George Orwell must be tired of turning over in his grave in the age of President Donald Trump, but the biggest whopper of all has nothing to do with The Donald. It’s the award of the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center to George W. Bush, the latest and most bizarre step in the attempted rehabilitation of our 43rd and still arguably worst president. Donald Trump has done many damaging, disgraceful and disgusting things, and he is obviously in many ways in a class by himself. But he hasn’t started a war on false pretenses that has spawned several more in its wake, and led to the death or exile of millions. He didn’t write the practice of torture into the military handbook, much as he may approve of it, and he didn’t create black sites and the indefinite imprisonment of so-called enemy combatants, both in violation of international law and the Constitution itself. He didn’t initiate the assassination of American citizens abroad. George W. Bush did. He is, simply, a war criminal on the loose.
If you can add insult to this kind of injury, the National Constitution Center cited Bush’s work on behalf of war veterans as the reason for honoring him. Can you top that? Four million American servicemen and women have gone through the grinder of our still ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many maimed in body and spirit, and some 7000 brought home to be buried. None of their sacrifice, suffering and death would have been necessary had Bush not ignored the warning signs of 9/11, created a diversionary war in Afghanistan to protect his Saudi allies (and his family’s oil interests) and launched a further war of imperial annexation in Iraq. No other American president has abused the idea of military service more cynically and unconscionably.
One might dismiss this episode as the latest prank by the National Constitution Center. But the whitewashing of Bush actually began Jan. 20, 2009, when I watched in astonishment as Barack Obama rode chummily to his inauguration with his predecessor, and made nice all the way through the ceremony. Yes, that’s the way the torch is supposed to be passed, with a politesse that affirms the lawful transition of presidential power. But Barack Obama had been elected by many to restore a rule of law that had been broken, not to say dishonored, by the man he was replacing.
I’d hoped that Obama would have ignored Bush as pointedly as possible, as a man who’d disgraced the office he was inheriting and which he was now left to repair. Such repair would have required, among other things, thoroughly investigating the lies and lawbreaking of the Bush regime, and holding its chief actors, beginning with Bush himself, to account. But Obama would do no such thing. From the moment of his own accession, he normalized Bush’s actions, and in significant ways extended them. Yes, he did repudiate the use of torture, and he did promise to close down the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which of course is still open. But he protracted the Afghan War, and when he declared a formal end to the one in Iraq, he embraced the Bush lie that it was fought for freedom and democracy. With that, he recast a naked war of aggression as a noble cause, and waved an implicit presidential pardon over those who had designed and waged it.
Obama didn’t simply mean to rewrite history. He did not end but extended the wars he inherited, including the sub rosa one we continue to wage in Iraq, and fomented or supported new ones in Syria, Libya and Yemen. He tripled our forces in Afghanistan. To minimize American casualties, he greatly increased the use of drone strikes begun by Bush, deliberately understating the civilian deaths they inflicted. He also extended the use of targeted assassinations that included American citizens. When this latter practice was criticized as a violation of the due process clauses of the Constitution, he trotted out his Attorney General, Eric Holder, to explain that due process was satisfied by secret intelligence findings that required no public charge or trial, but simply his own personal approval.
All of this meant that George W. Bush would not only be normalized, but embraced. The Obamas and the Bushes became closer, not only politically but socially, and we have recently seen a picture of Michelle Obama with an arm around Bush in a positively familial manner. Of course, the spectacle of Donald Trump has made such accommodation easier. For those of short memory and with nine years of whitewash under our belts, the affable Bush, with his aw-shucks manner and grin, can readily be taken for the distant uncle who once got into trouble but still belongs at the table.
It would doubtless have been too much for Obama to have given Bush the presidential Medal of Freedom, in the manner of popes canonizing their predecessors. But the Liberty Medal serves well enough, and who in fact did place the medal around Bush’s neck at the award ceremony but Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden? I have seen many strange things in American politics, but the sight of the man elected to succeed Dick Cheney beamingly honoring Cheney’s boss within hailing distance of Independence Hall was perhaps the most surreal of all.
Donald Trump himself is no accident in our politics, and future historians may see more continuity than contrast in the first three administrations of the 21st century. Obama, be it recalled, not only continued and extended Bush’s wars, but undermined the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments by attacking whistleblowers and the protections of a free press, by his unprecedented surveillance of American citizens, and by replacing due process with a Star Chamber proceeding presided over by himself. These acts link him both to Bush and Trump in expanding the usurped powers of an imperial presidency. We will have a great deal of work to do in restoring our country’s liberties.