At least the timing is exquisite. Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, are coming to Philadelphia on Sunday night to receive the National Constitution Center's much-ballyhooed Liberty Medal, which is supposed to be earmarked for leaders "who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe."
This Veterans Day also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — the massive and utterly pointless global conflagration that killed tens of millions and alienated an entire generation for reasons that historians are still struggling to explain a century later. The immoral similarities between "The War to End All Wars" and George W. Bush's 2003 lie-and-propaganda-laden push to bring the "blessings of liberty" to Iraq at the tip of a Tomahawk missile are almost beyond parody.
In announcing in July that the Bushes would be receiving the same Liberty Medal that's been draped around actual freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Rep. John Lewis, the Constitution Center cited the couple's work with returning soldiers through George W. Bush's Military Service Initiative, which helps them cope with "the invisible wounds" of a disastrous war of choice that was launched by the 43rd president; his No. 2, Dick Cheney; and their posse.
Helping our veterans is a very good thing, and, yeah, it's a better way for the ex-president to spend his retirement years than devoting every waking moment to lucrative speeches on the hedge-fund-billionaire rubber-chicken circuit. But let's be honest: W.'s post-presidential good deeds are a kind of a mandatory community-service sentence after an administration that was essentially a criminal enterprise that caused America's standing in the world to plummet (not for the last time, unfortunately).
It's a pretty safe bet that no one on the Constitution Center's panel that selected the Bushes for the now-tarnished Liberty Medal consulted with the Iraq-born novelist Sinan Antoon, who wrote in the New York Times in March that "Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country" and noted that estimates of as many as one million dead mean the war "is often spoken of in the United States as a 'blunder,' or even a 'colossal mistake,' " but, he writes, "It was a crime."
Nor did the panel likely investigate the "blessings" that America under Bush's leadership bestowed upon Lakhdar Boumediene, a Bosnian national scooped up in 2001 by U.S. intelligence on baseless allegations and flown to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, where during nine years of imprisonment he said he was kept awake for days at a time, forced into uncomfortably painful positions, and brutally force-fed during a hunger strike. "These are things I do not want to write about," he wrote. "I want only to forget."
Apparently America only wants to forget the Bush years as well. (The Iraqi Antoon complained of our "mostly amnesiac citizenry" after watching Bush do a happy dance with liberal TV host Ellen DeGeneres.) The very different kind of awfulness of Donald Trump's presidency and the arrival of a new generation of voters make it important now to do something that wouldn't have been necessary just a decade ago — to remind everybody how the George W. Bush presidency wasn't just flawed but a moral low point in American history.
Leading a nation whose citizens felt a mix of unbridled patriotism and raw fear after 9/11, Bush, Cheney, and their crowd abused those sentiments to gin up fervor for a war against a country that had zero connection to the 2001 attacks. Not unlike World War I, Americans have never been given an understandable rationale for a war that had something to do with Machiavellian machinations in a region rich with oil — an abstract exercise of American power that killed more then 4,000 very real Americans on top of those hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them innocent women and children.
We do know this: To make their splendid little war happen, Bush and his minions lied again and again — about "ticking time bombs" that had been unplugged years earlier, about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, and about ties between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda that never were. The Iraq war has destabilized the Middle East to this day and paved the way for the rise of a new anti-American group called ISIS that remains a murderous scourge. And it made the world safe for oil, right at the moment when the planet's survival depends on moving away from fossil fuels.
The Iraq war alone should be disqualifying, but there's so much more to this sordid story. Team Bush also manipulated the post-9/11 mood to bring back waterboarding and other forms of torture that are clearly illegal, thanks to a 1988 treaty enacted and praised by conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Detainees who were mostly innocent — rounded up by bounty hunters seeking easy cash — were both abused and held for years without charges at the Guantanamo prison camp, in a stunning betrayal of American values, while others were whisked to CIA black sites around the world or tortured at notorious prisons like Afghanistan's Bagram or Iraq's Abu Ghraib.
The Bush administration also shredded the Fourth Amendment with its large-scale illegal wiretapping and surveillance of everyday Americans — which makes Sunday's celebration of all things Bush by a center that honors the U.S. Constitution all the more bizarre. Of course, some of Bush's unpopularity when he left the White House in January 2009 was the result of things — the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 economic collapse — that merely made W. a very bad president. But what happened in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib made him a very bad person.
The sad truth is that George W., Laura, their kids, and the next 20 generations of Bushes can (and should) help veterans find jobs or cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it won't bring back the dead from Mosul or the hollers of West Virginia, nor can it expunge the crimes that were committed during those years. Writing Bush's name alongside the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, and Thurgood Marshall on the roll of Liberty Medal winners is an embarrassment to Philadelphia. And the National Constitution Center — which told me that its head, Jeffrey Rosen, was too busy traveling for an interview and steered me to its materials touting the Bushes' award — should be ashamed.
But the Constitution Center's action is merely the exclamation point on this much broader amnesia, a dangerous blind spot in the American soul. What are we to make at the explosion of nostalgia for the once deeply unpopular 43rd president at a time when a majority of Americans are so disgusted by the antics of the 45th president? Donald Trump's narcissistic embrace of racism, crudeness, and blatant lying is too easy to brand as un-American and "not who we are." But George W. Bush's militarism, empire-building, and hypocrisy in pursuit of those goals was maybe a little too American — an inevitable tragedy in a country that is not very exceptional, with dark places we'd rather not confront in the mirror.
The reason you see Democrats like former vice president and 2020 White House aspirant Joe Biden — who'll be handing the Bushes their medals on Sunday — aiding in the restoration of W.'s reputation is because too many of us so desperately cling to notions that American Exceptionalism makes it impossible to have a criminally bad president — and that a few acts of elite humanitarianism can bring redemption for a "colossal mistake" that was actually a war crime.
Until Donald Trump took a sledgehammer to our state of denial.