George H. W. Bush has a died. As we saw with the recent passing of John McCain, liberals are turning out to sing his praises. Barack Obama credits Bush with “winning the Cold War without firing a shot” (the accomplishment of being at the right place at the right time). Even Bernie Sanders took to Twitter to add glowing praise to the burgeoning memorial for the rightwing politician who held so many establishment positions and worked so much evil (sorry be theological about it, but I can’t find another word that captures the gravity of his record with respect to human life and rights).
Rank-and-file liberals seem particularly keen in talking up the wonders of Bush’s truth-telling, reality-based governing style. Such platitudes seem quite obviously aimed at drawing a contrast between the establishment stability liberals pine for—relational and ideational structures that serve the interests of the transnational power elite—and the alleged paradigm shift of Donald Trump’s presidency, a much less preferred regime of untruth than, say, those of the Bush regimes. The New York City Real Estate Swagger is so crude in light of the Harvard-Yale Style. So they ape Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s characterization of Bush as “clear-eyed, principled leadership to a nation and world in transition.” That’s how to talk about a good dog.
The celebration of Bush’s life misses so much. Indeed, it misses almost everything. As with the rehabilitation of his son, George W. Bush, which has been a curious project on the left, the death tolls and selling out of the American worker are apparently not worth fretting over in light of the crude businessman’s penchant for obvious lies and exaggerations. But the project really isn’t that puzzling. A great deal of energy has been expended of late to popularly reinforce bipartisan commitment to the aims of globalism and the undermining of working class power. Bipartisan appreciation for the dogs of the power elite is about modeling a civility that tamps down critical questions about elite power. In this essay, I want to note a few of the things this most recent celebration of America’s power elite misses.
Bush was a racist. By racist, I don’t mean Bush made statement bearing explicit race prejudice. I mean he was racist in the most fundamental and important sense of the word: supporting law and policy and strategy, often operating from positions of power, that racially segregate society and heighten racial antipathy. In light of the facts, celebrating the man’s life amounts to a white wash of his life and record.
In 1959, Bush, an oil tycoon, moved his family from Midland to Houston. His new home in the Broad Oaks housing development of Houston, built to his specifications, carried a restrictive racial covenant. There were restrictive covenants attached to all the properties Bush bought and sold between 1955 and 1966. This in the face of the US Supreme Court having ruled such covenants illegal in 1948.
In 1964, during his unsuccessful run for the US Senate, Bush opposed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying, “The new civil rights act was passed to protect 14% of the people,” Bush said. “I’m also worried about the other 86%.” That is, he was worried about white people, in particular white business owners (the word “also” seems misplaced.). A year earlier, as chairman of the Harris Country Texas Republican Party, Bush explained, “I am opposed to the public accommodation section” of the Act. That’s the part of the bill that would have desegregated public spaces associated with private businesses. This makes Bush a segregationist.
Bush ran against civil rights in 1966, as well, this time during a successful campaign for the House of Representatives. As a congressman, Bush reluctantly voted for the 1968 Civil Rights Act as a show of support for veterans returning form the Vietnam War (an imperialist police action that he supported). However, as president, he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, a law intended to ban discrimination in employment, after it passed both houses of Congress by wide margins. He also vetoed a voter registration bill that would have added millions of minorities to the voting rolls. He did sign a civil rights bill in 1991, one on which he worked closely with Democrats to get it in a form he could support, then issued simultaneous with it a presidential directive ordering all federal agencies to comply with provisions that rolled back decades-old guidelines benefitting minorities.
In his run for president in 1988, Bush’s team, which included Roger Ails, James Baker, and Lee Atwater, went after Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis on veiled ethnic grounds by questioning his patriotism in supporting the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that it was unconstitutional to mandate recital of the Pledge of Allegiance (that Congress and President Eisenhower had turned into a prayer in 1954). Dukakis was the son of Greek Immigrants, a heritage he was fond of observing in his public speeches. When Bush taunted Dukakis with “What is it about the Pledge of Allegiance that upsets him so much?” the implication was clear: was Dukakis a loyal American? Bush followed this with the infamous “Willie Horton” ad, which cynically played to the racist fears of Americans, distorting the record of the furlough program in Massachusetts, while ignoring the fact that Reagan had signed a similar bill as governor of California.
