This time, it’s going to be different.
When Gina Haspel — the current deputy director of the CIA, who once ran a secret “black site” prison in Thailand where a terrorism suspect was tortured with waterboarding, and was later involved in destroying torture evidence — was picked this month by President Trump to head the spy agency, her allies said she’d learned her lesson. A friend of Haspel who worked in the Obama administration told the New York Times, “My experience from working with her is that she has learned from those mistakes and will be a thoughtful and conscientious leader of the CIA.”
Allrighty, then. Ditto, apparently, for John Bolton, who spent those same dark years of the mid-to-late 2000s as a “diplomat” in the George W. Bush administration, a strange title for a foreign policy pundit who never seems to have met a war he didn’t like, except for the one that he might have had to actually fight in, Vietnam. Just weeks after he called for a military first strike against North Korea — a move that some experts say could lead to 1 million or more casualties in the ensuing fighting — Bolton now insists that he’s not that guy anymore.
Maybe. CNN reported in the days immediately after Trump picked the 2003 Iraq War cheerleader to become his new national security adviser that Bolton assured the 45th president “he wouldn’t start any wars.” (Later, there was pushback that Bolton, who wants to rip up the nuclear peace deal with Iran along with his more aggressive North Korea posture, made no such promise.) Either way, much of the inside-the-Beltway establishment seems convinced that the good people who made a few tiny mistakes back in those crazy post-9/11 times have now turned over a new leaf.
And why not believe them? I mean, were they and their friends in the Bush 43 administration lying when they told America and the world that Saddam Hussein was hiding a large cache of “weapons of mass destruction,” or that the clock was ticking on an Iraqi nuclear program, or Saddam’s government had ties to the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked us in 2001 (even if 15 of the 19 attackers came from “friendly” Saudi Arabia)?
Don’t answer that.
But then, Americans in general — and not just D.C. establishment types — are forgive-and-forget kind of people. How else can we explain the near-total rehabilitation of George W. Bush himself, who left the White House in January 2009 — less than a decade ago — with a below-Nixonian approval rating of 22 percent, thanks to an electorate that was still livid over both the boondoggle in Iraq and the anything-goes financial policies that had crashed the global economy just weeks earlier.
Right now, W.’s approval rating has skyrocketed to a whopping 59 percent. Some of that is the inevitable result of putting down the cruise-missile launch button and torture-memo pen and picking up a bright-hued paint brush, and a lot of it may be the contrast between his professional-if-smirky mannerisms and the 5-a.m.-Twitter insanity of our current and 45th president. George W. Bush may have used false pretenses to launch a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, including more than 4,000 American troops, while handing the store to Wall Street fraudsters, but at least he wasn’t rude about it, and he didn’t violate any longstanding democratic norms in doing so, by gosh.
Earlier this month, the 15th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War came and passed pretty quietly. That’s unusual in a media soup where anniversary journalism is king, where there’s arguably been more coverage of 1968 on cable news this year than there was back in 1968 (when the nightly news was just 30 minutes.) But then, it’s hard to Make America Great Again if you dwell too long on the lie-laden fiasco that occurred in the Persian Gulf. People actually from Iraq remember things differently.
Here’s what the Iraqi author Sinan Antoon said earlier this month in the Times, after bemoaning not just as many as 1 million of his fellow citizens dead but also the wider decay in his homeland since 2003 (even with the removal of Saddam, whom Antoon despised):
The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show,’ dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.
How did America get to this state of amnesia? Some of the blame goes to weak leadership; Barack Obama briefly paid lip service to the idea that some of the worst crimes of the Bush years — waterboarding, for example — could be punished, but nothing remotely like that would happen during his eight years in the White House. The whispered explanation seems to be that accountability isn’t possible in such a divided America, that prosecution wouldn’t be seen as justice but as partisan revenge.
But it’s also more than that. There’s collegiality among elites who all went to the same overpriced universities — people who could never acknowledge that the guy at the next table at the Capital Grille who looks just like them might have committed war crimes. How else to explain the popularity — on the left, no less — of a pundit like David Frum, the former Bush wordsmith whose tossed-off phrase “axis of evil” was what persuaded North Korea to re-start its then-dormant nuclear-bomb program? But for all of us, there is our boundless faith in American exceptionalism, that when America does it it can’t possibly be torture, or a criminal use of military force because … I mean, we’re America.
Even after the other great double-whammy of the post-World War II era — Vietnam and Watergate — the era of accountability was both limited and brief before Ronald Reagan shut it down with visions of a shining city on a hill. That freed us to make the exact same mistakes in little more than a generation. The main reason that people should have been prosecuted for the unlawful torture and ensuing cover-ups of the 2000s is that torture is immoral and wrong.
But since morality doesn’t seem to move people much these days, let’s consider the practical consequences. The refusal of our current president to rule out the return of torture, or to close down the American gulag at Guantanamo Bay, plays a major role in hurting the global image of the United States, hindering everything from our alliances to the brand of our companies that do business overseas. But that’s nothing compared to the nightmare of Trump — still ignorant and largely untested on the world stage — turning for advice to the likes of Bolton, whose failure to be humbled and marginalized after Iraq puts him on the road to making the same exact same mistakes, but with consequences that would be even more lethal than the crimes perpetrated against Sinan Antoon’s Iraq.
It was the 20th century philosopher George Santayana who said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but even Santayana would likely be stunned at both the speed and the relish with which a 21st century United States is doing exactly that. At least this is one way in which America truly is exceptional.