By Trevor Busch
With the death of former president George H.W. Bush in late November, there was a great outpouring of grief and respect amongst Americans for a leader who seemed to represent a different era in U.S. politics.
Although Bush senior would only serve one term as president before being toppled by Bill “Slick Willy” Clinton, he would be the last in a line of presidents from a generation that either served or lived through WWII, anointed as “the Greatest Generation” by many media pundits and authors in the late 1980s and 1990s. Bush himself was a war hero, flying 58 combat missions for the U.S. Navy by 1944.
But while laudatory epitaphs for public figures should be expected upon their deaths, to suggest that Bush somehow represented a gentler, kinder face of American politics when compared with the present Trump administration is ignoring many of the facts. Bush would occupy Panama in 1989 in an invasion largely condemned as illegal by much of the international community, and some of the intelligence used to justify the first Gulf War in 1991 — much as it would be later under son and president George W. Bush in 2003 — was later proven to be false.
And in one of the darker episodes to emerge from the late presidency of Ronald Reagan in 1986 (in which Bush served as vice president) the Iran-Contra affair shook that administration to its foundations with allegations of using proceeds of arms sales to Iran to fund anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, a direct violation of law. Bush, who had also previously served as director of the CIA, would later claim to have been “out of the loop” and unaware of the diversion of funds. However, in his diaries from the time — diaries he never thought he would be forced to divulge publicly — he ominously wrote, “I am one of the few people that know fully the details.” The independent counsel’s final report on the Iran-Contra affair — which was hampered by six pardons issued by Bush — would later conclude, “The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete.”
While it might seem insensitive to cast a discriminating lens on the recently deceased, it is important to remember that what presidents achieve during their administrations might be worthy of praise, but that praise should always be tempered by the facts. And criticism of any kind appeared to be almost entirely lacking in the many Bush eulogies that reached the eyes and ears of Americans in early December.
It just goes to show that those occupying the Oval Office aren’t always as lily white as many Americans would like to believe they are. No other president exemplified that unfortunate truth better than Richard Nixon, whose abuse of the office — most famously through the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation — has now become almost legendary. Nixon was one of the first in a long line that began to view the office of the president as beyond the reach of such unimportant principles as rule of law, preservation of the constitution, or accountability.
As part of the famous David Frost series of interviews with Nixon broadcast in 1977, the disgraced former president actually put this concept into words in a quote that shows just how far down the rabbit hole America has tumbled. When Frost asked about the legality of his actions in the context of national security, a straight-faced Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” That’s a remarkable viewpoint for a man who once held an office that is sworn to safeguard the protections provided by the U.S. constitution.
Throughout the 20th century and into the next as America’s power has grown, we have seen a series of presidents and administrations which appear to no longer cleave to any restrictions on the powers vested in the office. George W. Bush would later be maligned over the false intelligence his administration utilized to justify their 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he would leave office in 2008 with lower approval ratings than almost any other U.S. president in history. Despite a lack of much concrete evidence, there are many Americans and others throughout the world who still believe the 9/11 attacks may have been a false flag operation perpetrated by Bush’s own administration as a kind of “Pearl Harbor” to kickstart a global “War on Terror.”
Bush’s false intelligence was viewed by many contemporaries at the time as an unprecedented abuse of power and the office, but it was only unprecedented to those Americans who have forgotten their history.
Although it is regarded mostly as a footnote, the origins of the 1898 Spanish-American War were rooted in an incident that is firmly considered by most as an accident today, but was played up by a yellow press as a flagrant attack to incite the American public into paroxysms of war fervour: the sinking of the USS Maine. At the time, the U.S. Navy concluded what sank the Maine in Havana was an external explosion — think Spanish mine, as the U.S. press and public certainly did — and the ensuing war is now history. But in 1974, the Navy took a second look at the investigation and concluded there had been an internal explosion, not an external one — probably a boiler failure on a hot Cuban night. So there’s round one in the false origins game of American foreign policy.
Round two would come in August 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was employed by the Johnson administration as a justification for the rapid escalation of the Vietnam War. While there is little doubt there was a limited exchange of fire between North Vietnamese vessels and elements of the U.S. Navy on Aug. 2, it’s now known that U.S. vessels fired on the Vietnamese first — despite what the Johnson administration told the American public — and that the follow-up “attack” that supposedly occurred on Aug. 4 was almost pure fiction. The drums of war in America would beat for another full decade on the heels of this false allegation.
Round three, as already mentioned, came with the first Gulf War in 1991. Remember the teary-eyed 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl — Nayirah — who testified before Congress in 1990 about the atrocities committed in Kuwait by Iraqi troops? Bush would quote the testimony extensively in the lead-up to the invasion, especially the parts about “babies torn from incubators.”
In 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah was actually the daughter of Saud Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. It would also come to light that her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. Most of her allegations about Iraqi atrocities have now either been refuted or dismissed as gross exaggerations.
And this is to say nothing of doctored intelligence photos shown to the Saudi king that appeared to suggest Iraqi troops massing on the Saudi border for an invasion, which eventually convinced the Saudis to allow U.S. combat troops into the country.
And these are only three relatively well-known examples from recent U.S. history. A close examination of American actions over the last century will reveal many examples where the U.S. used a flimsy pretext to justify its actions, such as covert military involvement throughout Latin America or the invasion of Grenada in the early 1980s.
All of this ties into an ideology of American exceptionalism, that America is governed by a different set of rules than the rest of us, that they can violate international law or invade and occupy other nations as long as they promise the world it’s in the name of democracy and freedom. The tough-talking Madeleine Albright, who served as Secretary of State from 1997-2001, synopsized the idea of American exceptionalism during an interview with NBC’s Today Show in 1998.
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future…”
Today’s America is hardly different in this sense; Donald Trump’s “America First” sloganology seeks to preserve America’s exceptionalism now and into the future. Only today, the administrations that have come before have so dramatically lowered what is acceptable in American politics that the nation would seem to have been only waiting for a populist demagogue like Trump to come along. While we’re used to the hard-line language of American presidents on the international stage, with Trump it’s a different ball game.
In the past, you would have never heard a president articulate that arms deals with Saudi Arabia are more important that human lives, for instance. For Trump, however, they clearly are.
There have been many comparisons made between the Roman Empire and the America of the 21st century. In the sense that America seems to be willing to do just about anything to preserve its pre-eminence on the world stage, to preserve its hold over what everyone from the outside looking in would call an empire — the imperial comparison is apt.
The problem with the idea of exceptionalism is that it cannot conceive of anything other than dominance. Those Romans who lived to see the fall of their own society in the 5th and 6th centuries felt it was the end of the world, that armageddon was upon them, that nothing could preserve or replace that which had come before. We know now that such beliefs were mere arrogance.
In the end, it was Rome’s decadence that contributed to its fall. In its infancy, it was young, vital, militaristic, strong. By the end Rome’s armies were made up of mercenaries, unable to hold back the barbarian surge. Power tends to breed arrogance, and arrogance breeds decadence.
And eventually — as the Romans discovered — decadence becomes weakness. America may be unable to avoid such a fate if it continues to view itself as above the law of others in the name of preserving its imperial ambitions.