As America’s longest war finally seemed to be inching toward a conclusion, one of its main architects briefly emerged from a comfortable Texas retirement to lament the fact.
“I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad and sad,” former President George W. Bush told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle when asked in an interview this summer about whether he believed U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan was a mistake.
The same could be said for Bush’s foreign policy. According to an estimate by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the forever wars launched under the 43rd president’s watch cost $6.4 trillion, led directly to the deaths of 801,000 people, and displaced another 21 million.
Iraq in particular inflamed the extremism it was launched to combat, left us at heightened risk of another disastrous war with Iran, and destabilized the Middle East in an attempt to disarm Baghdad of weapons of mass destruction it did not even possess. And in Afghanistan, should we join Bush in celebrating “how that society changed from the brutality of the Taliban,” or should we believe him when he says in the next breath that that country is 2,000 U.S. troops away from a dystopian nightmare?
Bush left office with a 34 percent job approval rating, according to Gallup, after briefly uniting an unfathomably high percentage of Americans behind him in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But the next three presidents of both parties repudiated his approach to foreign policy and tried, with varying degrees of commitment and success, to disentangle America from the endless interventionism he set in motion.
So why worry about the ex-president’s opinions about ending a nearly 20-year-old war now? Bush’s image was substantially rehabilitated during Donald Trump’s administration. Some of this is because by temperament, Bush is undoubtedly a nicer, well-intentioned man, certainly in comparison to the braggadocio and narcissism so frequently displayed by Trump.
There is also a tendency by the media to develop what the late conservative writer Tom Bethell described as “strange new respect” for Republicans who are out of office, especially when they can be used as a cudgel with which to beat currently serving GOP elected officials.
No longer is Bush primarily associated with a failed foreign policy that put our troops in harm’s way for nugatory national security benefits. He is a nice man who paints pictures and shares candy with Michelle Obama, a throwback to what his father may have called a “kinder, gentler” Republican Party.
That Bush, or the late Sen. John McCain, had some personal virtues and characteristics that compare favorably to some of the figures who dominate our current polarized political moment can be recognized without whitewashing their foreign-policy records.
Even in the GOP, there are constant reminders that we are no longer living in the Bush years. Speaker after speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention spoke of ending endless wars. Trump-era White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed former national security adviser John Bolton as a “warmonger.” Most recently, there are signs that the Cheney name no longer carries the gravitas it once did. On foreign policy, Liz Cheney is very much her father’s daughter. But she is no longer the third-ranking Republican in the House.
Yet there is a risk that the Bush reappraisals will wind up sanitizing the mess he made in the Middle East. Just as the removal of some troops from Iraq was blamed for the rise of ISIS, a causal relationship the Beltway blob got entirely backwards, the Afghanistan withdrawal will lead to a degree of attention to every bad thing that happens in that war-torn country that was not evident in the mainstream press during two decades of ineffectual interventionism.
As the Taliban advances, Bush’s critique will appear persuasive to many. Among Republicans, there will be a temptation to tie President Biden to any bad thing that happens in Afghanistan — a place where many bad things happen — post-withdrawal. The national populists and libertarians in the party have drifted far from the Bush view of the world, but rabid partisanship remains the path of least resistance.
Moreover, for all of his rhetorical improvements Trump did not rid his party of neoconservatives and other species of reflexive hawks. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are now much better positioned to run for president, even if Bolton was brought low.
Across the political spectrum, where there is a desire to move on from Trump there is a tendency to wish to throw the baby out with the orange-tinted bathwater. This can be seen in the veneration of the national security state, especially any intelligence agency or general seen as outspoken against Trump, or progressive celebrations of Bush, McCain or the younger Cheney. On Trump, it seems, you’re either with us or against us.
But on one issue, at least Trump was right and Bush was wrong: Great countries do not fight endless wars. We can’t let nostalgia for pre-Trump politics to turn back the clock in other ways.