As reports of former president George W. Bush’s criticism of his successor’s Middle East policies at a supposedly off-the-record Republican Jewish Coalition event this past weekend spread from Las Vegas, the reaction from many in the mainstream media and Obama administration supporters (but, of course, I repeat myself) was to demand where the 43rd president got off bashing the 44th? In the view of a lot of Americans, including a great many who are not on the left, Bush should have not have broken the general silence he’s observed about President Obama’s policies since leaving office. To them, Bush’s decision to go into Iraq was a colossal blunder even if they don’t buy into the canard about him lying to the American people about the justification for that move. If Obama has made mistakes in the Middle East, they claim they were built upon the foundation of error that Bush created. But the problem with the reaction to this story is that it is more of a reflection of the free pass Obama has gotten on the foreign-policy disasters that he has presided over than a reasonable judgment about Bush.
Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s spokesman in the White House and conducted the interview of the former president at the RJC event, later claimed that the 43rd president was not directly criticizing his successor. But that is as unconvincing as the group’s expectations that no one in the closed door event would blab to the press about what Bush said. Though the remarks were quite mild when compared to some of the things former Vice President Dick Cheney has said about Obama, there’s no evading the fact that what Bush reportedly said was a pointed attack on the 44th president’s policy decisions on Iran as well as his failure to defeat ISIS.
The question is, does Bush have standing to take potshots at Obama?
The argument against him speaking out rests on one crucial decision: Iraq. Even if President Obama’s defenders were willing to admit that he made mistakes in Iraq that allowed ISIS to rise, they can claim with some justice that none of it would have happened if Bush hadn’t invaded.
On Iran, Bush’s critics also have a point. The Bush administration never prioritized the Iranian nuclear threat. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to have occupied most of his attention in the region. Bush outsourced diplomatic efforts to deal with Iran to America’s European allies with predictably dismal results. He also discouraged Israel from taking any action on its own. Though Bush is right about Obama’s naïveté in dealing with the Iranians, there’s no doubt that the issue has always been a top priority for this administration.
But even if we concede these points, none of this excuses the blunders that Obama has made on his own. Nor do they give us a reason to silence Bush.
On Iraq, there’s no question that most Americans believe the war was a mistake. The failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that virtually everyone was sure were there (because we knew and now had evidence of the existence of these programs) still rankles. The loss of life was devastating and what followed in Iraq is nothing for Americans to brag about. Moreover, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein did empower Iran just as most Israeli experts warned Bush it would.
But if we are discussing what brought about the current chaos in Iraq and the fact that ISIS now controls much of its territory as well as a lot of Syria, the blame belongs to Obama, not Bush.
What the current president’s defenders keep forgetting is that the Iraq he inherited from Bush was not the chaos and horror that characterized the early years of the war. By January 2009, the surge Bush ordered in 2007 had decisively defeated the terrorists. When Obama bragged that he had ended the war and that America could safely withdraw its forces, it was because Bush had finally won it after some early and costly missteps. The Iraq that we see today with ISIS running riot and Iran dominating what’s left is solely the fault of Obama. It was his foolish decision to completely withdraw all U.S. troops that created the vacuum that ISIS and Iran filled.
In the war against Islamist terror, it was Obama who wrongly boasted that al-Qaeda was defeated because of Osama bin Laden’s death. Neither he nor his defenders can blame the spread of terror throughout the region on Bush when they were the ones telling us in 2012 that Obama had vanquished the threat.
As far as Iran is concerned, say what you will about Bush’s negligence on the issue. But at least he never appeased Iran or gave it permission to continue a nuclear program that may well produce a bomb either by cheating on Obama’s weak deal or by abiding by it and waiting patiently for it to expire.
But there’s a broader point to be made about the willingness of liberals to still blame everything that’s wrong in the world on Obama’s predecessor.
Bush made mistakes, and perhaps the world have been better off had he not invaded Iraq. Then again, we don’t know what mischief Saddam Hussein might have accomplished had he remained in power over the past decade.
More to the point, in the aftermath of 9/11 Bush was presented with a clear and present danger to the United States. Instead of waiting for the next attack, he took the war to the enemy. Not everything worked out as he hoped and, in fact, some things turned out very badly indeed. But America did not suffer another 9/11 as most people expected it would in the days after that attack. The world he left Barack Obama was one in which the nation’s enemies were on the run. If he feels dismay about the chaos that Obama’s negligence in Iraq and foolish appeasement of Iran has created, who can blame him?
Instead of continuing to treat the 43rd president as a punch line, perhaps it’s time to start honestly evaluating the disastrous record of the 44th. If we do, and I suspect future historians will do just that, then Bush’s criticisms of Obama will be viewed very differently.