The outgoing president's cosmic and often hypocritical parting words last night.
Wow, it was awful. George W. Bush's valedictory speech was like a greatest hits of the dumb, dishonest, insulting lines he’s been peddling for the better part of a decade. Even the structure of the speech was familiar. It started, as always, with 9/11, whose memory he has cheapened by endlessly employing it as political cover. “As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11,” Bush declared. “But I never did.” Let’s think about that statement for a moment. First of all, if Americans returned to normal life after 9/11—which Bush implicitly chastises them for doing—it was in large measure because he told them to. When the country was hungry for a call to national service, Bush told it to go shopping. He told Americans to stay uninvolved, and now he wants us to feel inferior because we were.
Bush told Americans to stay uninvolved, and now he wants us to feel inferior because we were.
Bush, on the other hand, wants credit for the fact that 9/11 never left his consciousness. But the issue isn’t how much he dwelled on the attacks, it’s what all that dwelling produced. Here Bush offers a litany. “Over the past seven years, a new Department of Homeland Security has been created.” (Yes, but it’s widely considered a disaster, in part because after initially opposing it, you created it in on the fly, and without serious planning, so you could wield it as a club in the midterm elections of 2002). “The military, the intelligence community, and the FBI have been transformed.” (Transformed is one way to put it: the Army, as numerous former generals have testified, is close to the breaking point. The politicization of intelligence in the run-up to Iraq has dealt an epic blow to the CIA.) “We have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them…Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship” (Come on. The subtle conflation of Iraq and 9/11 yet again, after all these years? The 9/11 Commission said Iraq had no operational relationship with Al Qaeda. Saddam did pay suicide bombers, but against Israel, not the United States. I can barely bring myself to type the words it’s so tedious by this point.)
“There can be legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack.” (Oy. First of all, America went more than seven years without a jihadist terrorist on American soil during Clinton’s presidency. Does that mean Bush thinks there can be little debate about the success of his foreign policy? Second, there are all kinds of reasons we haven’t been hit again, foremost among them is that before 9/11, terrorism was government priority No. 46. Now it’s number one, and we’re spending trillions to keep bad guys out of the country. Any administration would have done that. What any administration wouldn’t have done was invade Iraq and trash the rule of law.)
Then, in closing, Bush goes cosmic. “Good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.” Yes, good and evil are present. But both reside—and struggle—in the hearts of all human beings, which means that they reside in all nations and all governments as well. Talking about good and evil is fine, but conflating the American government with good is sacrilegious. It’s also incredibly dangerous, because it creates the illusion that—even if stripped of the restraints of international and domestic law—our government will remain forever benign. That wasn’t the vision of the founding fathers, who created checks on governmental power precisely because they knew that America’s leaders would not be angels. And their wisdom has been reaffirmed anew in this hideous almost-finished presidency, where our president blesses torture, and tells us to never forget how good we are at the same time.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.