George W. Bush, a portrait artist who used to work in government, set down his palette of pastel colors last Wednesday and emerged from his sunny studio, threw a navy blazer over a collared shirt and delivered a speech about election integrity that briefly swerved into matters of war.
For those Americans who recall that Mr. Bush served two terms as president of the United States, it might have seemed a curious topic for him. Bush’s election in 2000 was highly irregular, his victory granted by the Supreme Court after it halted a crucial hand recount in the closely contested state of Florida.
Last week’s event was upstaged, however, by an instance of parapraxis (commonly known as a “Freudian slip”) after Bush’s prepared remarks swerved to the Russian princeps, Vladimir Putin:
"…Russian elections are rigged. Political opponents are imprisoned or otherwise eliminated from participating in the electoral process. The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean, of Ukraine."
Freud popularized the idea that slips of the tongue reveal repressed thoughts, although innocent phonetic error can’t be ruled out here. In the embarrassed silence that followed his reference to the Iraq War, Bush chuckled and muttered, “Iraq too. Anyway.”
The audience laughed, perhaps to relieve the tension. A rueful chuckle for the ecological and human devastation that continues to unfold from that first “shock and awe” air campaign of March 21, 2003.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on, the specter of Iraq is haunting Europe (and the United States, too).
A dull, plodding déjà vu attends the unprovoked escalation against Ukraine: Putin’s baseless claims about nuclear warheads and other WMDs, a fictitious case for preventative war masking imperial aggression, as if he had studied the prologue to the Iraq War but not the later chapters.
Institutions and news organizations continue to treat the architects and leading proponents of the Iraq War as if they were serious people whose policy views are worth consideration.
Adding insult to that injury, a full accounting has yet to be made of the crimes of war, the systematic use of torture, unaccountable detention of human beings, lies and other misconduct by public officials, the undermining of international law and the cratering of societal progress with the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives — and that is the conservative estimate.
Some of those who backed the Iraq invasion attribute their crimes to faulty intelligence, even though it has been firmly established that the Bush Administration and United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government ignored and misrepresented intelligence assessments presented to them.
Bush, for his part, has occasionally joked about it, perhaps revealing some suppressed consciousness of his culpability after all.
In 2004, a momentary scandal ensued after a dinner event for journalists and politicians during which President Bush presented some staged photos of himself looking around furniture in the Oval Office and joking, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere.”
There is little hope Bush, Blair or any of their lieutenants will be compelled to testify at The Hague. A verbal stumble and embarrassed snicker may be the only public reckoning we see from the retired president, now 75 years old, for his “wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.”
But it is not too late, if something long suppressed yearns to confess itself.
Bush’s post-presidency turn to painting has had a warm media reception as part of an effort to reform his image into a charming, avuncular figure — the “compassionate conservative” he promised to be when he ran for president.
Art critics have panned his paintings as mediocre and unskilled, if sometimes appealing. His use of textures and brush strokes sometimes produce odd effects. Whatever one makes of his technical skill, I wonder if the former president’s artistic practice is fluid enough to allow his subconscious to express itself in paint.
Perhaps it is time to follow his series of portraits of military veterans and notable immigrants with a cycle of Iraqi portraits, maybe expand his repertoire to landscapes such as those altered forever by his command, and see what confessions emerge from the canvas.
Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.