In 1991, when Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court, Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, another black man, but a black man with a very different view of judicial philosophy. Thomas was to be more than a token black man for the court; he is a reactionary right-winger who has voted to undo much of the progress made under more liberal courts.
Bush was an opponent of religious liberty and free speech. Bush was terrible on other civil liberties issues, as well. Upon being nominated as Reagan’s running mate in 1980, Bush came out in favor of school prayer, which had long been officially recognized as unconstitutional. He also voiced opposition to reproductive freedom by opposing a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
He reiterated these commitments in his successful bid for the presidency. In 1987, Robert Sherman, a reporter for the American Atheist news journal, asked Bush, “Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are Atheists?” Bush responded, “No, I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
In 1989, as president, Bush called for a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, thus rejecting the premise of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. His concern about the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act (as well as open housing in his reluctant 1968 vote) clearly did not extend to the constitutionality of restricting political expressions.
Bush was a Hobbesian in International Affairs. Bush fought to extend capitalist domination of the world through military and clandestine operations. As chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1973-74, Bush was a stalwart defender of Richard Nixon, despite clear evidence the president had broken numerous laws and committed atrocities in Southeast Asia. Nixon played an important role in Bush’s rise to power, appointing him ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73) and then selecting him to serve as RNC chair in his darkest hour. Bush was a loyal company man.
President Ford appointed Bush director of the CIA in 1976. He was selected to clean up the agency after the Church Committee exposed the horrors of CIA covert operations (as well as those of the FBI). These horrors didn’t end under Bush, but were more effectively dissimulated. During his tenure, he advanced Operation Condor, a US-backed campaign of political repression and state terror carried out by the right-wing dictatorships in South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay). The purpose of operation was to suppress opposition to neoliberalism by discrediting, brutalizing, and assassinating leftwing intellectuals and groups, labor unions and civic organizations, and progressive religious organizations.
While CIA director, Bush put Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega back on the agency’s payroll. Noriega had been removed for drug trafficking and other criminal activity. Bush would clean up that history, as well as the loose ends of Iran-Contra (more on that later), with his 1989 invasion of Panama, leaving that country wrecked while whisking Noriega away to a Florida prison where his knowledge died with him in solitary confinement.
When Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, Bush had several meetings with the incoming president, requesting to stay on at the CIA (he loved cloak and dagger stuff going all the way back to his Yale University days when he was a member of the Skull and Bones society, where he was known as “Magog”). Carter, a product of the Trilateral Commission, a different wing of the establishment, declined to keep Bush on (one wonders how much NSA advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been TC director, had to do with this decision). Bush’s experience on the international stage led the Council on Foreign Relations to tap him as director from 1977 and 1979.
As Vice-President (1981-1989), Bush was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra affair, pardoning many of those (six altogether) who could have implicated him in treasonous acts and crimes against humanity as his last act as president. Iran-Contra involved selling high-tech weaponry and weapons technology to Iran, an official enemy of the United States, to raise money for the covert and illegal funding of death squads in Honduras, who were running missions in Nicaragua to destabilize the Sandinista government (killing tens of thousands of Nicaraguans). Part of the operation involved drug running, documented in books such as Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb, and Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras, and the Drug War, by Celerino Castillo.
The program was tagged Black Eagle and run on the ground by Oliver North. Bush was deeply involved. In fact, Black Eagle was run out of his office. As president, Ronald Reagan was ultimately responsible for the program, but it is widely believed that he did not know about the details of the operation either because he was senile at that point (and couldn’t be trusted to keep his mouth shut) or to give him plausible denial. A Bush journal entry at the time: “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details.” What secrets did he take to his grave? Why wasn’t he thoroughly investigated? The privileges of being a company man.
The first Gulf War, despite having the international community behind it (unlike the second Gulf War under the junior Bush), was built on lies and deceptions (just as was the second Gulf War). The claim that Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq (with whom the US establishment had long-standing and close relations), invaded Kuwait unprovoked ignores known facts. Doing any justice to the horrors of the bombing and invasion of Iraq requires more space than I have allotted for myself in this essay, so I will focus on this one point.
Saddam laid out the reasons why he was invading Kuwait to Washington in meetings with high-level administration officials. The most important of these meetings was held in late July in Iraq with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie. With massive Iraqi troop buildup on the Kuwaiti border and open threats to invade Kuwait, Saddam put the question directly to the administration: what would it do if Iraq acted?
