Thus far, our retrospective on the 2000s has focused mainly on “trivial” pop culture issues: things like what books we liked, which movies were good, whose album was the best, what sports team was the most memorable, etc. We’ve completely ignored things like 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the recession. Part of this is merely out of prudence: We like to show restraint in areas that seem to require some expertise. It’s also been out of charity: Unlike Mark Antony, we come to praise the Aughts, not to bury them, so focusing on the darker aspects of the Aughts is beyond our stated purpose.
Any look at this decade, though, would feel horribly insufficient without a look at the presidency of George W. Bush. Like no other single individual, President Bush defined the Aughts. Indeed, Bush may have defined the Aughts more than anyone has defined a decade since Julius Caesar—his global impact is that wide.
At this point, though, criticizing Bush is kind of like setting fire to an already beaten and bloodied horse carcass. After all, the failures of Bush are common knowledge by now, right?
By now, Bush’s failures are taken for granted. His approval ratings—no matter who you ask—hit historic lows by the end of his Administration. One poll, taken as early as 2006, had almost 60% of the public describing Bush’s presidency as a “failure.” In last year’s election, both candidates went to great trouble to disassociate themselves from the sitting President. His time in office is associated with 9/11, the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge deficits, and the beginnings of a financial disaster of historic proportions. Most people—no matter what their party affiliation or political beliefs—do not view President Bush favorably.
It is for just this reason, though, that the bad influence of George W. Bush’s time in office is oddly underestimated: It is so well-established and accepted that it has become part of common knowledge. And when something becomes common knowledge, people stop analyzing it. And when people stop analyzing something, misconceptions abound (Christopher Columbus was trying to prove that the world was round, Abner Doubleday invented baseball, etc.).
Of course, people are still trying to analyze and fully understand the complexities of Bush’s presidency—many books are surely being written at this very moment. But the general perception of him is basically still, Oh, President Bush? Yeah, he fucked up, without being very specific or fair about where and how he fucked up.
This was something that plagued (or, in some senses, helped) President Bush since his initial campaign for president. Very early on, George W. Bush was saddled with the perception that he was unusually stupid. This was not completely unwarranted: He was a notoriously terrible public speaker who often portrayed his own ignorance as a virtue, as something like intuitiveness, or a resistance to analysis-paralysis.
As a result of this conception, though, any mistake or misstep of the Bush Administration could be explained away by Bush’s stupidity. Oh, George W. Bush didn’t have an exit strategy for Iraq? That’s probably because he doesn’t know where it is! Oh, Bush didn’t anticipate the levees breaking? He probably doesn’t know what those do anyway! Oh, Bush has been unconstitutionally wiretapping phones? Well, he probably hasn’t read the Constitution! Whether or not Bush is actually stupid, though, these explanations are decidedly unhelpful. Bush’s stupidity ends up functioning like a catch-all excuse and, even worse, obscuring the real causes of these problems.
Just as counterproductive is the accusation, perpetuated by many liberals, that the Bush Administration was a cartel of evil, Nazi-esque figures like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. People who compare Bush and his cronies to the Third Reich seem to explain away every one of Bush’s mistakes as a mere ploy in the Bush Administration’s plan for Pinky and the Brain-like world domination. This is just as ridiculous and distracting as people who criticize Barack Obama for being a socialist.
And while the Bush = Hitler sentiment was limited to extremists, even more moderate liberals often endorsed an explanation that seemed like a blend of the first two, something like Bush was merely inept. He wasn’t an imbecile or a minion of Satan, but he was just too closed-minded, too dogmatic, and too arrogant to do anything right. This is a little more nuanced, but just as off-the-rack as the other two.
It seems like most Americans now ascribe to some combination of these three ideas of President Bush: Bush is dumb, or Bush is evil, or Bush is a screw-up. The truth is really much more complex, and much more disturbing, than that. Bush is not some cartoon villain who was out to get America, or some idiot who couldn’t handle his job. Defining him as such conveys that his presidency was error-prone, but it doesn’t go very far as to explain why, or what exactly his mistakes were and what he should have done differently.
