Crusader-in-Chief: the Strange Rehabilitation of George W. Bush

Photo by Bureau of Land Management | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Bureau of Land Management | CC BY 2.0


Standing on the south lawn of the White House just days after 9/11, Bush told the nation—and the world—that “[t]his crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take awhile.”

Bush, evoking history’s most infamous religious war, perhaps out of clumsy oblivion to the connotation of his own words, perhaps as a dog whistle to the most reactionary elements of his base, laid out his vision for a global war, a war that had no boundaries, not even the borders of the United States. In the early post-9/11 period, Bush, who had been the first President since 1888 to fail to win a plurality of the popular vote, frequently resorted to particularly grandiose terms. Thus, it was, in some respects, oddly fitting for the man who spoke of “enemies of freedom” and the “axis of evil”, to refer to his global war on terrorism as a “crusade” against a “new kind of evil.”

Nearly a decade and a half later, the former crusader-in-chief, now fashions himself a painter. And he has found an odd and surprising new fan club amongst liberals. Liberals have sought to revive his image in order to turn him into an anti-Trump. We are told that Bush is everything Trump is not. Unlike Trump, he never embraced Islamophobia, respected the media and liberal constitutional norms and tolerated dissent. You see Trump will somehow melt away if only liberals can point to respectable representatives of the status quo, and say, “Look, Trump is not like them!”

But those looking to tout the good Bush as the opposite of the bad Trump seem to have forgotten—or are conveniently overlooking—the very real causalities of the former zealot of the death chamber and the black site.

Bush’s, while speaking of a new kind of evil, did incalculable amounts of damage.

Abroad, his crusade led him to launch two invasions, whose massive bombings of impoverished countries paralleled Guernica in their brutality, whose policies of occupation brought the neoliberal order full circle to the old blunt violence of colonial pillage.

At home, his crusade meant domestic dissent was tantamount to disloyalty; and that civil society could either be conscripted into the cause or treated as an enemy.

And somewhere in the space blended together, Bush’s crusade erected a regime of torture, detention, and disappearance.

To praise Bush now is to erase these victims, and all in the name of an impotent strategy. Trump’s success depends on his ability to convince his supporters that he isn’t like the George Bushes of the world. And by legitimizing Bush, we legitimize in part some of the worst potential policies of a Trump administration.  To put it simply, it is difficult to lament Trump’s desire to bring back torture while praising as his foil the man who implemented the very regime of torture Trump wishes to resurrect.

Rise to Power

Even before Bush was president, he had an almost super villain quality to him. As governor, Bush signed 131 death warrants, at the time a record. While Rick Perry would latter go onto outdo Bush’s ghastly record in total number of executions, Bush executed individuals at a faster rate. Analysis of these executions showed that most of those sent to death by Bush had “seriously flawed trials.” Bush denied the clemency petition of an individual with intellectual disabilities and even opposed legislation barring such a practice. The Supreme Court would later rule executing individuals with intellectual disabilities is cruel and unusual punishment.

After presiding over Texas’s machinery of death, Bush set his sites on the White House. Like Trump, he failed to gain a plurality of popular. Unlike Trump, unfounded claims of Russian hacking not withstanding, there are serious allegations of fraud and outright theft of the election. An intervention by the Supreme Court ended recount efforts in Florida.

Needless to say, not everyone was pleased by the failure to properly count the votes in Florida. When he arrived in Washington, DC for his inauguration, he was greeted by a mass of protesters who hold “Hail to the Thief” signs and pelted his motorcade with eggs.

War On the World

In a Saturday Night Live sketch following the election, a fictional Bush tells the defeated Al Gore “maybe, I’ll start a war. Wars are like executions supersized.” This would prove to be uncannily foreboding of what was to come.

While any US President (or any leader in the capitalist world) would have exploited a tragedy like 9/11 for a consolidation of power, Bush’s actions in its aftermath go far beyond the pale of what anyone could imagine. Bush subsequently invaded Afghanistan, but sought and received a Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that never mentioned the country by name. This is because instead of arguing for military force against a single national, Bush proclaimed a global war, a war in which every corner, of every country is a battlefield.

