In the Irish Times ‘Head to Head’ segment yesterday, Is George W Bush the worst president in US history?, Fintan O’Toole describes why the labelling Bush as the worst president ever has its problems:
The problem is that, in this respect, WPE [worst president ever] misrepresents both the nature of US power and the scale of Obama’s task if he is to bring about real change. Bush was not just a village idiot who captured the most powerful office in the world by some weird fluke. A two-term president, he got elected and re-elected because he spoke to values and attitudes that have deep roots in US culture. He tapped in to a strain of US nationalism that is deeply wedded to violence, power and an urge to dominate at all costs.
US history is shaped in part by idealism, by notions of public virtue and civic engagement, and by magnificent resistance to injustice. It is also shaped by slavery, genocide and a relentlessly expansionist will to power. Bush and his neoconservative ideologues didn’t invent the barbarism long intertwined with US civilisation. There is far more continuity between his and previous presidencies than WPE syndrome imagines.
Even the indisputably great George Washington was known to the Iroquois, as the Seneca chief Cornplanter told him in 1790, as “Town Destroyer”, and, he added, “our children cling to the necks of their mothers” when they heard the name. The equally great Thomas Jefferson created a “civilisation programme” for the Indians which amounted to a choice between adopting European ways or, in effect, being exterminated. The towering Abraham Lincoln, probably the greatest of US presidents, ordered the largest mass execution in US history – of Dakota Indian prisoners – and presided over a concentration camp for the Navajos at Bosque Redondo that made Guantánamo look like Butlins. None of this is to suggest that figures like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln deserve the same historical obloquy as Bush. But it is important to recognise that every president of the 18th and 19th centuries oversaw the operation of slavery or the Indian genocide or both. Beside these crimes against humanity, even the folly and viciousness of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and sanctioning of torture become less egregious.
Even within the last 40 years, the violations of international law, the US constitution and common decency overseen by other presidents rival, and in some cases outstrip, Bush’s misdeeds. Is the Iraq invasion really worse than the Vietnam War, for which presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon bear responsibility, and in which perhaps a million civilians died? Is it worse than the repression and terror in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina, supported, directly and indirectly, by Nixon and Reagan? Is the mendacity that accompanied the Iraq war – which was supported by Congress – a worse abuse of the constitution than Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia, without congressional knowledge, in 1970? Is it worse than Reagan’s explicit defiance of Congress in carrying out a secret, parallel foreign policy in the Iran-Contra scandals? Hardly.
Read it all here.