Every major decision of his presidency was unique, multi-faceted, and probably well-intentioned. Everyone had an impact that will likely last through the coming decades. And almost every one was wrong.
I. A President of the Moment
President Bush may be the worst president in American history, but the explanation as to why has little to do with him. Andrew Jackson—Tim’s least favorite president—was probably just as unqualified, unremarkable, and foolish as President Bush; but he was president in 1829, how much harm could he do? Sure he could have caused massive inflation, widespread corruption, and brutally murdered some Indians (and he did manage to do all those things), but America didn’t get involved in wars in the 1830s; our national debt was measured in the hundreds of thousands, not the tens of trillions. Bush, though, was the President at the most important moment in American history since the Civil War.
In 2008, HBO produced a movie called Recount, about the 2000 election in Florida. The film—starring Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, and Ed Begley, Jr.—was pretty good, if not exactly politically incisive. The most interesting—and depressing—thing about it, though, was remembering exactly how close that election was. Al Gore was a mere 538 votes in Florida away from the Presidency, in one of the most crucial elections in history.
I was not the most politically astute observer in 2000; I was, after all, in 8th grade. But I remember feeling, as many people did then, that the differences between Bush and Gore were really not that great. They were both rather nondescript, unmagnetic figures. They differed slightly over how to spend the budget surplus (man, remember when America used to have surpluses!) and some other issues, but they both made strong efforts to present themselves as moderates, distancing themselves from the polarizing figures in their respective parties. And yet, less than year into the presidency, the small differences were incredibly amplified.
It’s a cliché to say this at this point, but it’s true: The world changed on September 11. But saying it like that is misleading. The world doesn’t just change—people change it. The world changed on September 11 because of how George W. Bush changed. It would have changed no matter who the president was, but the extent and the manner of that change were defined by George W. Bush.
Ironically, this was perceived optimistically at the time. Rudy Giuliani’s famous statement on 9/11—“Thank God George Bush is our president”—was not just a political sound-byte: It actually seemed to capture the mood of the disaster’s aftermath. I grew up in a heavily Jewish suburb of liberal New York—it was not exactly a conservative hotbed; in our “election” in my 8th grade social studies class, I think Gore won by a tally of something like 19 to 2—I actually heard people say things like that. Americans wanted Bush’s cowboy swagger, his unshakable confidence, and his disdain for over-thinking.
The image of George W. Bush at Ground Zero, rallying the firemen and health workers with his megaphone, declaring, “I can hear you! The rest of the world can hear you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” quickly became the defining moment of the decade. It also solidified that the response to the attacks would be swift, forceful, and vindictive.
The fact that President Bush so quickly embraced this reactionary, violent spirit ensured that the response to September 11 was going to be defined in terms of a “war on terror,” an “us vs. them” mentality, and a desire to hunt and kill terrorists. Is there anything wrong with these things? Probably not. Pursuing Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and al Qaeda was certainly required by the act itself. Was a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan necessary to achieve these ends? Did we need to completely eradicate the Taliban and build a new government? Should the process have taken over eight years, over 1500 deaths, and over $140 billion? I don’t know the answer to these questions (although I have a hunch that the answer to the last one is “no”), but I think President Bush’s initial reaction committed us to a long, arduous, and doomed process of “ridding the world of evil-doers.”
I don’t know enough about military specifics or Middle East policy to know exactly what President Bush did wrong in Afghanistan, but I’m pretty sure of this: When Bush started to call terrorists “evil-doers,” and talking about an “Axis of Evil,” and talking about how God chose him to be President, he started framing this matter as a simple Good vs. Evil war. But terrorism is anything but simple. The causes, mechanisms, history, participants, and factions are complex, nuanced, and elusive. But viewing it as Good vs. Evil oversimplifies the matter, and by confusing the nature of the enemy (by declaring that terrorists hate things we are—free, democratic, prosperous—instead of the things we do—interventionism, etc.), it alienated allies and helped squander the goodwill towards America, leading to anti-Islamic sentiment.
