Election 2008

Bush Era's Last Legs: Will Anything Change When He Goes?

It seems naive to hope Bush's successor will reject his most destructive policies.

The political calendar indicates that in one more year – on Jan. 20, 2009 – the presidency of George W. Bush will come to an end. However, the worst consequences of his disastrous reign, including the Iraq War, may be nowhere near ending.

Today’s presidential frontrunners, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, were early prominent supporters of the Iraq War and appear to have suffered little political damage for lining up behind Bush in 2002 when he was at the peak of his power.

For his part, McCain – who campaigns with neoconservative independent Sen. Joe Lieberman – has no plan to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, indeed talks about keeping U.S. troops there for centuries. Clinton, who was a late convert to an anti-war position, now vows to “start withdrawing” U.S. troops by early spring 2009.

So, it seems a sure bet that a McCain presidency would continue Bush’s Iraq policies indefinitely. And it looks like a gamble whether Clinton would press ahead with her “hope” of bringing “nearly all the troops out by the end of” 2009 – or revert to the neocon-lite position that she embraced from 2002 until the start of the Democratic campaign in 2007.

Might Hillary Clinton be to George W. Bush on Iraq what Richard Nixon was to Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, a President who continued a war for years while gradually moving to wind it down?

Ironically, the politician taking the most heat on the Iraq War today is Barack Obama, who opposed the war resolution in 2002. In recent days, he has come under harsh criticism from former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Clinton for not consistently joining with the staunchest war opponents in the Senate.

Bill Clinton has called Obama’s anti-war position a “fairy tale,” and Sen. Clinton, who helped make the Iraq War possible, has attacked Obama for not immediately supporting a cutoff of funds for the war when he entered the Senate in 2005, even though that was a position he shared with Clinton.

Amazingly, it looks like – if any politician is going to be held accountable on the Iraq War – it may be Obama, who was an early and vocal opponent.

Think Tank Consensus

Meanwhile, in the U.S. news media and in influential Washington think tanks, Iraq War supporters are consolidating their positions and – just like in 2002-03 – are baiting Iraq War critics as “defeatists” who won’t admit the “reality” of Bush’s successes, particularly the modest gains of the troop “surge.”

At the New York Times, apparently to give himself protection from right-wing pressure groups, publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. recruited prominent neoconservative writer William Kristol as a new op-ed columnist. In one of his first columns, Kristol accused Iraq War critics of wanting to “snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.” [NYT, Jan. 14, 2008]

Not to be outdone, another Times columnist, Roger Cohen, penned an op-ed praising McCain for his wisdom in supporting the surge. In a flashback to the intolerant mood of 2002, Cohen accused American liberals of “hypocrisy” for not backing the invasion of Iraq to oust the dictator, Saddam Hussein.

“I still believe Iraq’s freedom outweighs [the war’s] terrible price,” Cohen wrote. “So does McCain.” [NYT, Jan. 17, 2008]

(The New York Times’ other columnists who were big supporters of the Iraq War include David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s editorial pages have been long dominated by war enthusiasts, such as editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer and David Ignatius.)

On Washington’s think tank front, from the American Enterprise Institute to the Brookings Institution, wannabe assistant secretaries of state for either a McCain or a Clinton administration have been carefully positioning themselves as optimists vis-à-vis the “surge.”

As historian Andrew J. Bacevich wrote in a Washington Post Outlook article, the pro-Iraq War “fabulists are again trying to weave their own version of the war. The latest myth is that the ‘surge’ is working. …

“AEI’s Reuel Marc Gerecht assures us that the moment to acknowledge ‘democracy’s success in Iraq’ has arrived. To his colleague Michael Ledeen, the explanation for the turnaround couldn’t be clearer: ‘We were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis recognized it.’  … Frederick W. Kagan, an AEI resident scholar and the arch-advocate of the surge, announces that the ‘credibility of the prophets of doom’ has reached ‘a low ebb.’”

Bacevich, a professor of history at Boston University, added: “Presumably Kagan and his comrades would have us believe that recent events vindicate the prophets who in 2002-03 were promoting preventive war as a key instrument of U.S. policy.

“By shifting the conversation to tactics, they seek to divert attention from flagrant failures of basic strategy. Yet what exactly has the surge wrought? In substantive terms, the answer is: not much.” [Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2008]

Political Success

The most significant achievement of the “surge” and the modest decline in Iraq’s horrific violence may be inside the U.S. political process, by making continuation of the indefinite U.S. occupation of Iraq (what Bush once called “stay the course”) possible.

While on his eight-day trip to the Middle East, Bush indicated that when the 30,000-troop “surge” ends this spring, he is prepared to keep U.S. troop levels at about 130,000, which is where they were a year ago.

A year from now, given the pathetic state of American politics and the U.S. news media, one can almost envision the start of a George W. Bush nostalgia as his presidency comes to an end. Neocon columnists and think-tank experts are sure to hail his courage and wisdom.

It’s also unlikely that either a President McCain or a President Clinton would do much to set the record straight. Whether the pattern is like 1988 (when George H.W. Bush succeeded fellow Republican Ronald Reagan) or like 1992 (when Democrat Bill Clinton followed George H.W. Bush), the focus will be on the future, not the past.

Rose-colored glasses will be put firmly in place about George W. Bush, just as they were regarding Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, in order to avoid bitter partisan disputes about their legacies.

As the Clinton team told me back in 1993, “we don’t want to refight the old battles of the 1980s.” Many of the same players show no indication that they would take a different position regarding the battles of the Bush II presidency.

The sad reality about America’s historical amnesia – if not outright hostility toward the hard truths of history – will mean that few, if any, lessons will be learned from the eight years of George W. Bush. That, in turn, will leave open the likelihood that the same mistakes will be repeated again.

That is one of the key reasons that we have tried to put as much of the lost history of this troubling era into our books, from Lost History to Secrecy & Privilegeto Neck Deep. Our goal has always been to establish an honest record of what has occurred and what it means, whether the facts are politically popular or not.

In effect, we have tried to establish a truthful narrative for the past three decades as a challenge to the dominant false narrative that infuses the pages of the major American newspapers, the TV pundit class and Washington’s think tanks.

However, as Campaign 2008 takes shape with McCain and Clinton emerging as the frontrunners, the likelihood of any profound changes in the political/media structure of Washington looks dimmer and dimmer.

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