On George H.W. Bush’s Death: Political Hagiography and Representational Narratives
The death of the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd president, George H.W. Bush, has brought in several hagiographic tributes that hint at the configuration of a collective amnesia; an active form of silence that is displayed by mass media outlets (Krupp, 2018; Li & Moore, 2018; Nagourney, 2018). The political hagiography that I am referring to can be understood as the depiction of a figure in a saint-like image. In most of the obituaries mourning President Bush, there has been an insistence on excluding the problematic consequences of his presidency and instead representing him as a “consummate public servant” whose kindness, graciousness and humility are what define his legacy, as Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post writes: "That is the legacy. The best and only kind of legacy that matters." (Rubin, 2018).
As the passing of political figures, particularly presidents, often marks a moment for reflection on their legacy and their global and local contributions, it is important to be attentive to the representational narratives that are produced by accounts that describe George H.W. Bush as a foreign policy hero, a pragmatist, and a president of “class” and “integrity” (Douthat, 2018). Such warm remembrance of Bush’s impact in domestic politics and international engagement dismisses his problematic legacy and the painful suffering that many people experienced as a result of the wars in which he is complicit. As Masha Gessen (2018) writes, “Bush is remembered for his niceness, kindness, gentleness, and gentlemanliness. His wars have also been remembered politely. This is possible because wars have traditionally been the province of gentlemen” (Gessen, 2018). It is also clear to note that the current Donald Trump presidency has accentuated such an imaginative and nostalgic discourse that positions George H.W. Bush’s political career as one characterised with “gentility”, public service, and a belief in America’s “moral leadership in the world” (Cillizza, 2018) in opposition with Trump’s, whose career lacks a similar institutionalism, temperament, and courtesy (Milbank, 2018).
But allowing this revisionism of President Bush enables a representational erasure of the devastating implications of his wars. History matters. Representations matter. Edward Said (1993) identifies “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging” as foundational to culture and imperialism (Said, 1993, p.xiii), and to narrate George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy interventions, particularly in the Gulf, as heroic would be to consolidate a history of American imperialism and coloniality. Modern imperialism does not exist without fully established structures of representation that ensure colonial discourse. Anibal Quijani (2000) defines coloniality as that which exceeds colonialism through its production of a Western-centric rationality and racial axis which is far more “durable and stable than colonialism in whose matrix it was established” (Quijano, 2000, p.533). Further, discursive representational narratives are central to a contemporary imperialism that takes modern formulations of power through a “monopoly of knowledge and ideal creativity” (Abdel-Malek, 1981, p.145). In this sense, I propose that the ways in which George H.W. Bush’s legacy is framed must be examined within our deeper understandings of power, discourse, knowledge, and representations.
Michel Foucault’s work on the constitutive power of discourse is valuable here. As Foucault (1980) argues, we must admit that “power produces knowledge… That power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute… power relations” (Foucault, 1980, p.27). Power and its circulation through the production of knowledge are directly tied to representation and the question of which representations have authority and which representations do not. And while every representation is only partial, we constantly align and re-align ourselves in line with representations around us. With this understanding of Foucauldian discursive power, it is clear that interventions into reductive representational narratives are crucial, and it is why I argue that immortalising George H.W. Bush’s legacy needs a reassessment.
As a Kuwaiti citizen, I am especially unsettled by the celebration of President Bush in Kuwait where, upon his death, his photograph was displayed across Kuwait’s Towers as a way of honouring his role in the country’s liberation from Iraq in 1991. Bush’s foreign policy legacy is inextricably and intimately tied to the Gulf War and the broader political context within which it must be examined. The U.S. military intervention in the Gulf came at a time where the U.S. had the space and possibility to establish its dominant “diplomatic and hard-power capabilities”, including its military technological force, in an evolving “new world order” (Miller, 2018). This order is one that is influenced by the U.S.’s experience in Vietnam, the Bush administration’s role in the end of the Cold War, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was a clear attack on the nation’s sovereignty; it lasted for seven months of occupation and resulted in a wide range of human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, unaccounted disappearances, torture, rape, executions, extrajudicial killings, and an environmental disaster caused by Iraqi forces setting over 650 oil wells on fire (Amnesty International, 1990).
By the time the U.S.-led coalition intervened in Kuwait, all diplomatic attempts were exhausted. But to credit President Bush for the liberation of Kuwait without acknowledgement of his complicity or the consequences of the war in both Kuwait and Iraq would be a mistake. As Mehdi Hasan reminds us, Bush was aware of Saddam Hussein’s plans to invade Kuwait a week before it happened. He writes, “the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, had given an effective green light to Saddam Hussein, telling him in July 1990, a week before his invasion, ‘[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait’” (Hasan, 2018). It is also no secret that the U.S.’s interest in oil was at stake and is part of the reason the Bush administration deployed its military in Kuwait. Bush’s decision to intervene in Kuwait had much to do with the location and timing of the war and the expansion of American hegemony, as it redefined the role of the U.S. in the region and contributed to the development of militarised humanitarianism. So, while a glorification of George H.W. Bush as a white saviour may continue in Kuwait today, it is necessary to acknowledge the imperialist intentions behind the U.S.’s intervention, as well as the devastating impact it had on Iraqi civilians and civilian infrastructures that were deliberately targeted by the Bush administration.
While I have primarily focused on Bush’s impact in foreign policy in the Gulf, it is equally important that we do not allow the silence on and erasure of his failure in addressing the AIDS crisis that took the lives of over 100,000 Americans in the 1980s and early 1990s. Bush’s conflation of AIDS with irresponsible "behavior", his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his “War on Drugs” that led to “the incarceration of millions of Americans, disproportionately Black and Brown, for non-violent offenses” (Leigh, 2018), all need to be taken into account when representing his legacy in the world. To represent George H.W. Bush in the hagiographic ways in which he was and continues to be represented would be to erase the consequences of his wars and to render queer death invisible. We must instead insist on confronting such representational narratives that hold transnational political weight.
Nour Almazidi is an MSc Gender alumna of the LSE Department of Gender Studies. She holds a BA in International Relations and Political Science from the University of Birmingham. Her work focuses on transnational feminist and queer political theory and activism. Follow her on Twitter: @nuralmazidi.
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Cillizza, C. (2018). ‘George H.W. Bush was the exact political opposite of Donald Trump’, CNN, Dec 1st, (Online).
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