Was George W. Bush a Good Man?
The Iraq War was bad, but it wasn’t necessarily nefarious. Also: Shadi and Damir are at odds again over the very notion of “justice.”
In this subscribers-only Q&A, Shadi and Damir (and particularly Shadi) venture into some controversial territory on the legacy of the Iraq war. We really enjoyed this one. We hope you do too.
Idealism, Intent, and the Iraq War
Shadi, I know you were a big opponent against the Iraq war, but looking back in hindsight, did you believe that Bush was guided by faulty intelligence and actually did believe in democracy promotion—or do you believe that the motives were actually nefarious? —Lucille
Shadi: It's an interesting question: what would constitute a "nefarious" motive in this context? I suppose a desire to take control of Iraq's oil would be one example, but I don't think there's much evidence for that interpretation. Were some in the Bush administration driven by some inchoate instinct for vengeance after 9/11? Probably. That might be bad and dumb, but I'm not sure I'd call it nefarious. Bush himself was a true believer.
I don't know if it is controversial to say so, but I do believe Bush was a good man. He really did think that Arabs deserved better, and you could sense sometimes that he felt it an injustice that they were granted much less. Which goes to show, "good" men are capable of terrible policies. Meanwhile, Trump—perhaps the Platonic ideal of a corrupted heart—didn't do anything that quite compares to the Iraq war. In this narrow sense, if we put aside matters of intent, Trump's Middle East policy was "better" than Bush's.
But I digress. Bush was a neocon. And the neocons were the true believers. Cheney and Rumsfeld were not neocons—they didn't particularly care about democracy promotion; they were much more concerned with hard power—so I have in mind officials like Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. Knowing Abrams, who was deputy national security advisor, and having spoken to him recently about this period, I believe his motives during Bush's "Freedom Agenda" were genuinely about wanting the Middle East to be different than it had been, that it could, in fact, be democratic and remove itself from a sort of historic and geographical exceptionalism. I think he saw the Iraq War as, at least in part, serving that overall ambition. I've often joked, although there's a kernel of truth in it, that my ideal Middle East policy would look something like Bush's "Freedom Agenda" (but more aggressive and confrontational with allies like Saudi Arabia) minus the Iraq war. Of course, the tragedy of it is that you probably couldn't have one without the other.
Damir: Intriguing, Shadi. Can't wait to read the parts of the book on the Bush years.
For me, it's particularly damning that such awful policies came from the best of intentions. It has always suggested to me that the best of intentions, unmoored from broader considerations, often lead to tears. Obviously, this is an ongoing debate between us, and I admit that Bush's failed policies do not disqualify a more idealistic agenda, they just disqualify the Bush team's implementation of their boss's idealistic policies.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Wisdom of Crowds to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.