THE WORST BUSH. Tom "Don't Call Me Thomas" Frank has a useful corrective to nostalgia for George H.W. Bush on the New Republic's website. But Frank gets carried away, arguing - believe it or not - that Bush the father was actually a worse president than the current occupant of the White House.
It's too bad Frank's piece is available only to subscribers (click here to read it if you're a paying customer), because Frank's thesis deserves better than hit-or-miss summary. Although let me take a simplistic swipe anyway: anyone who tries to argue that Bush I was worse than Bush II because the former pushed a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, as Frank does, really needs to take another look at Alberto Gonzales's torture memos. At the very least.
Frank also omits entirely one of Bush I's signal accomplishments: the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, evidence that Bush's Yankee Republican impulses were not entirely dead. I don't doubt that someone will e-mail me that Bush had little to do with the ADA. I don't care. He supported it and he signed it. Bush II has given the ADA lip service, but today's Republican Party would just as soon get rid of it. Indeed, in 2001 our only president nominated to a federal judgeship a man who'd said the ADA was "not needed."
But Frank reserves the bulk of his essay for Iraq, tying himself into knots in attempting to show that Bush I's largely successful intervention to liberate Kuwait was, in fact, a bigger disaster than Bush II's current war. Frank builds his case mainly around Bush I's outspoken support for Iraq's Kurds and Shiites to rebel against Saddam Hussein in 1991, which led to slaughter after Bush refused to back up his words with force. He writes:
[W]hat is worse: telling the world that you are sure about WMD when you are only pretty sure - or telling a group of people that you support their efforts to rebel and then standing by as they get killed? Killing thousands in an attempt bring democracy to a brutal dictatorship - or allowing many thousands more to be killed in the name of holding together a coalition and maintaining regional stability by preserving a brutal dictatorship? If we are ashamed of the actions Dubya has taken in our name, why are we not even more ashamed of the actions Poppy took in our name?
Oh, come now. Bush I engaged in amoral realpolitik, and for that he deserves some criticism. But was it a bad thing that the Kurds and the Shiites rebelled? Did anyone really think we were going to rush in and support them? There was every reason to think the rebellion might have succeeded; it failed, as Frank himself notes, because the Iraqi army turned its guns on the rebels rather than on Saddam. Tragic as it was, these things happen, and it's hardly a reason that Bush I shouldn't have encouraged a coup. Bush II, on the other hand, is merely responsible for the single worst foreign-policy debacle since Vietnam, maybe even including Vietnam. Bush I's cynicism enhanced our alliances with the world community. Bush II's idealism has destroyed those alliances.
Frank does concede that he's got a difficult case to make. At one point he writes of Bush II:
Perhaps torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib wasn't such a brilliant idea. Perhaps deceiving the public on the grounds for war and squandering the nation's credibility for at least a generation will be judged to have been impulsive. And perhaps we'd be better off not having gone into Iraq, even if it meant that Saddam held power still. America would probably be financially healthier and less hated abroad, 1,300 Americans would still be alive, and 10,000 more would have been spared devastating injuries.
Here is Frank's mistake. He starts out criticizing pundits like Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria for building up Bush I as a way of tearing down Bush II. In the end, though, Frank does just the opposite, building up Bush II as a way of making the case against Bush I. He does it sort of half-heartedly; he acknowledges that Bush II has some shortcomings, to put it mildly. But there you go.
It's really pretty simple. Both Bushes, father and son, were and are lousy presidents. But the son is worse - much worse. Is there really any doubt about that?