Donald Trump conjures such intense images that it is difficult to frame recollections of a man who made him possible. What memories flood back in your mind’s eye when you think of his Republican predecessor? Weapons of Mass Destruction? That awful expression, like a ghost stirring at the back of your mind? Perhaps you smile? Cringe? Do you imagine him as the strong president standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, bullhorn in hand, shouting that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon”? Perhaps as the struggling guy-next-door mispronouncing words like ‘nuclear’? Or perhaps as the most powerful man in the world giving a press conference in Baghdad in the waning hours of his presidency, ducking at the last minute while a shoe, thrown by an Iraqi journalist, sails past his head?
The man who smashed international law and the Constitution of the United States has recently been feted by even ‘liberal’ television talk-show hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen De Generes. It doesn’t matter; it’s all in the past. Shush! Marvel at his nice paintings, almost professional! Bush’s book of his paintings of servicemen, ‘Portraits of Courage’ currently sits atop the New York Times bestsellers list. Was there never a moment, in the words of Gore Vidal, when television’s cold, distorting eye was not relentlessly projecting a funhouse view of the world?
“Pleikus” declared McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor, “are like streetcars. Wait long enough and one will come sooner or later”. Bundy was referring to an incident during the Vietnam War when enemy soldiers attacked a poorly defended US military base in Pleiku, Central Vietnam. It was the pretext for President Johnson escalating the war in Vietnam, with disastrous results.
Bush’s ‘Pleiku Incident’ was without doubt 9/11. In the 18 months after this attack, Bush set the US down a long road of unilateralism and ambivalence to international law and treaties. His administration declared the doctrine of “preventive war” and designated suspects captured in the War on Terror as “enemy combatants” – concepts unknown under international law. At the time of its establishment in January 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Guantanamo was established to detain extraordinarily dangerous people, to interrogate detainees in an optimal setting, and to prosecute detainees for war crimes. In reality, the site has long been used for indefinite detention without trial.
The first international treaty to sense the acrid cigar-breath was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Signed with the Soviet Union in 1972 to ease Cold War tensions, Bush signalled his unilateral – in other words unlawful – intent to withdraw from it in December, 2001. Worse was to follow. Adrift now, Bush then declared in May, 2002 that the US was no longer bound by the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties which governs treaties between states.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a permanent court, founded in 2002 by the Rome Statute to “bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide”, especially when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so, was next on the chopping board. Signed by President Clinton in December, 2000, Bush then took the astonishing step of retroactively un-signing it in May, 2002. The institution clearly panicked Bush, especially given what direction he knew US foreign policy would shortly take him and his buddies. Petrified of inadvertently doing something which might be construed as US acknowledgement of the ICC, Bush even barred US diplomat Richard Holbrooke from attending the court to give expert evidence in the trial of Serbian warlord, Slobodan Milosevic. This act alone ought to have warned everyone that even then Bush was dreaming of war and was taking steps to ensure that neither he nor any of his cronies could ever be hauled under the court’s scrupulous gaze. To make doubly sure, in August, 2002 Bush signed the American Services Members Protection Act which authorised the US to use force to free any member of its armed services arrested and detained at The Hague for war crimes. The Dutch government dubbed this the Netherlands Invasion Act.
The bellicosity only increased. In November, 2002, furious that the international community would not support his Iraq war Bush issued an ultimatum: if the UN wouldn’t take action against Iraq, the US would, thus shredding international law which since 1946 had required that the UN Security Council issue a Resolution in favour of war before it could be initiated.
Enemies now seemed to be everywhere, chief among them North Korea. The combined delicate efforts of both South Korea and Bill Clinton during the 1990s to bring North Korea in from the cold were blithely jettisoned as soon as Bush took office. Bush publicly declared that he “loathed Kim Jong Il” and that North Korea was now part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, alongside Iraq and Iran. Predictably alarmed, North Korea then withdrew from Nuclear Non-Proliferation talks and ejected weapons inspectors in January, 2003. When war came to Saddam in March, the North drew the obvious conclusion: the only way to deter the Americans was to acquire nuclear weapons.
The catastrophic ‘Shock and Awe’ invasion of Iraq premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction generated the human horror of up to a million civilian deaths. When Iraqis rebelled against the invasion the US reacted with torture as in Abu Ghra’ib and massive violence in, for example, Fallujah and exploited sectarian divisions to maintain its fading power. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Professor Manfred Nowak, remarked on German television in January 2009 that Bush had lost his head of state immunity and under international law and that the US could start criminal proceedings against all those involved in these violations of the UN Convention Against Torture. It was a minority view, or at least a view that was in the minority amonth those in a position to do anything, A largely untold scandal was the destruction of an ancient culture and heritage in Iraq, the cradle of civilisation. Shortly after the invasion in the 6,000-year-old city of Ur The Observer reported that US marines had spray-painted their motto Semper-Fi (‘always faithful’) onto the side of the city’s massive 4,100-year-old temple and then declared the temple off-limits to everyone in order to disguise their desecration, including the theft by US soldiers of ancient clay bricks used in the construction of the temple.
Law and order completely broke down. In Baghdad in April, 2003 the National Museum was looted of its treasures and both the National Library and Archives and the Library of Korans were burned to the ground while US marines, only feet away watched on and did nothing. Eleanor Robson, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford said: “You’d have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale”. Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, shrugged off the rampant destruction of ancient monuments by saying “stuff happens” and then joking that he did not believe that there really were that many ancient vases in Iraq. By contrast, the Iraqi Oil Ministry, located in the centre of the city next to the burned down museums, was secured almost immediately when US army experts were dispatched to secure and examine the Oil Ministry’s records.
The New Statesman comments: “The transition from idiot to lovable idiot is not a huge leap, aided by complex human psychology that means we find old people cute, as well as the fact Michelle Obama – who is beloved by many online – has been pictured embracing him fondly”.
F . Scott Fitzgerald once said that he had thought that there were no second acts in American life. Usually the lack of nuance in American public life precludes useful reinvention. It is Bush’s good fortune that the only person who could make him look of any continuing use, succeeded him.
by Patrick Horan