In what might be called their legacy interviews (their exit interviews), President Bush has tried to soften his image and project a sense of competence, while Vice President Cheney has, if anything, gone out of his way to confirm that he was the administration’s Darth Vader, devoted to protecting and extending the Empire and proud of it. Perhaps because I had the opportunity to meet with Cheney early on and get some sense of him as a person, I am inclined to credit him as more reliable. Dubya, perhaps understandably, strikes me as less honest perhaps most dishonest with himself. He has acknowledged that introspection is not exactly his thing, and there is a great deal in his record a self-aware person would have to be ashamed of.
As Christopher Beam at Slate.com has outlined it, the "broad strokes of the Bush legacy refurbishment plan are clear. It rests on three planks: (1) Bush’s presidency never deviated from its core principle of promoting freedom. (2) Mistakes were made, but only in unwavering service to this principle. (3) Bush succeeded in making the United States safer."
The last is perhaps the most dubious. Beam points out that nobody knows al-Qaeda’s plans, and that it was eight years between the initial Twin Towers attack in 1993 and the attacks in 2001. I suspect that various measures did disrupt al-Qaeda in various ways. However, a more salient point is that the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the indubitably odious Saddam Hussein had the geopolitical impact of enhancing Iran’s power and sense of its role in the Middle East. As the U.S. demonstrated in Gulf War I, Iraq was a pip-squeak of a power that had no way of posing an imminent threat to the United States. It was hardly any threat at all even to its neighbors.
However, Iran really does have a nuclear program (whether it’s currently weapons-oriented is a matter of contention), it is larger and more powerful than Iraq was, and as a Shia-dominated regime it is inclined to foment instability in Sunni-dominated regimes in the Middle East. Removing Saddam eliminated an active thorn in Iran’s side and encouraged the theocratic regime to dominate a former enemy and to think more expansively about its influence in the Middle East and the world at large. Whether it really poses a greater threat to the United States than before is still questionable. The appalling people who rule us tend to justify their apparent desire for constant conflict and foreign entanglement by exaggerating the threat other nations pose. But Iran is definitely more powerful than it was before the United States kindly took out Saddam Hussein.
The notion that the Bush regime has been devoted to "promoting freedom" is also doubtful. Presumably the Bushlet is referring to freedom in other countries, because his policies have definitely reduced freedom in the United States. It is now more difficult to travel by air, government surveillance of innocent Americans has been expanded, precedents have been established for holding people indefinitely in prison without charging them with anything, and the national government has been expanded in both its foreign and domestic manifestations.
One outcome of all this expansion of government power has been an economic crisis of proportions that challenge those of the Great Depression and will undoubtedly lead to further encroachments on the fundamental freedom to produce, barter, and trade. Historians will debate for decades whether Bush’s domestic or foreign policies were more responsible for the economic downturn, but there can be little question that the wars have extracted money, people, and other resources from the country that could have been devoted to peaceful economic activity and the expansion of prosperity. The wars have been used to enhance the arbitrary power of the executive branch especially (see the changes in the bailout plan from what Congress originally thought it had approved), the branch that the founders most feared as a danger to liberty.
Whether this is worth lamenting or not is worth debating, but Bush has also succeeded in making what we might now laughably call the conservative movement into a pale shadow of its former self. You might say the modern conservative movement, at least as symbolized by the founding of National Review magazine, was rooted in the desire to hold Republican presidents accountable to conservative, limited-government principles. Thus National Review early on was at least as scornful of Dwight Eisenhower as any self-styled liberal, and it held Nixon mostly in contempt. It even questioned the later-sainted Ronald Reagan when he was in power.
However, whether out of a love for actual war (so long as it’s carried out by other people; we saw few National Review or Weekly Standard writers volunteering) or willful blindness, the Bush presidency, as shown by National Review‘s exit interview with the Bushlet, was mostly an orgy of presidency worship for conservatives. That conservatives chose to indulge not only in the defense but almost idolization of a president who was clearly the intellectual, ideological, and moral inferior of presidents earlier generations of conservatives had held to higher standards, that an outfit whose founding fathers sought to demonstrate intellectual superiority succumbed at last to an anti-intellectualism in defense of Sarah Palin that William F. Buckley (hardly perfect in my view, but certainly not stupid) would have found appalling, is one more sad byproduct of the Bush regime. Or maybe the National Review people, bamboozled by the always seductive illusion of proximity to power, did it to themselves.
Watching George W. desperately and plaintively trying to influence the judgment of history in the hope that people will like him after all, as is so often characteristic of the mediocre and inferior, almost gives one more respect for Cheney, who is anything but apologetic. Remember, he thought Watergate was tragic not so much because of the abuse of executive power it displayed but because it undermined the effective power of the presidency. Think of him what you will and I think he has been profoundly mistaken and profoundly dangerous to our liberties he has been consistent in seeking to enhance the power of the executive branch relative to Congress and the judiciary. Thus he still defends all the tools of oppression put in place during the Bush administration.
So he hopes the next administration will "retain the tools that have been so essential and [sic] defending the nation for the last seven-and-a-half years." He is unapologetic in defending the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture, which undermines whatever moral stature the United States may have. He doesn’t dodge responsibility for approving such tactics. He says Guantanamo should remain open indefinitely, at least until the "war on terror" is over. And when will that be?"Nobody knows. Nobody can specify that."
Perpetual war for perpetual peace. Where have we heard that before?
Cheney also makes it clear that the Saddam’s supposed possession of WMDs was always a side issue. The Bush administration, for whatever set of reasons and pretexts, was committed to invading Iraq almost from the outset, before 9/11, and was only looking for something that would reduce the public’s reluctance to undertake so dubious a mission. Cheney doesn’t acknowledge that the National Intelligence Estimate cobbled together just before the war included greatly enhanced estimates of the danger Saddam posed compared to earlier NIEs. But he implicitly acknowledges that it wouldn’t have made any difference whether the agencies "fixed the intelligence" around the obvious desire of the Bushies to start a war. They were going to invade whether there was any credible justification or not.
Cheney’s interview certainly suggests a more evil attitude than the pathetic attempts at self-justification the president is engaging in. But he has the distinction of being more honest.