With the prospect of a decent outcome in Iraq — perhaps even the first liberal democracy in the Muslim world — looming ever more likely, Bush-haters have lately begun to argue that the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush must be considered a moral abomination regardless because the conduct of the war on terror has undermined America’s core principles. To spearhead this new talking point comes a spate of recent books with especially ominous titles: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer; Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice by Eric Lichtblau; Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values by Phillipe Sands; and, silliest of all, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugiolsi.
The arguments contained in these books tend to proceed along one of two related lines: The first claims that the invasion of Iraq was “immoral” and/or “illegal” because Iraq had no hand in the attacks of September 11th 2001 and posed no immediate risk to the United States. The second claims that President Bush seized upon the public fear of another terrorist attack in order to quash the civil rights of Americans and authorize the widespread use of torture on American-held prisoners. In either case, the arguments conclude, Bush has sullied America’s good name both at home and abroad and is therefore a disgrace to the office of the presidency.
To counter the hysteria of such charges, historical context is necessary.
Recent history first: The idea that Saddam Hussein’s regime was no threat to America because, as it turned out, Iraq had no vast stockpiles of WMDs is just false. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Bush knew — contrary to the overwhelming consensus of foreign and domestic intelligence services — that Iraq possessed only minuscule supplies of chemical agents left over from the 1980s and 1990s. Could there be any doubt that Saddam, who was doling out $25,000 grants to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, was willing to support international terrorism? How much nerve gas, handed off to jihadis, constitutes an immediate danger?
And what about money as a WMD? How many truck bombs would a suitcase of Saddam’s cash put on the road? In its sealed indictment of Osama bin Laden in 1998, the Clinton Justice Department had mentioned a possible cooperation agreement between al Qaeda and Iraq. The charge was later dropped for lack of corroborating evidence — but Bush was no doubt aware of the initial indictment. Was it really unthinkable, in 2002, that Saddam would channel funds to Osama’s organization?
If the notion that Saddam posed no threat to America is false, the notion that Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was illegal is downright ludicrous. The cease-fire agreement Saddam signed in 1991 to remain in power after the American-led coalition forces had routed his military stipulated that Iraq must 1) provide full disclosure of all long range missiles and WMDs; 2) allow United Nations weapons inspectors full and free access to verify Iraq’s disarmament; and 3) cease all support of terrorism.
Since Saddam never lived up to these conditions — hence, the 17 unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding he comply — the U.S. simply invoked its right, as the principal aggrieved party to the 1991 cease fire, to resume hostilities and oust Saddam.
So much for international legalities.
DOMESTIC LEGALITIES are another story, of course, and Bush-haters insist that he’s run roughshod over the Constitution. But here, too, historical context is critical. Nothing that Bush is even alleged to have done comes close to matching Abraham Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War or Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to relocate and imprison 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War Two — two conflicts not often said to have undermined America’s ideals. To be sure, Bush has invoked his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief during wartime to expand the government’s surveillance practices. Whether he’s gone too far, or whether the “war on terror” should be construed as a proper war, is debatable. But given the scope of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, and given the uncertainty of how to defend a free nation against a fanatical enemy who operates outside the norms of war and whose moral compass would make a scorpion blush, the measures Bush has taken so far, even those which push the envelope of constitutionality, are far from indefensible.
Even worse than the Bush Administration’s record on civil rights, according to the new wave of Bush-haters, is its record on human rights — specifically, it supposed authorization of torture on detainees held by the United States military. This is an explosive charge since torture would indeed run counter to core American values. Not that it would be unprecedented. Again, Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War included the horrors of Camp Douglas, Chicago, where rebel prisoners were treated in ways that would make the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib look like a weekend at Club Med. As for FDR, that patron saint of leftist good intentions, we need probe no farther than the living memory of American soldiers who fought in the Pacific Theater of Operations to discover battlefield indecencies during his tenure as commander-in-chief — including, for example, the widespread killing of Japanese soldiers attempting to surrender and the casual dismemberment of Japanese war dead. In other words, both Lincoln and Roosevelt oversaw worse — far worse — human rights abuses than anything occurring on Bush’s watch.
Bush has contended, controversially but not illogically, that Geneva Convention protections don’t apply to captured terrorists who fail to meet Geneva’s own definition of “prisoners of war” — thus, opening the door to harsher treatment of detainees. But he also expressly stated in a now-declassified February 7, 2002 memo to his cabinet and Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Of course, our values as a Nation…call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment.”
Bush-haters, of course, claim that he never really meant that detainees should be treated humanely…because, of course, they know what Bush was really thinking. They cite the fact that there was an ongoing debate within the Bush administration about whether the definition of torture had, in recent decades, become too broad. Moral outrage! they cry. They never bother to ask whether the debate itself was reasonable. So let’s pose the question now: Does it make sense to use a single classification — “torture” — to describe crucifying a detainee, waterboarding him, and shining a pen light in his eyes for several minutes? Do all three practices rate the same blanket condemnation?
Moreover, doesn’t that pesky initial memo, in which Bush insisted that all detainees be treated humanely, indicate that serious people within the Administration were wrestling with serious moral issues, attempting to balance a concern for basic human rights with their constitutional obligation to safeguard the security of the American people?
Bush-haters shrug off such ambiguities. Their narrative, which has the current administration populated by mustache-twisting disciples of the Marquis de Sade, does not allow for ambiguities.
HERE’S THE TRUTH they cannot grasp: Like every war before it, the war on terror (or, to call it what it is, the war against totalitarian Islam) is a nasty, brutish endeavor. It is fraught with obscene excesses and squalid idiocies because, like every war before it, it looses the primordial evils of tribalism and bloodlust to which the human race, even at its current stage of evolution, remains heir. No technological advantage can render war antiseptic. No moral high ground can render it glorious. War is always wrong. Which is why its only justification is the conviction that by going to war you’re avoiding an even greater wrong down the road.
President Bush felt that conviction, and he acted on it.
If Iraq stabilizes anytime soon, and provides a liberal democratic exemplar that inspires the Muslim Middle East out of the Dark Age in which it has wallowed the last millennium, Bush will eventually be ranked with Lincoln and Roosevelt among our greatest presidents — for the very reason that he championed American values.
Bush-haters, in turn, will join the long ranks of history’s laughingstocks.