The ramifications of this are profound. To date, between both Bush and Obama the authorization for military force in question, which is still in effect, has been cited 37 times to justify military actions in 14 countries. The AUMF was used by the Bush administration to argue that it could detain José Padilla, a US citizen arrested on US soil, indefinitely without trial as an enemy combatant—after all the whole world, including the US, was a battlefield. The US government charged Padilla to avoid a Supreme Court ruling on whether the AUMF granted such powers.  Bush would make similar claims after the US detained another US citizen Yaser Esam Hamdi, who unlike Podailla was captured in Afghanistan. Hamdi was initially held at Guantanamo Bay, but moved to the US mainland when it was discovered he was a US citizen. In spite of this, Bush continued to assert Hamdi was an enemy combatant that could be held indefinitely without ever challenging his detention. Eight of the Supreme Court’s nine Supreme Court justices rejected this argument, though a plurality affirmed the Bush Administration’s claims that the AUMF granted him powers to detain combatants.

Guantanamo Bay became the symbol of Bush’s assertion that he could detain people without any form of review. It also created a continuous legal back and forth, in which the highest courts constantly rebuffed the government, with the government just beginning the process anew. Throughout this process Bush made shocking departures from liberal norms, at one point attempting to argue the Geneva Conventions, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war, did not apply to “unlawful enemy combatants.” Bush also attempted to argue, that neither Congress nor the courts could check the President’s decision to detain “enemy combatants.”

Bush’s policies of detention are closely intertwined with his policies of torture. While the US has almost certainly been complicit in torture throughout its history, Bush’s watch included not just  Abu Graib, but a CIA program in which people were disappeared into black sites and subjected to heinous acts like waterboarding or rectal feeding.

Under Bush, the US engaged in the types of human rights abuses most commonly associated with rightwing military dictatorships. Images of individuals, disappeared, wearing orange jumpsuits, with black hoods that both obscure their identity and obstruct their vision, remain, even in the context of the US’s very dark history, haunting.

Afghanistan & Iraq: Neoliberalism & Colonialism

While Bush may have been at war with the world, his administration invaded two separate countries—Afghanistan and Iraq.  The longstanding narrative has been that Afghanistan was the good war justified by 9/11, and supported by the global public opinion. Bush’s cardinal sin was that by invading Iraq he got distracted from the noble crusade in Afghanistan and squandered the good will of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth, within less than the first month of the war global public opinion was overwhelmingly negative.

If the world opposed Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, it reviled his invasion of Iraq. Even before the war officially began, millions of people participated in record breaking global demonstrations against Bush’s plan to invade Iraq.

The stated reasoning for war—Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the patently absurd claims that the country played a role in 9/11—all turned out to be false.

The Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation was particularly brutal and barbarous. The opening act of official invasion was a particularly sickening act of imperial aggression, dubbed “shock and awe,” which consisted of a massive and continuous bombardment of urban areas like Baghdad meant to subdue the nation into submission by “shocking” it and thus allowing the US to achieve “rapid dominance.” Images of bombs falling over Baghdad were broadcast live for the entire world to see. That the intended purposes of this campaign, to use massive violence to terrorize, fit the definition of terrorism, the very thing Bush claimed he was seeking to eradicate, was not lost on much of the world.

Shock and Awe was not the only moment in the Iraq War to live on infamy. Fallujah, a densely populated city of 300,000, was put under siege by occupation forces, as exits and entrances were blocked and the city was subjected to aerial bombardments by coalitions forces, provoking repeated comparisons to the bombing of Guernica.

In 2008, Iraq Veterans Against the War staged an event called “Winter Soldier,” molded after a similar event held in the 1970s by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, during which veterans testified to the realities of the Iraq and Afghanistan. For three days, veteran after veteran told firsthand stories of how the military used of racism to dehumanize an enemy resulting in a disregard for Iraqi civilian.

The image of a foreign soldier standing, heavily armed at a checkpoint stopping an Iraqi, on pain of death, in their own country is an image of colonial domination. And like all colonial enterprises, the occupation of Iraq rested on a deliberate dehumanization that reduces the lives of the occupied to meaninglessness when the will of the occupier is concerned. Hence, the large numbers of Iraqis killed at checkpoints or by convoys. The blame for this rests squarely with Bush, whose actions set these events into motions, not with individual soldiers, who join the military for a myriad of complex reasons, and are put into a situation where they must struggle to survive. Bush had a choice. And he chose to invade and occupy Iraq.

