George W. Bush’s recent public relations tour, designed to rebuild his image as a tortured artist wrestling with the demons—a flawed but morally introspective tragic figure—has been remarkably effective. As FAIR (3/7/17) noted last month, Bush has been the lucky recipient of dozens of friendly write-ups, interviews and TV appearances, all with only the mildest of liberal chiding around the margins.
In all of the fawning press coverage, one thing has been notably absent: Bush’s Iraqi victims.
Bush’s new PR tour centers around him painting wounded American veterans—foregrounded as the primary negative consequence of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. In ten of the most prominent articles praising Bush in the past few months, not a single one mentions his Iraqi victims:
- “George W. Bush’s Painted Atonements” (New Yorker, 3/3/17)
- “Bush Nostalgia Is Overrated, but His Book of Paintings Is Not” (New York Times, 4/17/17)
- “‘W.’ and the Art of Redemption” (New York Times, 3/21/17)
- “George W. Bush on Immigration Overhaul Efforts, Anti-AIDS Efforts” (NPR, 4/13/17)
- “He Was Almost Killed in Afghanistan. Now He’s Been Painted by the President Who Sent Him There” (Washington Post, 4/13/17)
- “George W. Bush’s Best-Selling Book of Paintings Shows Curiosity and Compassion” (Washington Post, 3/12/17)
- “George W. Bush’s Talent as a Painter Finds an Ironic Muse: the Combat Veteran” (Guardian, 3/6/17)
- “Former President George W. Bush to Appear on Today for his ‘Portraits of Courage’ Book” (Today, 2/17/17)
- “From Caricature to Man of Character: How Time and Art Change Image of Bush” (Christian Science Monitor, 3/23/17)
- “Former President Bush Honors Veterans With ‘Portraits of Courage’” (Voice of America, 3/4/17)
Only one article makes vague reference to the Iraqis killed and injured (Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott opaquely mentions ”the trauma here and in Iraq”), but none note the specific number of deaths—with serious estimates ranging from 500,000 to 1 million—that resulted from Bush’s war of aggression. None profiled an Iraqi who suffered or continues to suffer as a result. This is likely for the same reason Bush didn’t bother to find any to paint—they simply don’t factor into the US moral calculus.
One of the glowing profiles, by Kane Farabaugh of US government–funded Voice of America (3/4/17), doesn’t even contain the word “Iraq.” Others make glib jokes about it, like the New York Times’ Mimi Swartz (3/21/17):
The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, can barely hide his surprise when describing the quality as astonishingly high, the portraits “honestly observed and persuasively alive.”
Why the shock and awe? Because Mr. Bush’s artistic talent goes against the stereotype we have of him.
To the extent the Iraq invasion is addressed, it’s a punchline. Iraqi victims aren’t just ignored; their trauma is used to jazz up an otherwise mediocre piece of art criticism.
This type of runaway nationalism is so common we hardly notice it. To the extent Bush is sorry, he only regrets the Americans he helped kill and maim, roughly 2 percent of those who suffered as a result of the invasion. The other 98 percent are faceless Arabs whose humanity isn’t worth touching on, much less exploring.
All cultures naturally prioritize their own, but the wholesale erasure of Iraqis from Bush’s rebranding tour, framed as “atonement” and “redemption”, is striking in its raw nationalist myopia.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.