Immigration thrust a new facet to troubled Bush reputation

Washington, United States: Former US President George W Bush, who has been out of office for a dozen years and is still being chastised for his "war on terror," has resurfaced as a passionate immigration supporter, just as his Republican Party is heading in the opposite direction.

The 74-year-old Texan, whose disastrous invasion of Iraq and inability to enact immigration reform aided Donald Trump's rise, is experiencing a kind of revival in the wake of Trump's erratic presidency.

Under Democratic President Joe Biden, US troops in Afghanistan, Bush's "forever fighting," will be withdrawn in September.

With Bush nostalgia palpable, the 43rd president, who usually keeps a low profile, has published "Out of Many, One," a set of 43 of his own oil paintings of immigrants he has come to know.

Last week, Bush wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column that he assembled the book of portraits of immigrants who have welcomed their new country to help lower the temperature and "humanize the debate on immigration" in America.

However, the former governor of a state on the front lines of the political battle over border protection has also unleashed harsh attacks on his own party and its antagonistic anti-immigrant stance.

The Republican Party has been "isolationist, protectionist, and to some degree nativist," Bush said this week in an interview with NBC Today.

Bush is in favor of a route to citizenship for millions of migrant employees who pay back taxes and pass a background check.

He advocates for visa expansion and supports the DACA scheme, which provides immigrants who came without documents as children with immunity from deportation and permission to work.

Such views have placed Bush at odds with his party's foundation, aligning him more with Democrats' progressive immigration values – many of whom were Bush's fierce enemies when he was commander in chief.

Bush has made just a few passing references to Trump, who manipulated their party's worst xenophobic tendencies.

And Bush admitted that his own views – "border enforcement with a caring touch," he said – are unlikely to sway the most staunch supporters.

"I'm just an old guy they've put out to pasture," he remarked.

'Salvage his reputation' 

Bush's book, as well as appearances on morning TV, late-night talk shows, and radio, may be part of a broader plan.

The initiative may be aimed at making the unlikely transition from the reviled architect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost extraordinary blood and treasure and gave rise to the Islamic State and other anti-American militant groups, to elder statesman.

"Part of what he's doing here may be to salvage his legacy," Christopher Devine, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told AFP Friday.

"We reinterpret previous presidents in the context of our own times," he added. "Bush might have seemed extreme, but people see what comes afterward and they see it differently."

With the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bush unexpectedly led an American citizenry united in intent.

Yet, eight years later, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush left his country more fragmented than at any point in living memory – a legacy that only foreshadowed the turmoil of the Trump presidency.

Bush's foray into Afghanistan resurfaced last week, with Biden declaring that all US troops will leave the country by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Bush said he was "deeply concerned" by the announcement, and his thoughts turned to Roya Mahboob, an Afghan refugee whose portrait he painted for his book, and her former countrywomen.

"My first reaction was, wow these girls are going to have real trouble with the Taliban," Bush told NBC.

The cost of the United States' involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been staggering: 6,800 Americans have died, along with hundreds of thousands of other casualties and trillions of dollars in US spending.

Torture and other human rights abuses were allegedly committed under Bush's watch. Nations held him responsible for trampling on the Middle East and beyond.

"Bush and many others overreacted to 9/11," said William Banks, professor emeritus of law at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs.

"I blame him and especially (vice president) Dick Cheney and then (defense secretary) Donald Rumsfeld for the reckless policies," Banks said.

However, Bush was "never nativist," and his latest immigration policies do not seem to be a "whitewashing" of history, but rather a sincere attempt at problem-solving, according to the professor.

"After four years of Trump, Bush 43 looks like Churchill," Banks said, referring to Britain's revered mid-century prime minister.

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