While Iraq was claimed to be a war for democracy, the early occupation came complete with an arrogant colonial viceroy—Paul Bremer. Bremer, who was guarded by his own private mercenary force, was able to enact laws for Iraq with the stroke of a pen. As Naomi Klein describes, during his reign Bremer was

ensconced in Saddam’s turquoise- domed Republican Palace, receiving trade and investment laws by e-mail from the Department of Defense, printing them out, signing them and im­posing them by fiat on the Iraqi people.

Upon his assumption of power, he overturned many of the laws of the Baathist era, but kept the ban on public sector trade unions. Bremer did enact laws though eliminating taxes and tariffs, and selling off key state industries

Even after Bremer left and the Iraqi people got chose their government, Bush continued to impose economic dictates on the country. Bush’s benchmarks for success for the new government included the “Iraqi Hydrocarbon Law,” i.e. privatization of Iraqi oil.

Such actions could be viewed as an attempt to implement neoliberal economics by armed invasion. While Bush’s economic agenda for Iraq had a distinctively neoliberal character, it also in many respects a classic form of colonialism, in which a regime of alien domination is imposed on a people by force and loots their nation. In order to maintain the high levels of violence necessary to maintain such a regime, racism as an ideology must be deployed to dehumanize its victims or even to paint them as the aggressor. Thus, in Iraq Bush helped to bring the old colonial barbarism into the 21st century.

Bush’s Crusade

A particular point of distinction between good conservative Bush and bad conservative Trump, has been that former gallantly responded to one of the worst terror attacks while shunning Islamophobia, while the later has resorted to exploiting the menace of terrorism in order to exploit cheap racist demagoguery. Bush did refuse to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” words deemed precious by Trump, but descriptively meaningless as anything other than a dog whistle.  However, Bush did reach into his vocabulary to find another troubling word, describing his war against the world as a “crusade.” The religious connotations of this term troubled many at the time.

As his war was without borders, Bush’s crusade not only meant combatting evil abroad, but purging it at home. On his list of those to be targeted at home was Muslim civil society. When campaigning for President, Bush had condemned Bill Clinton’s own Islamophobia, criticizing his use of secret evidence in immigration proceeding and accusing him of racial profiling. As a result, he won support amongst American Muslims and even the endorsement of prominent Muslim civil rights activists Sami Al-Arian. Yet, after 9/11 the Palestinian-American activist who had once received a personal audience with Bush found himself on the wrong side of his crusade. Al-Arian became the subject of one the longest mounting US terrorism prosecutions, a prosecution that was essentially a political witch-hunt in which political books owned by Al-Arian were introduced as evidence. An initial five-month trial saw Al-Arian acquitted on 8 of the 17 charges against him, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining charges. He later would agree to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As part of this plea, he was to be deported to Turkey. Yet, instead of allowing him to leave, the government charged him anew with both civil and criminal attempt. The federal government did not drop their campaign against Al-Arian until 2015.

Another key moment in Bush’s war against Muslim civil society was the labeling of the Holy Land Foundation, than the largest Islamic charity, a terrorist organization. Just months after 9/11, the charity had its assets seized and in 2004 five of its leaders indicted on terrorism related offenses. Much like Al-Arian, these supposed enemies in the War on Terror had no alleged nexus to 9/11, but were instead accused of aiding Palestinian groups. In fact, they were not even accused of links to violence, but instead the government argued that the charitable aid they raised for Palestinians was distributed by Hamas controlled charity committees. Nearly six years after the original designation, a mistrial was declared when a jury failed to reach a verdict. Nonetheless, Bush’s justice department brought a retrial. This time, with the help of testimony from an Israeli intelligence agent who was permitted to testify anonymously, all five were convicted. The impact of this was widely felt amongst Muslim civil society. During the Holy Land Five trial, the government labeled the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an “unindicted co-conspirator,” which is used to this day to attempt to delegitimize the US’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.

