George W. Bush has risen from the Lone Star State and is making the talk-show rounds to promote his autobiography Decision Points. He says he has few regrets, loved serving the country, gave it his all, is glad to be back home in Crawford, and will leave the final verdict on his presidency to future historians.
On her most recent visit on Letterman, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, sporting a pair of spiffy blue spectacles, mused that “the most interesting thing about Obama’s first year is how crazy the opposition has gone in reaction to him.” Verily, Ms. Maddow must be ravaged with fascination over the opposition’s decade-long-and-counting state of exasperation over Obama’s predecessor.
For the purpose of emancipating myself of reliance on partisan punditry, I once resolved to get to the bottom of the 2000 dimpled/hanging/pregnant-chad hullabaloo and to arrive at my own independent determination of whether Mr. Bush had indeed “stolen” the contested election. As I perused the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore majority opinion and dissent, I quickly realized that in order to unravel the judicial mare’s nest on hand, not only would I have to take a crash course in Florida election law and familiarize myself with local tallying conventions in the various counties in order to be able to make heads or tails of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision that had greenlighted the manual recount and was subsequently overturned by Bush v. Gore, but that it would furthermore be imperative to study a representative sample of recent states-rights-related U.S. Supreme Court decisions in order to establish whether and to what degree Bush v. Gore clocked in as sufficiently out of lockstep with its brethren so as to warrant the suspicion it had been motivated by the untoward objective of putting Mr. Bush into office rather than having been compelled by the dispassionate analysis of all relevant legislation.
Not surprisingly, I abandoned my well-intentioned foray into the election law morass within the hour, as my interest in the subject—while pronounced enough to trigger an impulse to investigate—did not quite amount to a desire to immerse myself in it for weeks. I wonder how many of those who passionately come down on either side of the election theft issue have done the homework. In essence, it seems that if you hate Bush, he stole it, and if you like him, he didn’t.
In any event, far more intriguing than the question of whether or not the 2000 election was votejacked by the Bush Brothers in collusion with the conservative wing on the SCOTUS is the following hypothetical I call the CRT, which stands for counterfactual reverse test:
Say, ceteris paribus, the situation had been identical except with the candidates reversed, i.e., Bush had won the national popular vote while Gore copped Florida’s 25 electoral votes by a whisker and his brother Jeb Gore was governor of the Sunshine State, whereupon Bush requested a manual recount, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, in overturning the Florida Supreme Court, kicked the presidency to Al Gore, using the exact same reasoning it had applied in Bush v. Gore, which now, of course, would have been named Gore v. Bush.
Given that during this counterfactual scenario all of us would have been exposed to the selfsame information as we were during the real-life one, the merits of the case itself would have remained unchanged—after all, the who of the parties involved bears no relevance on what happened—and the exact same people who accused Bush of having filched the election would now be accusing Gore of having filched it, right?Yeah, right. And I’m Lord Voldemort.
Had the 2000 election been a mirror image of itself, I bet not a single person who accused Bush of having stolen the election would have leveled the same charge at Mr. Gore. Instead, it would have been the right spitting nails for eight years over President Gore’s illegitimate accession to power.
In spite of its speculative nature and the attendant provability deficit, I find the CRT eminently enlightening. It should be applied to all controversies in order to gauge the extent to which the assessment of a particular dispute is rooted in the facts of the case itself as opposed to sympathy or antipathy toward individual actors based on personal or political ideology.
For instance, had—all other things being equal—Bill Clinton been a Republican, would a Republican House of Representatives voted to impeach him? Fat chance, yet whether the act of misrepresenting one’s extramarital Oval Office frolics to a Grand Jury rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” obviously has nothing to do with the identity or party affiliation of the defendant.
And if Bill Clinton had been black and impeached over the same offense, can you imagine the charges of racism leveled at his accusers for launching so manifestly desperate an attempt to rid themselves of a black man whom they perceived as a threat to white domination?
