The Fight for Bush's Legacy
With one year to go in George W. Bush’s presidency, the national Democrats are on the verge of the same miscalculation that they made about his father after his defeat in Election 1992. Instead of doing the hard work to hold the Bushes accountable, the Democrats are “leaving it to the historians.”
In other words, the national Democrats seem ready to let the junior George Bush stroll off into the sunset with his legacy relatively intact, much as the senior George Bush was allowed to do.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats are turning a deaf ear to grassroots demands for at least impeachment hearings against George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney over their violations of criminal laws (e.g. the ban on torture and the need for court warrants authorizing wiretaps), their trampling on constitutional rights, and their deceptions that led the nation into the disastrous Iraq War.
Though Democrats control the House and the Senate, there doesn’t even appear to be a likelihood of comprehensive hearings on the lessons to be learned from Bush’s blunders in the “global war on terror.”
Democrats didn’t raise their voices after Bush’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 28 when he repeated one of his central falsehoods about Islamic extremists – that they are motivated by a hatred of American freedoms, rather than a resentment of U.S. government interference in the Muslim world.
“We are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century,” Bush said. “Yet in this war on terror, there is one thing we and our enemies agree on: In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny.
“And that is why the terrorists are fighting to deny this choice to the people in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories. And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom.”
While sounding noble – and earning the predictable round of applause – Bush’s diagnosis remains dangerously flawed. The truth is that Islamic fundamentalists often have engaged in the democratic process, only to have autocratic leaders or Western forces void electoral outcomes.
Algeria may stand out as the clearest historical example, but even more recently the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Territories and the success of pro-Taliban parties in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas highlight the growing popularity of these elements, especially amid intense anti-Americanism spreading across the Islamic world.
During Bush’s recent eight-day tour of the Middle East, he found his warmest reception not with the Arabs on the street but with the sheiks in their palaces.
But Democratic leaders have adopted a strategy of tamping down rank-and-file outrage over Bush, while essentially waiting out his presidency. The only accountability, in this view, will be his low approval ratings and the expectation that historians will look unfavorably on his presidency.
[It was in anticipation of this look-the-other-way approach that we wrote Neck Deep as our way to help avert a total whitewash of these difficult years – and to explain some of the vital lessons to be learned.]
In their haste to avoid confrontations with this President Bush, the Democrats are reprising their response to the wrongdoing of the last President Bush.
Indeed, protecting George H.W. Bush’s legacy grew into almost an obsession for President Bill Clinton, who not only went along with sweeping under the rug several national security scandals – Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate, October Surprise – in 1993, but whose subordinates aggressively joined in covering up Bush’s wrongdoing in subsequent years.
For instance, in early 1995, one of Ronald Reagan’s national security assistants, Howard Teicher, came forward with a sworn affidavit detailing how Reagan and the senior George Bush had secretly armed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980s. The reaction of Clinton’s Justice Department was to bully Teicher into silence. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In 1998, when the CIA’s inspector general issued two damning reports about how the Reagan-Bush administration concealed proof of Nicaraguan contra drug trafficking – including evidence which led directly into the White House – the Clinton administration stayed mum on the remarkable disclosures. [See Parry’s Lost History.]
Even in 1999, when Clinton released some historical records relating to the horrible Guatemalan political violence – and even genocide against Mayan Indians – during the Reagan years, the Democratic President issued an apology to the Guatemalan people but failed to direct any criticism at either Reagan or the senior George Bush.
The refrain that I heard from senior Clinton officials in the 1990s was that these historical questions weren’t on “our radar scopes” or that the administration was “looking to the future, not the past,” or that the President needed to “work with these guys.”
Clinton’s strategy ended up letting Republicans write a false historical narrative for the Reagan-Bush years and opened the White House back door for a restoration of the Bush Dynasty. But Clinton did cement a friendship with George H.W. Bush, which Clinton hopes will extend into his wife’s presidency.
On Dec. 17, 2007, Bill Clinton announced that his wife’s first act in the White House would be to send him and George H.W. Bush on an around-the-world mission to explain that “America is open for business and cooperation again.”
This Clinton-Bush coziness is one of the reasons it’s so surprising to hear supporters of Hillary Clinton say that she’s the one who best can take the fight to the Republicans. Except in narrow partisan ways relating to elections or in self-defense, the Clintons have ducked going head-to-head with the Reagan-Bush crowd or its Republican successors.
These Democrats, who now imagine Hillary Clinton in an apocalyptic battle with hyper-partisan Republicans, seem to have misread Bill Clinton’s presidency. While he managed to survive those eight years, he was on the losing end of most political battles and saw Republicans achieve dominance of Congress for a dozen years.
Still, these pro-Hillary Democrats keep hoping that a rematch will end differently. As Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal told the New Yorker’s George Packer, the 2008 election offers a chance to finally defeat right-wing forces and secure progressive governance for years ahead.
“It’s not a question of transcending partisanship,” Blumenthal said. “It’s a question of fulfilling it. If we can win and govern well while handling multiple crises at the same time and the Congress, then we can move the country out of this Republican era and into a progressive Democratic era, for a long period of time.” [New Yorker, Jan. 28, 2008]
But are the Clintons – and some of their followers – like punch-drunk fighters staggering back into the ring with no better chance to prevail now than the last time when they took a pounding from the Republicans?
Despite the drag from George W. Bush’s dead-weight presidency, the Republicans still have the far superior media/political machine. Since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, the Right has poured tens of billions of dollars into building up this infrastructure while the Left has done relatively little.
So, while the Right delivers a national political message through its media apparatus day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out, the Left treats politics mostly as a biennial or quadrennial process tied to the election cycles.
When seeking to influence a policy debate between those cycles, the Right can coordinate talking points through a vertically integrated media – from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet. The Left mostly buys ads, like MoveOn.org did with its counterproductive “General Betray-Us” ad.
The Clintons’ personal political tenacity aside, there appears to be scant reason to believe that Hillary Clinton can overcome the Left’s structural deficit to win the presidency. And even if she can win, there’s even less reason to think she can maintain any momentum toward establishing a long-term “progressive Democratic era.”
That’s one appeal of Barack Obama, that he may be able to transcend the partisan battles – which the Democrats are not equipped to win – and achieve a solid victory that would put broad Democratic majorities in Congress. Those numbers – not the eagerness to fight partisan battles – could create at least a moderately progressive outcome.
Though there’s little reason to believe that Barack Obama would be any more aggressive than Hillary Clinton about opening the archives of past presidential abuses, arguably he might have less of an incentive to withhold the evidence.
Presumably, a President Obama would not be counting on the tandem of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to represent the new administration on a world tour.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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