Let’s stipulate the following: By most measures, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE has been a problematic president. For some, he is the worst ever; for others, he is a hero for breaking the mold of Washington as usual, for deregulating, for appointing judges in a particular Federalist Society mold. His standing in national opinion polls is rather low for this point in a presidency, and augur a tough road to reelection.
For those who believe he is the worst ever – and, with this week’s scandal surrounding what Trump might have said to Ukraine’s president and the subsequent opening of an impeachment inquiry, that view has been amply reinforced – let’s stipulate something else: Nothing Trump has done, not a single thing, would rank in the top five of what George W. Bush did in the first term of his presidency in terms of sheer, utter, unequivocal harm to the United States, to its legal and governing norms, to the stability of the international system and to the economic security of Americans.
It is remarkable, and not a bit weird, how quickly the Bush years have receded into the past, with Bush himself the recipient of a Trump-era nostalgia for a time when men (yes, men) of character occupied the White House, honored the office and took the responsibilities of “leader of the free world” seriously. Bush’s somber, quiet rectitude during his father’s funeral earned him high accolades even from former adversaries. And he has been praised for staying above the fray as an ex-president and refusing to call out either Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA needed warning for Yemen's rebels — and for our allies and enemies alike What Joe Biden can learn from Harry Truman's failed steel seizure Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team MORE or Trump when he disagrees with them.
And yet, Bush’s first term was an unmitigated disaster whose ill effects still bedevil the world, and from which we have never fully recovered. The fact that Trump occupies so much mind-space — because of his often odious language, lack of world view and utter disregard for law, norms, civility and thoughtful policy-making — seems to have obscured just how little he actually has done compared to his Republican predecessor, who did a lot and caused irreparable harm.
Let’s catalogue: In Bush’s first term, his administration either deliberately falsified or purposefully fudged intelligence reports about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, as well as connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, in order to steer public opinion to support an invasion of Iraq that, by most estimates, took the lives of at least half a million Iraqi civilians in order to oust a brutal dictator.
Most of those deaths were not directly caused by American munitions or troops but by a combination of the subsequent Iraqi civil war and disease among refugees. But they were the product of a U.S. invasion that included, at best, minimal planning for the invasion’s aftermath; the resulting haphazard nature of the occupation, in turn, gave rise to a violent insurgency and a metastasizing Islamic extremism in the form of ISIS that ultimately helped turn Syria into a war zone.
The Bush administration also opened and then maintained both the extralegal prison system at Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorists, interrogation techniques that skirted the line between agreed Geneva conventions and actual torture, and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which undoubtedly crossed that line. In addition, the administration actively solicited allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia for extralegal “rendition” of suspects for “enhanced” interrogation, all under the justification that the war on terror required extraordinary measures not contemplated under existing law.
For similar reasons, the administration authorized, via the National Security Agency, an extensive metadata spying program, purposely circumventing delegated congressional authority and declining to inform Congress. It was only terminated (purportedly) when the program came to light in 2004. Even the Department of Justice challenged the program’s legality at the time, with most of the department concluding that the program violated the law.
Those three things alone – the invasion of Iraq on false grounds and the subsequent chaos due to lack of planning, the sanctioning of torture and encouragement of it beyond U.S. borders, and domestic spying without congressional authorization – are beyond anything yet done or accomplished by Trump. But wait, as they say in late-night commercials, there’s more.
Bush’s first term also saw a substantial deregulation of the housing market and the financial markets in terms of due diligence and oversight of bank lending and financial sector risk. That had already begun during the 1990s when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE was president, and enjoyed wide support among elites in both parties.
At the time, of course, those moves were seen not just as benign but actively beneficial not just to financial markets but to millions who could suddenly afford to buy homes and faced less scrutiny when applying for mortgages. Nonetheless, this loosening and indifference to earlier standards enabled the vast distortions in the financial system that helped set the stage for the massive financial crisis of 2008-2009. There were factors other than Bush administration policies, of course, but his role cannot be elided.
And, finally, following the highly questionable Supreme Court decision Bush v. Gore in 2000, the Bush administration opened the floodgates to a political system that now distorts the Electoral College and allows an administration to claim the mantle of a majority while winning a minority of the popular vote. The ballot results, if they had been counted in Florida as agreed on by Florida law, might, of course, have favored Bush and led to his election regardless. But by short-circuiting that process, the administration (with the help of the Supreme Court) set a precedent of cherry-picking law and precedent as it suits rather than being bound regardless. We are witnessing that tendency in excess today.
Recalling the harms of the Bush years is important because, in our hysterical present, where hyperbole is the coin of the realm, we have an unfortunate predilection to hold up “Now” as the worst of all possible worlds and forget just how bad it was only a few years ago.
Trump, for all his evident and multiple faults, has yet to manufacture an invasion of another country that not only costs thousands of lives but creates a trail of regional instability and global violence. He has not, as far as we know, unleashed the national security state on U.S. citizens at home, and he has not authorized torture. Grim conditions in detention camps on the Mexican border are pristine compared to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, and downright cushy compared to the “black” rendition sites of our allies in 2002; that doesn’t make border conditions defensible, but there is a material distinction that matters.
And while some of Trump’s deregulatory efforts could yet backfire, most would seem to enable possible corruption in oil, gas and land use contracts rather than systemic dangers a la the mid-2000s’ housing and mortgage bubble.
Some will say, “So, Bush was bad, but he’s in the past.” This reminder of the Bush administration should be a corrective to the view of terminal American decline, to the belief that we will never again be the same and that we are living in some sort of end-of-days. We’ve been worse in the past; we’ve also been far better. And here we are, to tell those tales and fight these fights.
Zachary Karabell, founder of the Progress Network and the author of a dozen books, including “The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World,” is president of River Twice Research and River Twice Capital.