Whoever is minding George W. Bush's legacy these days sort of knows what they're doing: Here he is with Laura on Greta Van Susteren's show, talking about a conference for the rights of women. Just like Hillary Clinton! Sort of. And from a distance, Bush even has the added advantage of looking like a bleeding heart next to the nakedly evil Republican congressional leadership.
This year's conference of the US-Afghan Women's Council, described as "a public-private partnership set up by President Bush and President Karzai in 2002 to help Afghan women" focused on entrepreneurship. But it was a relatively easy leap from micro-enterprise to "how American businesses can help" to a rationale for staying in Afghanistan:
"My concern of course is that the United States gets weary of being in Afghanistan and says ‘It's not worth it, let's leave' and Laura and I believe that if that were to happen, women would suffer again," [Bush] told van Susteren. "And we don't believe that's in the interest of the United States or the world to create a safe haven for terrorists and stand by and watch women's rights be abused."
Oh, an even easier leap to "safe haven for terrorists." Did you by chance miss the blinding simplicity of our last president?
Hamid Karzai videoconferenced in to announce, "Definitely, affirmatively, I can assure you that the gains will be maintained" for women despite reconciliation with the Taliban. If he says so! We have had so many testimonials to his trustworthiness, including that pesky marital rape law (though he did bow to international pressure eventually) and the shutdown of women's shelters.
As if in sync, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg has announced in his column that "Feminism as a 'movement' in America is largely played out. The work here is mostly done.... The real war for women's equality is now a battle to be fought in foreign lands." Foreign Muslim lands, to be precise, Afghanistan among them.
It's not that the U.S. doesn't need to be concerned with the rights of women beyond our borders; it's that "women's rights" are thrown around so reductively as a uncontested, fixed entity that requires the gracious assistance and protection of our troops. Much gets lost here, as the UK Observer noted last year:
Repressive patriarchy is not exclusive to the Taliban, nor is it simply foisted on Afghan society by a minority religious junta. Many features of Taliban rule that are most distasteful to western political sensibilities are common also in areas controlled by tribal leaders and warlords loyal to President Hamid Karzai.
There is not a clear line where political rights end and fundamentalist dogmas take over. There is not a clear distinction between those Taliban who are driven by ideological Islamism in the al-Qaida mould and those who have been recruited out of ethnic Pashtun loyalty, as mercenaries or to serve some labyrinthine local vendetta.
You might console yourself that at least the Bushes pretend to give a shit about other people. This is the aspect that Jonathan Cohn laments in remembering the Bush support for community health clinics and AIDS funding, even if they came with all sorts of problematic baggage. There was at least the rhetoric of compassion:
Maybe those words were utterly sincere. Maybe they weren't. But ask yourself this: When was the last time you heard anything remotely like it from a prominent Republican? Even if compassionate conservatism was mostly hype, it said something about Bush, his allies, and their supporters that they thought the hype was worth creating.
Today, by contrast, Republican leaders are perfectly content to walk away from these programs and many others without so much as acknowledging the consequences, let alone addressing them. Poor people in the U.S. might not be able to get basic medical care? Victims of HIV abroad might lose their life-sustaining drugs? If Republicans have paused even a moment to think about these things, they sure haven't shown it.
Similarly, there has been no elaborate lip service shown to the rights of women within the United States. Unless you count John Boehner's addition of a women's bathroom near the House floor.