George W. Bush doesn't deserve the media's efforts at rehabilitation

George W. Bush doesn't deserve the media's efforts at rehabilitation
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Our democracy is only as good as people trust the results,” former President George W. Bush declared in a presumably well-paid speech last week in the United Arab Emirates, a notorious Arab dictatorship. Bush is being exalted as if he is the second coming of George Washington thanks to his implied slams against the Trump administration. But Bush’s actions during his eight year reign did far more to ravage democracy at home and abroad than most people realize.

Thanks to gushing media coverage, Bush is enjoying one of the greatest comebacks in modern American history. In the summer of 2008, only 22 percent of Americans approved of Bush and 41 percent said he was the "worst president ever." Last month, a poll showed that 61 percent of Americans now approve of Bush, and his support among Democrats quintupled, from 11 percent in early 2009 to 54 percent now. If Americans want to understand current political challenges, they need to recall Bush’s forgotten debacles.

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Speaking in New York in October, Bush called for “a new, 21st century American consensus on behalf of democratic freedom and free markets.” But when he was president, Bush’s policies assumed that spreading democracy gave him a license to kill.

Shortly before he invaded Iraq in 2003, Bush assured a Washington think tank:

“The nation of Iraq — with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people — is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”

Though he invoked democracy to justify the war, U.S. military commanders three months after the fall of Baghdad “ordered a halt to local elections and self-rule in provincial cities and towns across Iraq, choosing instead to install their own handpicked mayors and administrators, many of whom are former Iraqi military leaders,” the Washington Post reported. Many Iraqis were outraged to see Saddam’s former henchmen placed back in power over them. But, as Noah Feldman, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s law advisor, explained, “If you move too fast, the wrong people could get elected.”

The Bush administration only agreed to Iraqi elections after massive street protests demanding the right to vote. Bush reportedly authorized massive covert aid to pro-American Iraqi parties and politicians. However, when senior members of Congress such as Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDisclosures suggest rebates and insurers responsible for rising out-of-pocket drug costs Democrats keeping GOP from motivating voters with Trump impeachment threat, analyst says Celebrities, lawmakers wear black to support Kavanaugh’s accuser MORE were briefed on the plan, they vehemently objected. Bush canceled the formal plan but delivered covert aid anyhow, using back channels and undercover operators kept secret from Congress as well as the American public.

Iraq’s 2005 election was more akin to a Soviet Bloc referendum than a New England town meeting. As part of Operation Founding Fathers, American troops traveled around broadcasting a get-out-and-vote message at the same time they raided people’s homes. After soldiers passed out thousands of sample ballots, the top UN election official condemned U.S. military interference. Bush proclaimed the elections a “resounding success” but despite CIA handouts, pro-U.S. candidates were crushed by pro-Iranian parties. The animosities inflamed by the election campaign helped propel Iraq to civil war, which Bush invoked the following year to justify sending far more U.S. troops there.

Bush has recently fretted about Russian involvement in American elections but when he was president, Bush acted las 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 elections.

The Bush administration spent over $65 million to boost their favored candidate in the 2004 Ukraine election, including “helping to underwrite exit polls indicating he won a disputed runoff election,” according to the Associated Press. Yet, with boundless hypocrisy, Bush proclaimed that “any (Ukrainian) election … ought to be free from any foreign influence.” The Bush administration rushed $2 million to aid the ruling Fatah party to help them thwart Hamas in a 2005 Palestinian election, to no avail. U.S. government-financed organizations helped spur coups in Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2004. Both of those nations remain political train wrecks.

In his October speech, Bush boasted: “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny.” But as president, Bush acted as if ravaging the Constitution was part of his job description. 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 championed barbaric practices which did more to destroy America’s moral credibility than all of Trump’s tweets combined.  Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” regime 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. 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 his October spiel, Bush also bemoaned: “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Coming from Bush, this had as much credibility as former president Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFeehery: Are you (October) surprised? Why must everything Rosenstein be filled with drama?   Judge denies bid to move lawsuit over Trump national monument rollbacks to Utah MORE lamenting the decline of chastity. As the lies by which he sold the Iraq war became exposed, Bush resorted to vilifying critics as if they were traitors in a 2006 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars

George W. Bush should have permanently taught Americans that presidents are most dangerous when seeking to con the nation into unnecessary wars — for democracy or any other pretext.  Unfortunately, the recent media consecration of Bush may be expunging that bitter lesson. It is possible to vigorously oppose Trump’s abuses without fomenting delusions about his predecessors.

James Bovard is a USA Today columnist and the author of 10 books, including “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty” (St. Martin’s Press, 1994).