Friday, June 4, 2010

Bush Outrage

I’ve always found the peculiar outrage that George Bush excites among liberals a little perplexing. Why does a guy who, after all, was a pretty conventional center-right politician in his day still provoke so much self-righteous animosity from liberals who now have to contend with much more ideologically extreme conservatives like Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin? Isn’t that, at best, a waste of liberal energy and, at worst, a symptom of a psychologically debilitating preoccupation with the past?

I understand that liberals are convinced (correctly, if you ask me) that Bush was the beneficiary of their outrageous misfortune that butterfly ballots and hanging chads kept Al Gore from being elected president in 2000, and showed outrageously bad judgment by rushing to war in Iraq and by employing some grisly methods in the War on Terror. So let’s stipulate that: (1) Bush was a lousy president and his being back in Crawford minding his own business rather than the People’s is all to the good; and (2), that, because waterboarding is legally and morally impermissible under all circumstances, Bush should be ashamed of himself for having used it as technique in the War on Terror.

But, in an age of 24-hour news cycles, all of that is ancient history. This post by Dan Froomkin shows that, even as he strives to maintain a discreetly low profile, Bush still provokes new liberal outrage without obviously having done anything new that’s outrageous (my emphasis):
“George W. Bush's casual acknowledgment Wednesday that he had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed waterboarded -- and would do it again -- has horrified some former military and intelligence officials who argue that the former president doesn't seem to understand the gravity of what he is admitting.”
It’s not that liberals are just discovering that they think waterboarding is torture or that Bush doesn’t agree with them. So what can be incrementally “horrif[ying]” about his expressing opinions that he’s expressed and defended more vigorously before? The answer can only be that Bush’s having the audacity to defend himself is a new and different outrage, over and above the outrageousness of his having waterboarded KSM in the first place. And his defending himself “causal[ly]” makes it all the more outrageous.

Andrew Sullivan’s reaction underscores the point (my emphasis):
“A former president of the United States openly champions the use of torture. So much for my sad attempt to get him to atone. To place the full weight of the presidency behind war crimes is sign of where this country is - as is the Congress's refusal to shut the detention and torture camp at Gitmo. This remains a live issue. A future Republican president will almost certainly now embrace torture as integral to American values and law.
Note the last sentence. Sullivan knows that Bush and Cheney are winning the political battle over enhanced interrogation. So any new outrage provoked by Bush’s defense of his prior decisions can only arise from his failure to acknowledge the liberal community’s intellectual and political authority to decide for everyone else what counts as fighting the War on Terror illegally or immorally. If Bush disagrees with liberal orthodoxy in this connection, he apparently has a civic obligation, if not to seek atonement, at least to keep his mouth shut.

Would someone explain to me how any reasonable citizen of a representative democracy could imagine that he commands such authority?

1 comment:

Kyle Thompson said...

Alright, I'm gonna comment here, for the first time evah!

"But, in an age of 24-hour news cycles, all of that is ancient history."

This is a cop out, I think. Conservatives are still upset about actual ancient history (see: Rand Paul and the CRA) - it seems bizarre to wonder why liberals are still seething at GWB. Obviously, whether that is a constructive fixation is a separate issue (I would argue that it is, sometimes), but GWB's presidency is not far removed from the present day and there are constant reminders of his legacy: 2 wars, the recession, arguments over torture, etc. I don't think you can really be surprised that partisans are still upset - that's what happens when you're emotionally invested in political outcomes! I suppose that GWB defending himself might be considered a "new" outrage, but I feel like most of the fuel for the fire is coming from the events of 2000-2009.

The second half of your post raises what I think is a separate point, namely that anti-torture proponents like Sullivan are losing the argument in the public arena. Though I am opposed to torture for similar reasons as Sullivan, I think you are probably right about this. There does seem to be a tendency to retreat to arguments based around principles and values for the anti-torture crowd, for obvious reasons. The problem is that the pro-torture arguments are playing on an entirely different field, and rely on appeals to modern day consequences and crises rather than abstractions. I think anti-torture people are going to have to make a stronger push on the consequentialist turf if the tide of public opinion is going to turn in our favor (ie. arguments that torture doesn't work rather than arguments that torture is fundamentally un-american).