Former president George W. Bush has returned to the spotlight to give moral guidance to America in these troubled times. In a statement released on Tuesday, Bush announced that he was “anguished” by the “brutal suffocation” of George Floyd and declared that “lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.”
Bush’s declaration was greeted with thunderous applause by the usual suspects who portray him as the Virtuous Republican in contrast to Trump. A CNN headline proclaimed: “George W. Bush finally steps onto the right side of history.” The Washington Post chimed in with this headline: “George W. Bush calls out racial injustices and celebrates protestors.”
While the media portrays Bush’s pious piffle as visionary triumphs of principle, Americans need to vividly recall the lies and atrocities that permeated Bush’s eight years as president.
In an October 2017 speech in a “national forum on liberty” at the George W. Bush Institute in New York City, Bush bemoaned: “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Coming from Bush, this had as much credibility as former president Bill Clinton bewailing the decline of chastity.
Most media coverage of Bush nowadays either ignores the falsehoods he used to take America to war in Iraq or portrays him as a good man who received incorrect information. But Bush was lying from the get-go on Iraq and was determined to drag the nation into another Middle East war. From January 2003 onwards, Bush constantly portrayed the U.S. as an innocent victim of Saddam Hussein’s imminent aggression and repeatedly claimed that war was being “forced upon us.” That was never the case. Bush made “232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda,” as the Center for Public Integrity reported. As the lies by which he sold the Iraq war unraveled, Bush resorted to vilifying critics as traitors in a 2006 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Bush’s lies led to the killing of more than 4000 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But since those folks are dead and gone anyhow, the media instead lauds Bush’s selection for a Kennedy Center art show displaying his borderline-primitive oil paintings.
In February 2018, Bush was paid lavishly to give a pro-democracy speech in the United Arab Emirates, a notorious Arab dictatorship. Bush proclaimed: “Our democracy is only as good as people trust the results.” Bush openly fretted about Russian “meddling” in the 2016 U.S. election.
But when he was president, Bush acted as if the United States was entitled to intervene in any foreign election he pleased. He boasted in 2005 that his administration had budgeted almost $5 billion “for programs to support democratic change around the world,” much of which was spent to tamper with foreign vote totals. When Iraq held elections in 2005, Bush approved a massive covert aid program for pro-American Iraqi parties. The Bush administration spent over $65 million to boost their favored candidate in the 2004 Ukraine election. Yet, with boundless hypocrisy, Bush proclaimed that “any (Ukrainian) election … ought to be free from any foreign influence.” U.S. government-financed organizations helped spur coups in Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2004. Both of those nations, along with Ukraine, remain political train wrecks.
In that October 2017 New York speech, Bush proclaimed: “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny.” But ravaging the Constitution was apparently part of his job description when he was president. Shortly after 9/11, Bush turned back the clock to before 1215 (when the Magna Carta was signed), formally suspending habeas corpus and claiming a prerogative to imprison indefinitely anyone he labeled a terrorist suspect. In 2002, Justice Department lawyers informed Bush that the president was entitled to violate the law during wartime — and the war on terror was expected to continue indefinitely. In 2004, Bush White House counsel Alberto Gonzales formally asserted a “commander-in-chief override power” entitling presidents to ignore the Bill of Rights.
Under Bush, the U.S. government embraced barbaric practices which did more to destroy America’s moral credibility than all of Trump’s tweets combined. Bush created a world-wide torture regime in which “enhanced interrogation” methods included endless high-volume repetition of a “Meow Mix” cat food commercial at Guantanamo, head slapping, waterboarding, exposure to frigid temperatures, and manacling for many hours in stress positions. CIA interrogators often did not speak the language of detainees so they compensated by beating hell out of them. Psychologists aided the torture regime, offering helpful hints on how to destroy the will and resistance of prisoners.
After the Supreme Court rebuffed some of Bush’s power grabs in 2006, he pushed through Congress a bill that retroactively legalized torture — one of the worst legislative disgraces since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In 2007, the New York Times revealed that the CIA interrogation regime was constructed by “consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods.” In December 2008, the Senate Armed Services Committee released a report (largely ignored by the media) proving that the torture abuses originated at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The report stated that “senior officials in the United States government… redefined the law to create the appearance of legality.”
During his years in the White House, Bush perennially denied that he had approved torture. For instance, in 2005, Amnesty International released a report detailing how the U.S. government had become “a leading and practitioner” of torture. Bush denounced the report as “absurd” because the U.S. “is a country that promotes freedom around the world.” But in 2010, during an author tour to promote his new memoir, he bragged about approving water-boarding for terrorist suspects. If George Floyd, instead of dying thanks to that cop’s knee on his neck, had been drowned via water-boarding gone awry, Bush might have had no problem with the killing. Bush has never shown an iota of remorse for the innocent people killed and maimed by the torturers that Bush sent to “rid the world of evil.”
It is possible to condemn police brutality and, even more importantly, the evil laws and judicial doctrines that enable police to tyrannize other Americans without any help from a demagogic ex-president who ravaged our rights, liberties, and peace. As I commented in an August 2003 USA Today oped, “Whether Bush and his appointees will be held personally liable for their [Iraq War] falsehoods is a grave test for American democracy.” The revival of Bush’s reputation vivifies how our political-media system failed that test. As long as George Bush doesn’t turn himself in for committing war crimes, all of his talk about “achieving justice for all” is rubbish.
An earlier version of this piece was published by the Mises Institute.