It also helped lead to the war in Iraq.
II. The Worst Mistake of All
Discussing the possible alternate history of a hypothetical Gore Administration is somewhat unfair. After all, there is a chance that Al Gore, as the president, would have done exactly what President Bush ended up doing in Afghanistan. President Gore may have ignored memos about Osama bin Laden’s intent to attack the U.S., and Gore may have even tried to ape the Good vs. Evil language that President Bush used to stir America’s bloodlust.
But I am fairly confident that Gore would not have invaded Iraq. How do I know this? Because it made no fucking sense to invade Iraq. Even I knew that. Did Iraq have anything to do with September 11? No. Was bin Laden in Iraq? No. Did al Qaeda have a strong presence or safe haven in Iraq? No. Was Iraq completely immune to ties to terrorism? Of course not. Was Saddam Hussein a totally friendly dictator? No. But plenty of countries, some that America worked closely with, had stronger terrorist links than Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but he was a presence America had been dealing with for over a decade, and dictators are typically anathema to the instability that helps fuel terrorism.
It’s unfair and, again, unhelpful to jump to conclusions like “President Bush invaded Iraq for the oil” or “President Bush went into Iraq because of a deep-seated Freudian desire to undo his father’s mistakes.” The evidence to support either claim is barely enough to support a Michael Moore documentary. President Bush probably did believe that Iraq posed a serious threat to American security, and that the possibility of Iraq working with al Qaeda was reasonably high. Why did he believe this? That’s like asking the square root of a million: No one will ever know. (Or you can just read books by Bob Woodward, et. al.)
Based on his initial framing of the post-September 11 world as a struggle between Good and Evil, though, the war in Iraq made some semblance of sense. Saddam Hussein is evil; the terrorists are evil; therefore, Saddam Hussein and the terrorists might work together. This kind of logic, as oversimplified and unnuanced as it was (and is), made sense to the American people, particularly given the sentiment that President Bush had helped create. This helps explain why 70% of the public supported the war immediately leading up to the invasion.
Similarly, this kind of outlook helped President Bush implicitly brand any opponents of the war as un-American. If it’s a Manichean struggle, then you cannot be against war without supporting the opponent. Even after the reasons for war kept changing, and the rationales kept proving untrue, then, people were reluctant to call it a failure. Only years after the search for WMDs had been more or less abandoned, after Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda had been disproved, after the occupation proved hazardous and counterproductive, did the popular sentiment turn against the war.
At this point, though, it was too late to turn back. Even though people started calling for withdrawals as early as 2005, Bush would continue to escalate. President Bush should, I suppose, be commended for the “success” of the Surge, but is finding the right strategy four years after a war begins really cause for congratulations? Not to mention the fact that the long-term success of the Surge, measured presumably in Iraq’s political stability, is anything but determined at this point.
Either way, Iraq was a war without a purpose. It was a also a war that’s killed more people than September 11, cost almost $900 billion, and is still going on. The damage it’s done to our long-term military and fiscal stability, in addition to America’s reputation abroad, is nearly impossible to calculate. And unlike Afghanistan, which was poorly designed and ill-executed but at least motivated by the moment, Iraq was a war of choice. It was not bin Laden’s war or America’s war—it was Bush’s war. And the people have to live with it.
III. The War At Home
President Bush’s effect on foreign policy was obviously his most lasting and troubling influence, since the president’s impact on foreign policy is the strongest, but he clearly influenced America’s domestic policy as well. Detailing each of his mistakes—Katrina, wiretapping, Guantánamo Bay, etc.—would take too long (just look it up on Wikipedia).