Saddam delivered a long lecture to Glaspie, saying that “our patience is running out” with Kuwait, and accusing Kuwait of waging economic war against Iraq (among other things). Glaspie’s response was that the United States had no interest in defending Kuwait and had no position on border disputes between Iraq and Kuwait. Saddam was an ally of the United States, which had encouraged Iraq to invade Iran only a few years before (and provided the weapons to do so). Saddam had every reason to believe that he had a green light from Washington to invade Kuwait.
Glaspie tried to spin the matter after it became clear to the international community what the United States had intended by its actions. There was a big furor over this in Congress and in the press (now, obviously, largely forgotten). However, Saddam had smartly recorded that July meeting (just as he had recorded his meeting with Rumsfeld in which chemical and biological weapons sales were negotiated with the Reagan administration). The tape was distributed to the media and the State Department admitted to its authenticity.
Glaspie can be heard on the tape telling Saddam, “I have a direct instruction from the President to seek better relations with Iraq.” She told Saddam that the administration opposed Congress’s effort to impose economic sanctions against Iraq. She apologized for a Voice of America editorial critical of Iraq’s war policy towards Kuwait. She praised Saddam’s efforts to rebuild Iraq and then “in the spirit of friendship” inquired about his intentions with respect to Kuwait. It was at this point that she assured Saddam that the United States really had no dog in the hunt. It was as clear a green light as can be.
In the aftermath of the invasion, the media discovered that instructions had in fact been cabled to Glaspie about how to proceed with Saddam. James Baker refused to disclose the contents of the specific cable, saying he would “not confirm the contents of diplomatic communications.” However, the contents of the cable, and additional cables, have come to light (they were widely distributed among ambassadors in the region and therefore hard to keep secret) and they state that (a) the United States would take no position on the border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait or other bilateral disputes and (b) that the United States approved of Iraqi policy in the region.
In a subsequent interview with The New York Times Glaspie admitted the administration’s intentions when she let it slip, “Obviously I didn’t think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait.” Here is a representative of the Bush administration admitting that it had believed that Saddam was going to at least take the disputed territories (the border strip and the al-Rumeilah oil field)! Congressman Tom Lantos said on September 19, 1990, “The obsequious treatment of Saddam by a large number of high-ranking officials encouraged him to invade Kuwait.” Several other congresspersons made similar observations.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait, all we heard about was that Saddam was the second coming of Hitler and that soon Iraq would be invading other countries unless the international community acted. Let’s carry the historical analogy forward: Consider that Reagan and Bush built up Hitler’s military, pushed Hitler into a war with Iran, and then encouraged Hitler to invade and occupy Kuwait. The United States even provided Hitler with chemical weapons and may have covered up his gassing of the Kurds by blaming it on the Iranians.
Bush was a globalist. Bush was well-known for his advocacy of a “New World Order.” He used this phrase in an address before Congress on September 11, 1990, describing the pending invasion of Iraq as a pivot upon which the New World Order would emerge, one under which global capitalism would be a planetary economy and nations would be united in a vast security apparatus defending that economy. In his inaugural address in 1989, he said, “For the first time in this century, for the first time in perhaps all history, man does not have to invent a system by which to live. We don’t have to talk late into the night about which form of government is better.”
As vice president, Bush worked with the Reagan Administration, and would implement under his watch as president, the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, which became the foundation of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, would secure. But also worked on the vast expansion of the GATT arrangement and the development of the World Trade Organization. These agreements greatly harmed working class interests by pitting American workers against cheap labor around the world. As part of this agenda, Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which led to a 40 percent increase in legal immigration to the United States.
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I could go through Bush’s accomplishments I regard as relatively harmless or positive, but those who are celebrating his life and career can do that work (they already are, noting for example his good work on disabilities). It’s rare that everything somebody does is bad. Perhaps even the worst leaders in history do things one could cherry pick to paint a decent portrait. Of course, if one attempts this with some of history’s most notorious foreign leaders he will fall under suspicion. Yet, when it’s a US leader, especially for those who admire the American political establishment, it is hard for them to work up the same level of hate and loathing for one of their own. Honesty will draw the opposite response in such cases. It’s a strange alchemy that transforms politicians as bloodstained as George H. W. Bush into statesmen and moral leaders.