The Guardian just ran an editorial on former US President George W Bush which seemed so absurd that it must have been satire. The problem is, it wasn’t.
Published on 27 February, the editorial called the re-emergence of Bush as a voice in US politics “a welcome return”. While his presidency marked the beginning of the end for US politics in the eyes of many, The Guardian is allowing him a platform for rehabilitation:
— Media Lens (@medialens) February 28, 2017
The rehabilitation of Tony Blair and George W Bush
The words of today’s Bush certainly do sound moderate and sensible next to those of President Donald Trump. And thank goodness someone on the US right is speaking up for basic principles such as freedom of the press. But this says far more about the dire state of US (and UK) politics than it does about Bush himself.
The parallel crises of Trump in America and Tory Brexit in Britain have triggered an attempt by the media to rehabilitate Bush and Tony Blair. There have been a rash of editorials and media appearances by and about both, which seem to waft a sense of nostalgia. The subtext: see, we weren’t all that bad were we? Better the devil you know.
Few of these stories have laid out how the pair created a road map which led us directly to this point.
Bush kicked off the ‘War on Terror’ with his ‘Axis of Evil’ speech. That 2002 State of the Union address laid the groundwork for the next 15 years of US foreign policy, from the invasion of Iraq to extraordinary rendition, torture, and the drone programmes. It formalised the US as a nation beyond the reach of international law, including conventions on human rights. And Blair made Britain a partner in these crimes.
The Bush/Blair era got us into this mess
The era of Bush and Blair facilitated the Trump/Brexit era in three key ways.
First, the work of Bush, Blair, and a largely compliant media (news media and Hollywood) nurtured the Islamophobia that enabled Trump. The language used to justify the War on Terror relied heavily on the creation of a holy war between Christianity and Islam. And both leaders invoked God to justify themselves. You might argue that the likes of al-Qaeda and Daesh (Isis/Isil) do the same, and you’d be right. But that is proof of the absurdity of the approach. We should expect much better from leaders of supposedly democratic nations than from chauvinist despots. Yet in terms of foreign policy, that distinction has become pure fantasy.
Second, the promotion of the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mentality. In order to push through the legislation that permitted growing invasions of privacy and the repeal of civil liberties and human rights (see the Patriot Act and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Policing Act 2001), both leaders eroded public faith in these rights. Much is made (and rightly so) of Trump’s contempt for convention and the free press. But the following interaction between Bush and CNN‘s Matt Lauer is a timely reminder that this is nothing new. Asked about authorising the use of torture, Bush smiles contemptuously and laughs the whole thing off:
Third, the era walked us right into the financial crisis and the austerity that followed. These parallel man-made crises decimated public services and regional economies on both sides of the Atlantic. They created a forgotten class so desperate, disillusioned and angry that it would burn down its own house to injure the establishment. The neoliberal establishment turned its back on millions, and the far right sought to take advantage.
No time for fake nostalgia
Fake nostalgia is as dangerous as fake news. As the saying goes: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
There is a reason this current crisis feels so familiar. We have lived it before.
We need to make sure the scapegoats survive it this time.
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