The "So What?" President
In a final effort to rehabilitate his irredeemably sullied reputation, President Bush made surprise visits this weekend to Iraq and Afghanistan. But far from being his valedictory tour as commander-in-chief, a 24 hour span only cemented his legacy of failure. During a press conference in Baghdad Sunday, an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Bush, the same signal of disdain directed at Saddam Hussein five years earlier. And in an interview on ABC Monday, George W. Bush encapsulated his fiasco in Iraq with a two-word epitaph - "so what?" - that neatly summarized his eight years of deception, incompetence and lawbreaking.
In his discussion with ABC's Martha Raddatz aired last night, Bush defended his Mesopotamian misadventure with the same cynicism and petulance that has defined his presidency. Boasting that "there have been no attacks since I have been president, since 9/11," the President dismissed any criticism that it was only his 2003 invasion which brought Al Qaeda forces to Iraq:
BUSH: One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand. This is where al Qaeda was hoping to take -
RADDATZ: But not until after the U.S. invaded.
BUSH: Yeah, that's right. So what? The point is that al Qaeda said they're going to take a stand. Well, first of all in the post-9/11 environment Saddam Hussein posed a threat. And then upon removal, al Qaeda decides to take a stand.
That the President Bush boiled his "legacy project" down to those two words of defiance comes as no surprise. After all, Bush made clear years ago that he would accept no responsibility for the tragic mistakes made on his watch. And to be sure, that includes the thousands of Americans needlessly killed and wounded in the war, carnage that consumed tens of thousands more Iraqis.
The first hint came in April 2004. Asked at a White House press conference to cite a single example from his immense inventory of mistakes, Bush stumbled and bumbled before offering only:
"I'm sure something will pop into my head here...maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Three years later as he announced the troop surge in Iraq, President Bush again evaded responsibility for the quagmire in Iraq. Just days after his January 10, 2007 speech to the nation, Bush told Scott Pelley on CBS 60 Minutes that any errors on his watch were purely semantic:
PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?
BUSH: You know, we've been through this before. Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, "bring them on" was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.
Like a child caught in a lie, George W. Bush time and again pointed the finger of blame at others. As he launched his presidential reclamation project two weeks ago, Bush in an interview with Raddatz' colleague Charles Gibson claimed the supposed intelligence failure regarding Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction was the "biggest regret of all the presidency." (Bush neglected to mention that he and Vice President Cheney nonetheless - and repeatedly - insisted that the invasion of Iraq in the absence of WMD was still "absolutely" the "right thing to do.")
It was Cheney who this spring first introduced an even more abbreviated form of Bush's "so what" legacy defense. In a March 2008 interview with ABC's Raddatz, Cheney suggested Bush should not only thumb his nose at his Iraq war critics, but would resemble Abraham Lincoln in doing so:
RADDATZ: Let me go back to the Americans. Two-thirds of Americans say it's not worth fighting, and they're looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So?
RADDATZ: So -- you don't care what the American people think?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls. Think about what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had paid attention to polls, if they had had polls during the Civil War. He never would have succeeded if he hadn't had a clear objective, a vision for where he wanted to go, and he was willing to withstand the slings and arrows of the political wars in order to get there. And this President has been very courageous, very consistent, very determined to continue down the course we were on and to achieve our objective.
And so it is that the "so what" defense has come to represent the legacy of George W. Bush. To critics of his disastrous bungling of the response to Hurricane Katrina or presiding over his economic meltdown, President Bush will say only, "so what?" The 43rd president will no doubt dismiss the charges of rampant, even boastful criminality involved in detainee torture, the purge of U.S. prosecutors, the outing of a covert CIA operative and illegal domestic surveillance with the sneering, "so what?" And no doubt, on the greatest tragedy of his dismal tenure in the White House - the war in Iraq - George W. Bush has already spoken.