It was not just Muslim civil society that was targeted by the repressive apparatuses of the state. The Bush years saw a number of domestic spying scandals involving opponents of Bush’s wars, environmental, and animal rights groups. When Bush’s press secretary was asked about comments made by comedian Bill Maher about it being wrong to label the 9/11 hijackers cowards, he responded with “Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”

There is, of course, Bush’s newfound love of the media. As, Zaid Milani pointed out part of this stems from the role the media played in allowing Bush to sell his invasion of Iraq. Even when the media did clash with Bush, such as when the New York Times published a story about the NSA’s illegal surveillance of Americans, they showed their trademark deference to the administration—The New York Times sat on the story for a year as the administration tried persuade them not to publish it.

Journalist who refused to defer to Bush administration often did so at great risk. According to the Daily Telegraph, a memo exists documenting that George W. Bush seriously proposed bombing Al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar, but was talked out of it by Tony Blair. The British government responded by invoking the Official States Secret Act, meaning that any newspaper that published parts of it would have faced criminal prosecution.  Al-Jazeera had been a verbal target for the Bush Administration, with Rumsfeld calling their reporting from Iraq “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” and a US military spokesperson labeled any reports documenting the US intentionally killing civilians “not legitimate news sources,” “propaganda,” and “lies.” In short, anything that contradicted the official narrative was fake news.

Al-Jazeera was not only verbally assailed by the Bush administration, its office in Afghanistan was bombed, though no one was killed, and a reporter was killed when the US bombed its electricity generator in Iraq.

During the invasion, of Iraq a US tank shelled the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing two of the journalists who were staying there. Separate investigations by Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, did not conclude journalists were killed intentionally, but they did find that Pentagon higher ups at the very least knew the hotel housed journalists and in the words of latter organization were “criminally negligent.”

Yet, much as the later revelations about the Al-Jazeera bombing memo raised unsettling questions about US bombings of Al-Jazeera, later revelations would raise disturbing questions about the Palestine Hotel. In 2008 Adrienne Kinne, a former army sergeant involved with military intelligence, claims that the hotel appeared on a list of military targets. Kinne also purports to have listened to the phonecalls of both journalists and NGOs. While official obfuscation means the full truth about this incidents remains unknown, the Bush Administration’s decision to view critical reporters as enemies shows an attitude towards reporters who refused to be conscripted into Bush’s crusade that is deeply at odds with his recent professed love for the free press

Thanks, Obama!

How did we get to a point in time when such a revisionist view of Bush can triumph? Bush can thank, in part, Obama for his rehabilitation.  Obama as president embraced and expanded the worst aspects of Bush’s global war. Although he had earlier stated the AUMF should be repealed, Obama would cite it 19 times, compared to Bush’s 18, to justify foreign military action. He would also seek statutory codifications of the President’s right to detain individuals indefinitely. And while Bush claimed the right to detain without trial, Obama claimed the right to kill without trial, including US citizens, as evidenced by his global program of extrajudicial executions via drones.  And media revelations from the Bush era about NSA spying paled in comparison to the Snowden revelations. In short, Obama helped to normalize some of the worst aspects of the Bush Administration, which is why it is now easy to paint Bush as reasonable or respectable.

Painting Bush as respectable or reasonable means painting torture as respectable or reasonable. It means accepting a decision that resulted in hundred of thousands, if not a million, deaths as a just another policy choice. It requires us to accept detaining and disappearing individuals as policy option about which reasonable people can agree to disagree.

This may be convenient, as it allows us to let Obama off the hook for continuing some of Bush’s worst policies and not ask serious question about the way Bill Clinton paved the way for them. When you are deeply committed to the functioning of the system for something to be undesirable it must be a deviance from it, not because of it. Thus, for Trump to truly be bad he must represent a break from his predecessors.

Trump very well may turn out to be worse than Bush. The brashness of his blatant hatred for Muslims and his affiliations with unreconstructed white supremacist go far beyond Bush. Resisting him is an urgent for priority for the left and a situation of basic survival for those communities under siege. But none of this erases the fact that Bush viewed his critics as enemies of freedom, attempted to criminalize swaths of Muslim civil society, launched, brutal, protracted wars, and oversaw authoritarian policies of surveillance, torture, and dissent. With these tools alone Trump could do immense damage. Equally important, Trump can’t be resisted with also resisting the system that produced him. That means a break with Bush’s abhorrent crusade.

Chip Gibbons is writer whose work can be found in CounterPunch, Jacobin, and Truthout. He is a contributor to the Henry Kissinger Files, forthcoming from Verso.