<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

President Barack Obama is regarded as the worst US president since World War II according to the most recent opinion poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut. Quinnipiac is one of the most respected polls in the US, but this is absurd. President Obama has many problems, many of his own making, but he inherited a whirlwind from his predecessor, George Bush, who was a trillion-dollar disaster.

Yet it is Obama who was chosen by 33 per cent of those surveyed as the worst president of the modern era, while Bush came second, chosen as worst by 28 per cent.

I’ve spent the past month in the US, where I lived for 12 years, and I was struck by the impact of the miscalculations, insularity and ineptitude of President Bush’s defining decisions that are still rippling through American society. The events of recent weeks reveal the scale of the cost of his prodigiously wasteful invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In 2013, the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University studied the direct cost of the war and came up with a figure of $US1.7 trillion. The indirect costs would take this figure to at least double that figure. That is a heavy burden of wasted productivity even for America.

It was President Bush, and his top advisers, who argued that the US would establish a pro-western democracy in Iraq, which would influence its neighbours. Instead, Iraq has ceased to exist as a viable nation and, along with Syria, is engulfed by the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been a catastrophe. The region is defined by more violence, more division and more repression than existed before the Iraq war.

The material waste has been enormous but his management of the economy cost even more. The Bush administration was part of the bipartisan deregulation of the home mortgage sector which incubated toxic loans and led to a housing bubble. Its collapse produced the financial crisis of 2008, just as Bush was departing the White House.

During his presidency, from January 2001 to January 2009, Bush inherited a $US237 billion surplus from President Bill Clinton and a national debt of $US5.6 trillion (and the tech stock bust on Wall Street) then pushed through significant tax cuts and increased spending. By the time he left office, US federal debt had almost doubled, to $US10.6 trillion, and the nation was in recession, triggered by the financial and housing crisis.

Bush’s spending on massive military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, following the September 11, 2001, bombings, weakened the government’s position in confronting the financial crisis of 2008. But his deficit spending pales when compared with the waste of lives and strategic equilibrium in his wars. The successful US blitzkriegs against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 produced shock and awe and military triumphs. But they were followed by long occupations. In Iraq, it lasted nine years and cost 4805 coalition forces killed and 32,753 wounded, most of them Americans. It cost many more Iraqi lives.

In 2003, when President Bush was launching the invasion of Iraq, I wrote columns opposed to the war because the premise for military action was dubious and the war aims appeared even more dubious. Here is the opening of my column on this page on March 31, 2003:

“[There are] many reasons why I declined to join the coalition of the willing. President Bush and his coterie keep talking about the inevitability of ‘victory’, but even if Saddam is killed tomorrow there will be no victory, fast or slow, in the conventional sense. At what point is someone in this inner circle going to tell Bush that even if the US wins, it loses?

“Such is the depth and breadth of the ocean of scapegoating and loathing of the West in the Arab diaspora that the greater the success of the US military, the greater the insult to Arab pride. So the Arab world, the Islamic world and the Trotskyite left have largely embraced Saddam. Better a genocidal Arab than a humiliated one.

“Why on earth would the Americans and British Prime Minister Tony Blair want to sail on this ocean of racist rage?”   

After the American army swept through Iraq, my column of April 7, 2003, began: “Iraq doesn’t exist. Not as a real country... it is an unstable and accidental amalgam between a Kurdistan in the north, a Shiite Arab enclave in the south, and a rump that for the past 25 years could best be described as Saddamistan.”

And now Iraq does indeed no longer exist. In the south, it is a Shia-dominated client of the Iranian theocracy. In the north-east, it is a de facto Kurdistan. In the north-west it is Sunni-dominated and has been overrun by psychopaths fighting under the banner of Islamic State. Neighbouring Syria is in chaos. Lebanon is embroiled. Jordan is packed with refugees. Egypt is locked down.

The ongoing consequences of Bush’s military adventurism have weakened the resolve of the United States to take action in the Middle East when a far more dangerous threat than Saddam Hussein has emerged. The Islamic state of Iran has exploited the chaos in Iraq and Syria to extend its influence. It is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranians are talking and talking to the US while they are building and building their centrifuges. It’s a con.

Iran could turn out to be a failure for Obama, but the present is linked in so many ways to Bush’s past. The more I see, the worse he looks, to me the most damaging president of the past hundred years.

Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_