George W. Bush, undoubtedly the most inarticulate of all American presidents, can occasionally in his very awkwardness with words stumble into saying something important and true. On Wednesday night, while delivering a speech at his presidential center at Southern Methodist University, Bush inadvertently reminded the world of his most infamous legacy. Making a critique of the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Bush said, “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.” He then paused, scrunched his beady eyes tight like a child working out a difficult math problem, and corrected himself, “I mean of Ukraine.”
Still looking confused Bush muttered, “Iraq, too—anyway.” This might be taken as a confession, but he then shifted to making an excuse. As the crowd started nervously laughing, Bush reverted to his verbal tic of throwing out initially enigmatic one-word sentences: “75.” Presumably he was referring to the fact that he’s now three-quarters of a century old, although in fact he still possesses the callow smirk and moral evasiveness of a much younger man.
What to make of Bush’s strange remarks? Were they just a blunder? A confession? Perhaps even a kind of twisted boast?
To be sure, the safest bet is that it was a simple solecism, not difficult to believe from a politician whose innumerable verbal misfires gave birth to a new genre: Bushisms. Nothing is surprising from the man who said, “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”
But, as Freud has taught us, a mistake can also be a portal of revelation. If Bush made a Freudian slip, it was surely more than just a slip: a veritable Freudian pratfall. Even without recourse to psychoanalytical spelunking into the depths of the unconscious, it is a matter of common sense that the truly embarrassing mistake is the one that is accidentally revealing. Pundit Michael Kinsley even codified this proposition into a clarifying adage: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
If one posits that Bush has some sort of inner life, then it’s possible that he carries around some guilt. But the personal drama of Bush’s uneasy conscience, if it exists, is less important than the political reality that ensures that the Iraq War remains an unhealed wound in American culture at large.
Two striking and contradictory facts are true: There is a wide consensus across the political spectrum that the Iraq War was a mistake—possibly a crime. Yet there is no realistic possibility of punishment for those who perpetrated this disaster. Donald Rumsfeld died a free man, as in time will Dick Cheney and Bush himself.
It was striking how an assortment of voices across the political spectrum used Bush’s Freudian slip as an occasion to acknowledge that the Iraq War was a travesty and possibly a crime.
Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted: “When your guilty consciousness catch up to you and you end up confessing but no one cares to hold you to account. The laughing is disturbing/telling of who this man & his audience are. No care for the thousands of U.S troops & hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died in his war.” Donald Trump Jr., who rarely agrees with Omar about anything, sounded a similar note: “I wish he would have been this honest and critical of himself 20 years, countless lives, and trillions of dollars ago.” Representative Justin Amash, a former Republican who now sits as a libertarian independent, was also derisive: “If you were George W. Bush, you think you’d just steer clear of giving any speech about one man launching a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion.”
But despite a consensus shared by people of diverse politics, Bush will continue to enjoy impunity. The crowd who listened to him, made up of supporters, felt safe in laughing off his verbal mishap because they knew that the American political system had already decided that there would be no consequences for his launching the feckless and illegal imperial adventure.
Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, sealed the matter by deciding, in the name of moving on, that there would be no legal consequences for any of the crimes, domestic and foreign, of the Bush era. This push for a no-cost national reconciliation only intensified with the rise of Donald Trump. Suddenly, the leaders of the Democratic Party recast Bush as an avatar of the respectable GOP, a sober statesman whose supposed decency stood in contrast to the demagogic reality-show star. The destroyer of Fallujah became the nice man who gave Michelle Obama a mint.
The refurbishing of Bush’s reputation was a travesty of history that helps obscure the current crisis. The dichotomy of the respectable Bush versus the unsavory Trump ignores the ways in which Trumpism was an outgrowth of Bushism. The ginned-up hysteria and threat inflation of the Global War on Terrorism, followed by an interminable military intervention, was the seedbed where the surly nationalism of Trumpism took root. Combine this with the anger over the 2008 economic collapse (for which Bush surely also bears a considerable share of blame) and the elite impunity that made sure no one was punished for either the foreign policy or the economic failure. That is the concoction that gives you the current polarized America and the rise of anti-system demagogues.
Bush’s conflation of Iraq and Ukraine points to another important connection between his horrendous record and contemporary disorders. After the end of the Cold War, the United States truly had an opportunity to create a more stable world order, one that rested on international law and cooperation. Instead, the American ruling class became intoxicated by a triumphalism that led to two decades of arrogant flouting of diplomacy and the international order, up to and including launching preemptive wars.
In invading Ukraine under a spurious pretext of fighting for human rights, Putin is simply copying the script written by the United States. Comparisons between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Ukraine are frowned on in the more respectable precincts of American politics. But they have an undeniable aptness. This has been certified in an accidental moment of truth-telling by no less an expert than George W. Bush.