Catholic mythology includes the concept of “mortal sin.” A mortal sin is such a grievous act that it condemns ones soul to eternal damnation – unless the sinner receives divine forgiveness. Although of course heaven and hell and god are all pure fantasy, the notion of mortal sin is based on real human ethics. It is the reality that a thousand good deeds cannot necessarily make up for one egregiously heinous act.
In his career GHW Bush certainly did a great many good things and a great many not so good things. So one could rightly view Bush as neither a sinner nor a saint, but as a typically flawed and complex human being with a mixed bag of achievements and failings.
Except for his great mortal sin.
In January of 1991 I watched, along with much of the world, as GHW Bush began what would become 42 consecutive days and nights of raining down nonstop aerial and naval bombardment upon Iraq followed by unparalleled human tragedy that still reverberates to this day. The official story is well-known. GHW Bush had to reluctantly order this massive invasion as the only way to counter reckless aggression by Saddam Hussein.
The historical record is correct of course, but it normally leaves out one crucial fact. On the first day of bombardment I was on the phone with an acquaintance who happened to be connected at the highest level in the government. He told me what he and his fellow high officials knew was happening at the time.
In February of 1989, GHW Bush had a shockingly low approval polling of 14%. He was widely seen as weak and mealy-mouthed – kind of a Barney Fife President. Bush desperately needed a war to bolster his image as a strong leader. So, ex-CIA director that he was, he looked around for an unwitting dupe to start a war with.
He found the perfect patsy in Saddam Hussein, the US-backed President of Iraq. Saddam had been vocally complaining about his neighbor Kuwait violating their oil production agreements and about their slant-drilling into his oil fields. GHW Bush sent back-channel messages to Saddam that were intended, and succeeded, in assuring him that the US would not interfere if he took action against Kuwait.
So he did. Saddam invaded Kuwait. And Bush followed up almost immediately by condemning Saddam and mustering a world-wide coalition to attack him. Is it any wonder that Saddam cursed Bush to his dying breath?
Americans reacted as they almost always do to war. Bush quickly became viewed as the strong leader he aspired to be. The rally effect skyrocketed his approval ratings to over 90% in polls conducted in March of 1991. In less than two years, Bush’s war gambit propelled his approval from 14% to 90%.
I suppose one could count this among Bush’s great successes.
And all that these fantastic poll numbers cost was an incalculable loss of life and property and the pounding of an entire region of the world into a chaotic “stone age” for generations to come.
Add to that the cost of the Second Iraq War that his son waged against Iraq, after having told by some estimates 33 distinct documented lies to justify his invasion. These were repeated by Bush Jr. and his aides over 900 times (see here). Like father, like son.
And one cannot rationalize away this war by saying that Saddam was a bad guy anyway and we cannot know what would have happened had he stayed in power. If one blows up a dam, one knows what will happen. One does not need a counterfactual in this case either. Saddam, dictator that he was, kept the region in a relatively peaceful and prosperous state. And most experts, even at the time, warned that his demise would destabilize the entire region.
Historians and analysts don’t usually include Bush’s full role in instigating this war when they discuss his legacy. Since my learning this story while talking to officials on the phone as the bombs fell, I have been dismissed every time I have tried to relate it. Only recently are some authors even alluding to it. A recent article in Politico mentions it only very mildly (see here).
As Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait, Bush sent the Iraqi strongman clear signals, through the American ambassador, that the United States had no interest in intra-Arab disputes—the exact opposite position of the one he took very shortly thereafter, in which he drew a “line in the sand.”
So I for one cannot take a “balanced” view of the life and legacy of GHW Bush. I for one cannot forgive his great mortal sin that has cost such unthinkable loss and inflicted such horrendous pain and suffering on a global scale. His self-serving war-making eclipses any good he has done by a hundredfold.
Only god can forgive a mortal sin on this scale, and god does not exist.