These days, the claim keeps floating around that opposition to Barack Obama is fueled by his ethnic background. The logic of this argument escapes me, for I’ve lived in this country since the beginning of the Clinton presidency and have yet to notice a difference in the tone and level of hostility directed against whoever happens to occupy the White House at a given time. And right before I crossed the big pond, I had lived through six years of Kurt Waldheim in Austria—talk about a divisive president. Having witnessed first-hand Messrs. Waldheim, Clinton, and Bush getting skewered every day of their respective tenures in the most vicious ways imaginable, I am now supposed to believe that opposition to Mr. Obama is race-based?
The race argument largely derives from the misbegotten observation that the same folks who are suddenly so very outraged over big government spending didn’t seem to have much of a problem with Bush the Caucasian splurging like a drunken marine, hence the whole Tea Party movement must be driven by Mr. Obama’s somewhat reduced susceptibility to sunburn and melanoma. This, of course, makes no sense, for the economy didn’t crater until the tail end of the Bush presidency, before which time governmental over-spending hadn’t been perceived by a great many Americans as impacting negatively upon their wallets. Also, in the early going of the financial meltdown more people (a) still had jobs, and (b) were amenable to the thesis that a one-off emergency stimulus may be necessary to keep the economy on temporary life-support as a short-term stopgap.
More importantly, and harking back to the aforementioned CRT test, people have an innate proclivity to go easy on their ideological compatriots while savaging the opposition for like behavior. So before denouncing an Obama critic as a racist, we must first determine that person’s level of animosity toward Clarance Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, or Michelle Malkin. Should it turn out that he or she assails Obama at every turn yet is perfectly down with those other three individuals, the waste-basket racism accusal doesn’t quite wash.
Besides, Bush’s approval rating hovered around 30% when he left office. So obviously, a majority of the population did have a problem with his governance. What was that all about? Prejudice against white men from Texas?
Bookended by the 2000 election fiasco and the collapse of the economy, most of the controversy about Mr. Bush’s helmsmanship continues to surround the military response to 9/11, in particular the war in Iraq and the incessant charge of having “lied” about the infamous WMD stockpiles. Somehow it doesn’t compute that the president and his administration would have played the WMD card with such abandon, all the while knowing full-well they’d come up empty and would eventually be called on the public carpet to stand accused of either lying or incompetence. So I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and to entertain the possibility they sincerely believed at least a few of these stockpiles would turn up.
Apparently, they were so over-confident they hadn’t even prepared to plant any WMDs to save face in case none were found, nor did they falsely claim to have located and destroyed the non-existing stockpiles. Instead, they simply went, “Oops, no stockpiles!” To me, this rings more like an intelligence screwup than a premeditated WMD deception campaign.
I also never heard anyone in the Bush administration put forth that Saddam Hussein was in any way complicit in the 9/11 attacks. What I did hear was a lot of chatter about Iraq’s supposed menace to the United States dubbed over footage of the burning WTC towers in an apparent attempt to establish a connection in people’s minds without making specific claims, thereby ginning up popular support for the invasion. Of course, the entire advertising industry operates on the principle of creating associations between words and images without explicitly positing causality, a method proven highly effective over the decades in making people buy stuff. Still, I always read the subtext of the Saddam-9/11 linkage thus presented as a warning that Iraq might be behind the next 9/11 rather than having had a hand in the 2001 event. Many others apparently read it as Saddam having knocked down the towers, a testament to the power of the subliminable [sic].
Picking up on the theme of racism, a recurring claim advanced by Noam Chomsky and similar thinkers is that the U.S. had little compunction about invading the Middle East because its inhabitants have darker skin and follow a different religion, i.e., they “aren’t like us,” so let’s go kill them. Given that the largest national group in the United States are German-Americans and not so long ago the U.S. bombed Germany into rubble more than any other nation with the possible exception of Laos, the “because they’re not like us” line of argument rests on shaky precedent.
