US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Last week, after writing about Andrew McCarthy’s new book "Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment," the author and I had a brief but revelatory Twitter exchange. In the piece, I had argued that to convince the majority of Americans that Barack Obama deserved to be removed from office, Republicans would have to demonstrate impeachment was a disinterested act, not a partisan one. To do so, they would have to prove Obama’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” were uncommon (that is, not something every president does) and nonpartisan (that is, something Republicans would be punished for as readily as Democrats). Thus they would have to reckon with George W. Bush.

McCarthy’s response? “How predictable: To be ‘serious’ about [presidential] lawlessness, must talk about — all together now — BUSH!”

One of the defining characteristics of conservative rhetoric in the Obama era is what a colleague of mine called “the Godwin’s Law of right-wing debating”: The first person to bring up George W. Bush in a discussion of Obama’s policies automatically loses the debate. As soon as liberal callers mention Bush’s name on the Sean Hannity Show, for instance, Hannity immediately dismisses them as part of the “Blame Bush” crowd. For many conservatives, January 20, 2009, marks an unbridgeable break in time; anything occurring after that date — so long as it’s bad — must be a result of Obama’s policy choices and nothing else.

Call them the “Blameless Bush” crowd. In the waning days of the Bush administration, when his approval ratings bottomed out in the mid-20s, conservatives developed important critiques of the “big-government conservatism” of the Bush era. In the hyper-partisanship of the Obama years, however, those criticisms quickly disappeared. A year into Obama’s presidency, billboards popped up picturing a smiling Bush with the text “Miss Me Yet?” With a Democratic president to focus their attention on, Bush’s flaws faded away.

Conservatives’ response to the current turmoil in Iraq demonstrates just how far this all-is-forgiven attitude extends. Monday morning, Fox News repeatedly ran a clip of Bush warning that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq “would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaida. It would mean that we'd be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we'd allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.” The onscreen chyron read “Pres Bush Warned Violence Could Resurface in Iraq in 2007.” And Bush’s former chief of staff Andy Card argued, as Republican Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain have, that Obama squandered Bush’s “successes in Iraq.”

What conservatives promoting this narrative omit is that Bush, not Obama, signed the Status of Forces Agreement that called for U.S. troop withdrawal by the end of 2011. Extending U.S. military presence in Iraq past that date required the approval of the Iraqi parliament, and there simply weren’t enough votes for an extension on the terms U.S. military commanders required. Discussing the lack of a Status of Forces Agreement on Fox News Monday, Card said of Obama: “He created that problem. It wasn’t created by President Bush.” But that’s not true. The terms of an extension, which may not have seemed unworkable in 2008 but which failed in 2011, were explicitly created by Bush and the Iraqi government.

The unraveling of Iraq is due to complex forces. It may well have happened without the U.S. invasion and occupation; the rest of the Middle East is not exactly in a state of harmony at the moment. But the Obama administration’s policies cannot be evaluated properly if one’s understanding of the current situation in Iraq dates to January 20, 2009. (It also cannot be evaluated properly if one’s understanding is limited to U.S. foreign policy. Fred Kaplan at Slate persuasively argues the rise of Sunni jihadist groups “has little to do with the withdrawal of American troops and everything to do with the political failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.”)

Now, to be fair, not everyone on the right falls in the “Blameless Bush” camp when it comes to Iraq. McCarthy, who brooks no mention of Bush when it comes to impeachment, upbraided Republicans who “blame Obama alone” for the turmoil in Iraq. He’s right to do so, not only because erasing Bush from the equation makes it impossible to understand the shape and trajectory of American foreign policy under Obama, but also because most Americans don’t have that blind spot in their understanding of American politics. When most Americans think about the Great Recession, for example, they understand it as something Obama inherited rather than something he created. The same goes for America’s diminished reputation in the world and external constraints on its foreign policy.

If Obama has faltered in domestic and foreign policy, and I would argue he has considerable faults in both arenas, his failings are part of a larger picture of policy failures that began with his predecessor. Failure to address that makes conservative criticisms of Obama sound oddly out of sync with reality, and far less persuasive as a result.

This article was originally published in US News & World Report