It’s going to sell a lot of books for author Jon Meacham, but does anyone think the food fight going on between the 41st president and some of the men who served the 43rd is shedding much light on the history of the last decade? Meacham’s new biography is bolstered by interviews with its subject in which President George H.W. Bush delivers scathing criticisms of members of his son’s administration, specifically Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The exchange reveals some behind-the-scenes tension in the normally tight-lipped presidential clan, but the attention being given Bush41’s comments is a consequence of the way the perceived failure of the Bush43 presidency boosted that of his father. And that is something that should cause readers and pundits to put this dispute in a perspective that takes into account more than just the media’s distaste with Cheney and their disillusionment about Iraq.
The elder Bush, who had been widely criticized for letting Saddam Hussein stay in power after the first Gulf War, is now lionized as a figure of admirable restraint after the invasion of Iraq turned sour on his son’s watch. But while Bush41 deserves the respect he’s belatedly getting, it doesn’t necessarily follow his criticisms of the rhetoric used by Bush43 was mistaken. The decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam doesn’t look very smart from the perspective of more than a decade later. But even if we concede that the second Bush and his team made some awful mistakes, they weren’t wrong to call out rogue states as an “axis of evil.” Nothing that happened in Iraq vindicates the “realists” who were more interesting in appeasing evil than fighting it as we have learned while watching the administration of Barack Obama.
Washington gossip is cheap, but anytime a former president takes shots at another president’s cabinet it’s going to raise eyebrows. And that’s doubly true when the other president is a blood relation of the person taking the shots. The unfortunate truth about the revival of interest in Bush41 is that it is purely the product of the opprobrium that still attaches to his son in the minds of many Americans. Comparisons do bring clarity, but it’s doubtful that the elder Bush would be getting such gentle treatment from liberal media figures like Meacham if not for the fact that every bouquet thrown in his direction seems to have a double meaning. Thus, the scorn Bush41 pours on Rumsfeld and especially Cheney is lapped up like catnip by the same liberal media that viciously attacked both Bushes during their presidencies.
As for the back and forth between these figures, nothing that’s been said is terribly enlightening. Cheney has taken the brickbats from his former boss with grace though he took issue with the claims that his wife and daughter influenced him to become more of a “hardass” than he was when he served as the elder Bush’s secretary of defense. However, Rumsfeld replied with some characteristic tartness about Bush’s age that probably hurts the 83-year-old former secretary of defense than it does the 91-year-old former president.
Nor is there much to be said for Bush41’s claims that Cheney set up “his won State Department” in the Bush43 presidency. As even he concedes, everything Cheney did was with George W. Bush’s sanction. If Rumsfeld was not able to rethink strategy during the occupation of Iraq that had gone badly, the younger Bush deserves credit for having the guts to admit he had been wrong. He fired Rumsfeld in order to pursue a surge strategy that essentially secured a victory that Obama subsequently threw away.
But Bush41’s comments don’t seem to have much to do with actual policy disagreements — he still supports the decision to go to war and overthrow Saddam — as it does with tone and overall mindset about foreign policy. But if Bush41 doesn’t think the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq were mistakes — as even most Republicans now do — then about what is he complaining? He thinks the tone from Cheney, in particular, was too bellicose and not diplomatic enough. In particular, he singled out a line uttered by his son about the “axis of evil” as “not benefitting anything.” He apparently thinks the 9/11 attacks caused those in his son’s administration to become too “hardass” and to want to “fight about everything and use force to get our way in the Middle East.” But which of the tough-minded policies that wound up preventing another 9/11 does the elder Bush really take issue with? Say what you like about Cheney, but that was his goal and he deserves praise for accomplishing it.
That seems to me to get the problems of the Bush43 administration backward. Though the world is better off without Saddam Hussein, the U.S. wasn’t prepared for the problems that arose after the invasion. More to the point, the collapse of Iraq immeasurably strengthened Iran, which is now a worse danger today than it ever was while its main rival was still in power.
But there was nothing wrong with Bush43 providing the world with some moral clarity after 9/11. The “axis of evil” line was no more a mistake than it was for Ronald Reagan to speak of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Doing so didn’t commit the U.S. to a war, as his liberal critics foolishly thought at the time. But it did put the world on notice that the U.S. knew the difference between right and wrong, and that it was no longer afraid to call things by their right names. Doing so helped undermine the Soviet Union just as the Bush speech helped isolate Iraq and Iran.
The realist critique of Bush43 makes sense when it sticks to the mistakes about the invasion but let’s not forget that the post-invasion surge was opposed by some of the realists that fit in with the Bush41 mindset such as James Baker, his secretary of state. Moreover, the foreign policy of Bush43’s successor has prioritized diplomacy over moral clarity and the result is the appeasement of Iran, the rise of ISIS and the downgrading of U.S. relations with close allies like Israel, something that seems very much in line with Baker’s point of view.
We should by all means honor Bush41 as an honorable man who served his country long and well. But let’s not forget his mistakes as well as those of those who served him, like Baker. Nor should we succumb to the impulse to praise him for evolving on issues like gay marriage. The point of such praise isn’t so much to give the elder Bush his due, as it is to trash his son and current Republicans. This effort to stir up a fight between realists and neo-cons is nothing more than a liberal entertainment package. Conservatives of all stripes should not take the bait and add to their fun.