If anything, the miscalculation was to assume that the folks in Iraq and Afghanistan were too much like us in terms of their anticipated eagerness to set aside sectarian differences and embrace American-style democracy the moment their tyrannical regimes were overthrown. It seems that only after the fact did the masterminds of these invasions realize that they were dealing with a very different mindset than they were used to back home. They probably thought they’d receive as warm a welcome in the Middle East as if they’d liberated Oregon from the Mongols. (Or whatever totalitarian rogue regime may have seized power in Oregon.)
So the $64,000 question is, how could the Americans have waltzed into Iraq and Afghanistan the way they did with the expectation that things would pan out as planned? Could it be that the so-called “military-industrial complex” pulled the strings behind the curtains, as big corporations always win irrespective of how a conflict turns out, and the longer the carnage lasts the bigger the profits?
In fairness, the American Revolution—a ragtag militia composed of disgruntled colonialists rising up against the then most powerful empire in the world—was a bit of a long shot as well that could easily have turned out the other way, in which case our revered revolutionaries, to the extent to which they’d be remembered at all, would now be regarded as a bunch of religious lunatics who effected nothing but death and destruction in the quixotic pursuit of an impossible goal. So should we assess Mr. Bush’s military endeavors based on intent or based on outcome? What if the mission had truly been accomplished by the time the Pollyannish banner was hoisted on that aircraft carrier in late 2003?
And what about the legality of the Iraq war?
As goes for the 2000 election, adjudging the matter objectively is no mean feat, especially for the layperson. Once again, it essentially comes down to if you like Bush, the invasion was legal, and if you hate him, it wasn’t. Frankly, I haven’t put much original research time into this, either. From what I understand, preemptive military strikes against sovereign nations violate international law. On the other hand, the moment a party to a ceasefire agreement violates it, the ceasefire is effectively over. So from a legal perspective, the 2003 Iraq invasion could conceivably be viewed as a response to Saddam Hussein having repeatedly violated the ceasefire agreement he had signed in 1991, in which case 2003 was merely a continuation of 1991 rather than a new war, hence the no-preemptive-strike statute wouldn’t apply.
The other day, I watched a lecture by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo about the state of today’s politics, in the course of which he emphatically asserted that the Iraq war was illegal because Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution clearly stated that only Congress had the power to declare war and Congress never declared war on Iraq. That is correct. Unfortunately, the Constitution does not address the constitutionality—or lack thereof—of an undeclared war. Instead, it establishes the president as commander in chief of the armed forces. So what if Congress declared war and the president refused to deploy troops? Would that be an illegal non-war?
Certainly, from a constitutional perspective there’s nothing “clear” about whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq—or any U.S. military action since World War II, the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war—was legal, plus Congress has been funding the project from the jump, which, in itself, could be regarded as a declaration of war, much like putting items into one’s shopping cart at the supermarket and handing money to the cashier counts as a fairly unequivocal declaration of purchase.
And somehow Mr. Cuomo, in his eagerness to slam Mr. Bush, forgot to mention that the constitutional law professor who heads the Executive Branch right now keeps sending drones into Pakistan sans formal declaration of war on that country.
Finally, Bush supporters argue that after 9/11 the Bush policies “kept us safe” from additional attacks on the homeland for the remainder of his stint in the federal wheelhouse. Of course, prior to 9/11, there hadn’t been any attacks on the homeland for eight years, either, despite the absence of those very Bush policies that supposedly kept us safe. So I don’t know.
In the end, I have no idea how to assess George W. Bush’s presidency. If someone trashes the man, I will speak in his defense. If someone lavishes heaps of praise upon him, I shall offer a countervailing perspective. Frankly, I don’t feel strongly one way or the other.
Psychologists say that we react most violently toward those who harbor qualities we most dislike about ourselves.
Somehow the 43rd president never excited my ire.
I suppose I don’t have a Bush in me.