One of the great things about being an American president is the complete immunity that comes with the job. No matter what you do or what laws you might break, you will never pay more than a mild political price for it.
OK, your ratings might drop, people may say nasty things about you in the press, you might even lose an election; but in the end your crimes and follies will be forgotten or airbrushed out of history with the effortless ease that would make any ‘totalitarian’ leader green with envy – and all the more so because there is no need to use force, coercion or fear to obtain these results.
Today not many Americans really care too much that Richard Nixon once ordered the illegal bombing of Cambodia and also blasted North Vietnam and Hanoi just because he wanted to prove to the North Vietnamese that he was a crazy guy who was capable of anything.
By the time Ronald Reagan died in 2004, hardly any Americans remembered that his administration had overseen one of the sleaziest foreign policy operations in US history. Selling cocaine to fund the Contras and heroin for the Afghan ‘Muj’, weapons-for-hostages, equipping both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, bypassing Congressional scrutiny, running secret slush funds through BCCI, funding the death squad regimes in Central America – hell, what exactly is your problem? This is the president we’re talking about.
Sometimes this process of rehabilitation can happen sooner than you think. Take George W. Bush. Just four years ago he left office with the lowest approval ratings in American history. He left a country in financial freefall, with a level of wealth inequality without parallel in US history, whose crumbling infrastructure and institutional incompetence was epitomized by Hurricane Katrina.
Abroad the reputation of the United States had been dragged through the dirt by the disastrous response of his administration to the 9/11 attacks, that included Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the rendition of suspected ‘enemy combatants’ to countries like Syria and Egypt to be tortured, two major wars that had achieved nothing substantial except to leave hundreds of thousands of people dead – one of which was launched on blatantly false premises.
These are not things that you would expect a responsible democratic society to want to forget in a hurry – from the point of self-interest if nothing else. But the good news for Bush is that the forgetting has already begun, and everyone is doing their best to see that it continues.
Last week a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Bush’s approval ratings had risen from 33 percent positive and 66 percent negative in 2009 to corresponding figures of 47 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval today – almost on a par with Obama.
So absence clearly does make the heart grow fonder, and whatever his abilities as an artist, it was probably a good move on Bush’s part to spend the last few years away from the limelight mountain-biking, golfing and painting dogs. But an even better idea was to open a presidential library.
Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George Bush Senior – all of them had presidential libraries established in their lifetime, in an attempt to shape the way they want their reputations to be remembered, and last week Bush continued this illustrious tradition, with the opening of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
At an opening ceremony attended by 10,000 guests and all five living presidents, Bush told his audience how ‘When our freedom came under attack we made the tough decision required to keep our people safe’ and promised that his library’s presidential center would be ‘devoted to promoting freedom abroad.’
The library includes a steel beam from the World Trade Center, and an interactive exhibit called Decision Points Theater, where visitors can ‘ decide what actions they would have taken on issues like Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis.’
By coincidence, the opening of the library coincided with the tenth anniversary of an event that tells us a great deal more about the priorities of the Bush administration than visitors are likely to discover through interactive exhibits. On 14 April 2003, Iraq’s national library and archives were mostly destroyed in a fire caused by the widespread looting that took place in the aftermath of the Anglo-American invasion.
The fire destroyed priceless documents and manuscripts dating back to the sixteenth century. Others were looted. The burning of the library followed the burning of a nearby library of Korans at the National Endowment Museum, and the systematic looting of the Baghdad Museum of Archeology in which artefacts and manuscripts, some of them more than 5,000 years old, were stolen, in what Iraqi curators described as premeditated and deliberate actions carried out by expert thieves who knew what they were doing, with an eye on the international market.
The Independent’s Robert Fisk observed these events at first hand, and described how
All over the filthy yard they blew, letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for ammunition for troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on pilgrims, all in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq’s written history.
Fisk went to the US Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau and tried to alert them to what was happening in an attempt to save some of the manuscripts, but nothing was done. Only two days before the library fire, a grinning Donald Rumsfeld had replied, when asked about the ongoing looting, that that ‘stuff happens’ and went on to add that ‘Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.’
Only two buildings were protected throughout the looting: the Ministry of the Interior and the Oil Ministry. Apart from that the American occupiers did nothing to protect the cultural and historical heritage from one of the oldest civilisations on earth.
That was how Bush went about ‘promoting freedom’ abroad, and the contempt for Iraqi culture was symptomatic of administration’s contempt for its people – and of the breathtaking combination of incompetence, corruption and Yahoo-ish thuggery that made the occupation such a stunning debacle.
None of this is likely to appear in Bush’s ‘Decision Points Theater’, and it was all politely forgotten last week during the star-studded opening ceremony whose guests included Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair. Barack Obama praised Bush as a leader of ‘incredible strength and resolve’ who led the US through some of its darkest days. Bill Clinton described him as a great humanitarian. Bush cried. Bush Senior said ‘God Bless America.’
Everyone felt good, because the presidency is in the end a feelgood institution, and being president not only means never having to say you’re sorry – it means that no one will ever ask you to – except for the handful of protesters outside.
No one can be surprised at the amnesia of the political elite, or by the fact that Bush would insist that there is ‘No need to defend myself’ – such things go with the territory.
But why ordinary Americans would want to take a positive view of a man who did so much to ruin their country is alarming – and depressing. Especially since there is another Bush with his eye on the presidency – and maybe his own library too.