Oh, how the audience laughed. George W. Bush, America’s former worst president until the age of reality TV politics, was giving a speech last week in Texas when he reached the topic of the war in Ukraine.
“Russian elections are rigged,” he told the audience. “Political opponents are imprisoned or otherwise eliminated from participating in the electoral process. The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.”
The error hung in the air for a surprisingly long moment, before Bush corrected himself. “I mean, of Ukraine.”
But the worst part came next, when he shrugged his shoulders, appeared to nod to himself and said, “Iraq too” in an off-hand manner. The audience – surprisingly forgiving at this long-awaited admission by the man who ordered the worst American political decision of the 21st century – laughed.
Inevitably, late-night TV hosts and social media gotcha hunters repeated the clip endlessly, perhaps enjoying reminiscing about a time when a president’s notorious propensity for gaffes merely evoked derision and not, as with Donald Trump’s barbs against Kim Jong-un, might have provoked nuclear war.
It goes without saying, however, that there is nothing remotely funny about Bush’s admission, and the audience ought to be ashamed for laughing. The Iraq war was devastating, to the country and far beyond it. Hundreds of thousands dead; a civilization in ruins, its wealth looted and its people traumatized. It was, by any measure, a historic crime. Indeed, worse than the audience’s laughter was the shared understanding that neither Bush nor anyone who served in his cabinet, would ever face consequences.
No doubt the audience would not have laughed at a similar speech by Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, nor Saddam Hussein over his invasion of Kuwait.
But such excusatory laughter is an indication of the rehabilitation of a president who was, until just a few years ago, politically toxic, and the absolute lack of a reckoning in American society for the Iraq war.
This is despite the fact the two wars Bush launched are still raging. The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan was only last year – something hard to recall in the midst of the Ukraine war.
There are still American soldiers in Iraq and they are still occasionally killed. That means this is now the third decade that American men and women are dying in Iraq, because of the war launched by Bush.
If American society has by and large forgotten the wars in Iraq and, apart from a recent spike in interest last summer during the withdrawal, Afghanistan, it is a certainty that the American families of the thousands dead and tens of thousands injured in those wars have not.
I doubt any of those families who saw the clip of Bush found it amusing, nor were inclined to interpret it charitably as the charming dotage of an old man. That was certainly how Bush himself saw it, shrugging immediately afterwards that he was 75 years old, after all.
It is almost too glib to say that millions of Afghans, Iraqis and Arabs who directly felt the brunt of those catastrophes found it amusing.
Part of the reason for the determined forgetting of America’s most disastrous war is because the political generation that waged the war is fading away.
Donald Rumsfeld, the hawkish secretary of defense most associated with Bush’s rush to war, died last year.
Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state and the man who gave a pivotal speech to the United Nations in the run-up to the invasion – a speech he later regretted and admitted had “blotted my record” – also passed away at the end of 2021.
Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice-president, is in his 80s and rarely seen in public now.
While some of Bush’s cabinet faced some public opprobrium, there was no political or legal reckoning, nothing in the United States on the scale of the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry – a seven year investigation that interrogated witnesses over the decision to go to war, including the former prime minister Tony Blair. At least Blair faced an inquiry, although in front of a civil servant and not, as his critics would have preferred, a judge.
Indeed, far from any sort of political reckoning, many of the architects of the war – and its supporters in politics and the media – have been rehabilitated and have gone on to have stellar careers.
No one person better encapsulates this than the relentlessly bellicose John Bolton, a man who, as Elizabeth Warren once quipped, never met a war he didn’t like. That wasn’t really a quip, more an analysis of Bolton’s track record in government, first with Bush, pushing the 2003 Iraq invasion, and then again popping up as Donald Trump’s national security advisor, intent on dragging the US to war in Iran and North Korea. Bolton’s subsequent opposition to Trump appears to have removed the stench of the invasion.
Bush himself also traveled this same route, from political outcast to venerable, if occasionally embarrassing, elder statesman. And the reason is the same: Donald Trump.
So politically toxic was Trump, so aggressive, so unsophisticated, so lacking in the most basic understanding of feigning civility in political life, that both conservatives and liberals in the US have been willing to forgive the sins of the Bush era, simply to imagine there was a politically normal past before Trump. That decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion can be reduced to a punchline in the hope that the laughter can obscure the shame of what came next.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.