week, as if he were giving fantasy football advice. Calling Obama a weak leader, he said: “Did he need to go to Congress? No. Presidents as commanders in chief have authority, but they have to behave like a commander in chief.” In other words, more swagger, bluster and blind certainty.

Liz Cheney, in a feckless run in Wyoming for the Senate highlighted by a sellout of her own lesbian sister’s right to marry, says she would vote against the resolution to use force in Syria. She’s made a career, such as it is, backing her father’s legacy of waterboarding, nation invading and pillorying supporters of diplomacy before war.

And Senator Marco Rubio, robust defender of the Iraq war, has just cast a no vote on taking action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He did this for one reason: to fend off the Bush-spawned neo-isolationists who will play a big role in the 2016 presidential nomination.

There are people on the public stage who have genuinely agonized over lessons of the Bush disaster. They say, with some conviction, that they will never be fooled again.

But for all of these neocons stuck on the wrong side of history — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, say the names loud and clear — it’s not a change in conscience at work; it’s a change in presidents. Later this month, dozens of Republicans in Congress will make the same decision, simply because they hate Obama, and would oppose him if he declared Grandmother Appreciation Day.

The voice that stands out most by his silence, the one that grates with its public coyness, is Bush himself. He has refused to take a side in the Syrian conflict. The president, he said, “has a tough choice to make.” Beyond that, “I refuse to be roped in.”

This is cowardice on a grand scale. Having set in motion a doctrine that touches all corners of the earth and influences every leader with a say in how to approach tyrants who slaughter innocents, Bush retreats to his bathtub to paint.

(Timothy Egan, based in the Pacific Northwest, writes a column for the New York Times.)

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