When George W. Bush confused Russia’s war in Ukraine with Iraq
The George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas is a 226,000 square foot building that houses the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and the George W. Bush Institute. This is not the kind of place where one goes to seek the unvarnished truth about George W. Bush. Like many institutions of its ilk, it serves up carefully curated hagiography, amidst majestic colonnades and a bubbling fountain. Visitors enter a 67-foot-tall atrium called Freedom Hall; the Defending Freedom Table is a large touch screen where museum visitors can view maps and photographs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s a statue of Bush and his father gazing deliberately into the distance, and a statue of Barney and Miss Beazley, George and Laura Bush’s Scottish terriers, striking a similar pose. In the library, scholars can sift through official White House documents to extract fuller, less flattering stories from the Bush years. But the image for the public is a whitewashed portrait. On the library’s website, an online exhibit on the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath hails Bush for demonstrating “the strength of American resolve.”
So it came as a surprise when a scathing indictment against the former president was released recently at a Bush Center event. Even more unexpected was the source of this outspokenness: Bush himself. During brief remarks at a forum on elections and democracy, held last month, Bush stumbled over his prepared text. He was talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent. “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia,” Bush said. “And one man’s decision to launch a totally unwarranted and brutal invasion of Iraq. I mean – from Ukraine. Iraq too. In any event.”
Images of the error spread quickly. On social media, the theme song “Curb Your Enthusiasm” became the soundtrack to Bush’s blunder. The late night entertainers weighed in. (“It’s a refreshingly lighthearted confession to war crimes,” said Stephen Colbert.) Many commentators have diagnosed a Freudian slip: the ex-president’s bad conscience had arisen, uninvited. Either way, Bush’s video was a novelty: rarely has a world leader released such an emphatic “confession” on an issue of such historic consequence.
It was also a genre piece. Gaffe videos are ubiquitous clickbait, and politicians’ bloopers are among the most popular feeds. Bush, famously, is a blunderer, the purveyor of scrambled hash syntax, crazy circumlocutions, counterpuns and other “Bushisms” that have haunted the Internet – or, as Bush would have it, the Internets – for ages. decades. Many Bushisms have entered the American tradition, taking their place alongside the gonzo poetry of Yogi Berra. It was Bush who popularized the term “badly underrated”, who posed the question “Are our children learning?” who reflected “I think we’re in agreement, the past is over.” In 2009, Bush announced that he would write a memoir to ensure that “there is an authoritative voice saying exactly what happened.”
For the sympathetic public of the Bush Center, the Iraq-Ukraine confusion appeared as Bushism par excellence, a harmless and endearing slippage. The former president laughed, shook his head and joked that he was having a senior moment. Sympathetic laughter ran through the crowd.
But not everyone was amused. It was a misstep that spoke some uncomfortable truths. It makes perfect sense to confuse Russia’s war in Ukraine with Iraq: the two events have much in common. Saddam Hussein was no Zelensky, but the invasion of Iraq was, indeed, brutal and unwarranted. It was a world-historic calamity that sowed chaos, spread torture and, according to many sources, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. The ideology behind Bush’s war may have been concocted in the unflappable bureaucratic world of the Washington think tank. But in spirit, it was no less reckless and grand than the imperial visions guiding Putin’s conquest of Ukraine.
Bush left office in 2009 as one of the least popular presidents in history. Today’s Bush is a more cuddly character who, we’re told, likes to hang out in his art studio, painting pictures of dogs and American flags. Bushisms played a part in this rehabilitation, helping to transform the former “wartime president” into a gentle old man who laughs at his own weaknesses. A Bush Center podcast takes its name from a “Saturday Night Live” skit ridiculing Bush’s malapropisms: “The Strategerist.” Last year, Bush appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to take a quiz, “Bushism or Not?” based on videos of his famous gaffes. The clips included the extraordinary moment from a press conference in Baghdad in 2008 when a furious Iraqi journalist threw a pair of shoes at the president. “I was so proud of you for dodging those shoes,” Kimmel said. “You have very good reflexes.
Several months later, a speech by Bush was interrupted by Mike Prysner, an activist and veteran of Iraq. “Mr. Bush, when are you going to apologize to the million Iraqis who died because you lied? Prysner shouted. ‘You lied about weapons of mass destruction! … My friends are dead! Prysner had planned to recite a few names of the dead, but he was shoved out of the auditorium. In America, we’re not that good at truth and reconciliation. We prefer Twitter dunks and yucks to late-night TV. evening.
In 2022, the United States is living a collective senior moment. Our democracy is aging and weakening. We started the century by imposing regime change abroad; now we are repelling a putsch in our Capitol. Bush’s Iraq-Ukraine flub is a marker of these tragic follies and the trajectory of decline and fall we seem to be following. It’s also a reminder of how many people would rather forget about the Iraq debacle altogether. In fact, the invasion was not based on the decision of “one man”. Much of Washington’s political class – Republicans and Democrats, neo-conservatives and liberal hawks – backed the invasion and the lies that justified it. These proponents of war shared a particular kind of American hubris and naivete, a willingness to ignore the realpolitik behind our interventions in the oil-rich Middle East while speaking fine words about spreading freedom and democracy. .
This message was impossible to escape in the months before the invasion. We denounce Putin’s use of disinformation to promote the assault on Ukraine. But Bush’s push for war was also accompanied by a push for propaganda, and many of the journalists and public intellectuals who peddled this party line still hold influential positions. It is surely unpleasant for them to be reminded of their errors of judgement. But the truth has a way of seeping in, sometimes in unlikely places, like the dais of presidential libraries. Call it a Freudian slip or a brain freeze or history having its revenge. Unlike Bushism, the past is not — never — over.
Source photographs: Associated Press screenshots
Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.”