If “the present conducts the past the way a conductor conducts an orchestra,” bringing forward “these particular sounds, or those, and no others” – as the great Italian novelist Italo Svevo observed in an often quoted metaphor – then American mainstream media’s posthumous treatment of George HW Bush can only be described as a one-note symphony of glorification, contrasting the 41st president’s supposed virtues with the vices of the office’s current occupant. “The only part of [the past] that is highlighted,” as Svevo had noted, “is that part that has been summoned up to illumine, and to distract us from, the present.”
Among the instruments of selective historical memorialisation is the taboo against speaking ill of the dead -which is articulated as a universal principle but applied, in reality, with extreme partiality.
When luminary of the South African anti-apartheid struggle Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died in April, Western media coverage rushed to highlight her alleged participation in acts of violence. The very first sentence of the New York Times’ story about her death, for example, stated that Madikizela-Mandela’s “hallowed place in the pantheon of South Africa’s liberators was eroded by scandal over corruption, kidnapping, murder, and the implosion of her fabled marriage to Nelson Mandela,” and the Times’ original headline (subsequently revised following complaints) described her as a “tarnished leader of South Africa’s liberation.”
But for George Bush, who had the privilege of directing acts of mass violence from afar, the abuses and atrocities tarnishing his leadership have been treated as mere footnotes to the main story – if they are accorded any attention at all. While commentators have fawned over cartoons depicting Bush’s projected arrival in heaven, they have erased the victims consigned to hell on Earth by his policies.
Expunged from the hegemonic hagiographies is Bush’s complicity as CIA director with Operation Condor: a CIA-supported collaboration between South American military dictatorships that kidnapped, tortured, murdered, or disappeared thousands of political dissidents – including former Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated on American soil during Bush’s directorship of the agency. While the New York Times, the Washington Post, and MSNBC all managed to feature in-depth analyses of Bush’s penchant for patterned socks, not one bothered to mention the far more significant pattern of the CIA‘s involvement in projects of state-sponsored terror, such as Operation Condor under Director Bush.
Bush’s decision as president to banish thousands of Haitian asylum seekers to detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, which his administration claimed laid outside the protections of international law, has also been completely ignored – in notable contrast to his decision to banish broccoli from his dinner table, which was the subject of fond reminiscences in the Washington Post and New York Times.
In the hands of the panegyrists at the Washington Post, the US-led “humanitarian intervention” in Somalia initiated by Bush in 1992 has been framed as an example of the former president’s guiding “concern for humanity.” Omitted was the fact that the operation quickly degenerated into an assault on Somali humanity – bombings of hospitals and gatherings of elders, unprovoked shootings of unarmed civilians, and culminating in the slaughter of approximately 1,000 Somalis in the Battle of Mogadishu – by American soldiers heard repeating the slogan “the only good Somali is a dead Somali.”
Bush’s 1989 invasion of Panama has likewise been repackaged and sold as a humanitarian triumph: “a successful invasion to oust Panama’s strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega,” in the words of the New York Times. Nevermind that the United Nations General Assembly condemned it at the time as a “flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of [Panama],” and that it “inflicted a toll in civilian lives that was at least … twelve to thirteen times higher than the casualties suffered by US troops,” according to Human Rights Watch.
In a CNN interview following Bush’s death, Bush military adviser Colin Powell channelled Orwellian newspeak to celebrate the invasion for “putting Panama back on a path of democracy and freedom” – a characterisation that went unchallenged by host Jake Tapper, who has previously spoken in soaring language of the journalistic responsibility to “tell the truth and report the facts regardless of whom those facts might benefit.”
Similar deficits of truth-telling are apparent in representations of Bush’s military follow-up to Panama, the First Gulf War, almost universally depicted as a courageous confrontation against the evils of dictator Saddam Hussein. Inconvenient details – that Hussein’s evils had been enabled by Bush, who facilitated sales of military equipment to the Iraqi leader and continued to protect him from sanctions even after he massacred thousands of Kurds with poison gas at Halabja in 1988; that the war was sold to the American public with deliberately fabricated lies about Iraqi soldiers ripping babies from incubators; and that the execution of the war itself involved such atrocities as the annihilation of the Amiriyah bomb shelter, which killed at least 400 civilians, and the use of enough depleted uranium weaponry to toxify the land for 4.5 billion years – have been scrubbed from the record.
A CNN panel of journalists reflecting on Bush’s presidency contrasted him favourably to Donald Trump for having “respected media’s role” – neglecting to mention that the Bush administration imposed unprecedented restrictions and censorship on media coverage of the First Gulf War, turning media into a mouthpiece for jingoism.
While mainstream American media organisations rail against the proliferation of “fake news,” they continue to propagate half-news: a severely partial perspective in which Trump is portrayed as an aberration in American political history rather than a product of its deeply entrenched regressive forces. The recent eulogies masquerading as journalism not only sanitise Bush’s individual legacy, but conceal and distort elements of the past that are vital for understanding the present.
Operation Condor, for instance, prefigured the CIA’s extensive use of terrorising tactics such as extrajudicial assassination, extraordinary rendition, and torture in the name of counterterrorism.
George HW Bush’s treatment of Guantanamo Bay as an extra-legal warehouse for unwanted humanity laid the foundations for his son’s employment of Gitmo as an indefinite detention and torture camp for “war on terror” detainees.
The disaster in Somalia exposed the persistently racist dynamics underlying military operations pitched as “humanitarian interventions,” presaging the recurrent failures and abuses of such interventions across the formerly officially colonised world, from Haiti to Libya.
The invasion of Panama “inaugurated the age of pre-emptive [American] unilateralism, using ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ as both justifications for war and a branding opportunity,” as New York University historian Greg Grandin has observed.
And the use of governmental deception and media control to manipulate public opinion in the First Gulf War foreshadowed the politics of misinformation in the Second Gulf War, Bush Jr’s 2003 illegal war of aggression on Iraq.
Cutting through the bush of media’s posthumous propaganda is not about disrespecting George HW Bush in his death, but about respecting the lives of those victimised by his policies – and the lives of those who will continue to suffer as long as the structures of American imperial power he helped construct remain in place and immunised from critique.