But what’s unmistakable and somewhat tragic is how President Bush shaped the landscape of politics and the perception of government. Some might say that partisanship and political polarization were inevitable in the Aughts, that the fault really belongs to Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, and Sean Hannity. The Internet and cable news were inevitably going to make the political climate more vitriolic and segmented. And that’s probably true.
It’s also true that the trend of polarization began in 1994, with the Newt Gingrich-led midterm elections. Most of the punditry grew around that climate. Nevertheless, President Bush was the first national politician to tap into that culture, and an argument can be made that, without him, the trend was on the wane (Gingrich having lost popularity and resigned in 1998).
As it is, though, it’s impossible to view any of the most infamous political pundits without reference to their stance on President Bush. By pursuing such a reckless foreign policy, but doing it in such a way that opposition was perceived as capitulation with “evil-doers,” President Bush ensured that some people would be adamantly in favor of his policy, and that critics would be roundly criticized. This, in turn, caused liberals to react just as viscerally and irrationally as conservatives had. Pretty soon, the entire political climate became a name-calling contest.
Even by the end of his second term, when most of the population had turned against President Bush, though, this sense of division persisted. The battle over the legacy of George Bush began, with some believing he had been evil from the beginning, some believing he was just an imbecile who was in over his head, and some believing that he had merely let “conservative principles” get away from him. Everyone seems to agree on the fact that the Bush Administration did not end well, but they disagree on what simple explanation to provide for it.
What America is left with, though, is a country very much defined by President Bush. We are left with his wars, the massive deficits that he helped add to, a political culture that largely formed in response to him and his policies, as well as tax codes, investigative laws, prison camps, and plenty of other policies that he enacted that cannot be simply undone. President Bush even helped shape what we think public officials can accomplish. A sense of doom already surrounds the Obama Administration, probably because the American public knows how quickly a sense of hope and faith in your President can go awry.
Tellingly, President Obama’s success will largely be measured by how well he solves the problems President Bush created. How will Obama get us out of Afghanistan? Iraq? Will he undo the infringements on civil liberties the Bush Administration helped initiate? Will he ever even attempt to cut the budget? What will happen to the tax cuts President Bush passed that are set to expire next year? Even health care reform was supposed to be addressed by President Bush.
Looking at the list of all the things President Obama is being asked to undo, two things leap immediately to mind. First, that this task is simply impossible. Obama cannot restore American credibility abroad; even if his exits from Iraq and Afghanistan are completely seamless, people will not forget the violence and turmoil that the invasion created in the first place, or the years of instability and occupation. Obama cannot cut a deficit that’s swelled to over $12 trillion, because that amount seems like fairy tale money.
The second thing that jumps out, though, is how avoidable so much of this was. Bush’s failures are not like the failures of many other notoriously bad presidents (James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, John Tyler) who did nothing to prevent the country from heading in the direction it was already tending; President Bush took a country and set it on its current course, straight for disaster. And even though most people are quick to express disapproval now, the fact remains that America let him do these things.
President Bush was, after all, re-elected in 2004, and he was a very popular president until more than halfway through his Administration. The quick, easy, and wrong explanations offered about the Bush Administration feel a little like an attempt by the American people to wash their hands of President Bush: It wasn’t our fault he was so dumb/evil/incompetent! Well, in the eyes of most of the world, President Bush and America are hardly distinguishable. Whether this is fair or not, this is yet another reason why the failures of the Bush Administration are not something that will be easily escaped with the new decade rolls in.
It’s not helpful to blame President Bush for every single bad thing that happened in the Aughts. But his presidency was not an accident, or something that can be quickly cleaned up by Hope Personified. The Bush Administration was a disaster that included many mistakes, but these mistakes should not be attributed to the character flaws of one man. We need to fully understand exactly how President Bush’s failures came to define the Aughts, how the American people let him do it, and how exactly we can rectify his problems; because either way, we’re going to be living with it for a long time.