The cover story for the October Atlantic is an open letter from Andrew Sullivan to former President Bush. The subject is torture. Sullivan appeals to Bush to end his silence and intercede directly in the current debate by acknowledging that his administration’s torture policies were a mistake. Over the past eight years, Sullivan underwent a remarkable transformation—from a strong supporter of Bush and champion of the Iraq War, to one of the fiercest critics of Bush and of the way he went about pursuing the war. Yet his voice in this letter is extremely conciliatory. One of the most remarkable things about it is a catalogue of the things Bush got right. I don’t agree with Sullivan’s entire list, but reading it through did make me think that his critics over the last eight years have largely refused him his due.
We are still far from fully understanding the internal processes that led to the introduction of the torture regime. At this point, however, it is clear both that Dick Cheney originated the torture policies and that, since the 2008 election, he has taken ownership of them. Bush’s own role is ambiguous, but it seems clear that around the time of the Abu Ghraib disclosures he took a decision to halt many of the worst abuses of the program. It also seems clear that this program was a point of friction between Bush and Cheney that became progressively more acute as his term wore down.
Is there any serious prospect that Bush will do as Sullivan asks? One of Bush’s most revealing traits throughout his presidency was his tenacious refusal to acknowledge any mistakes. Of course, that may have been motivated by tactical political concerns, which fade at the end of a presidency. If Bush really is concerned about his legacy, there is little he could do now that would restore it more than to offer the public the candid and critical introspection that Sullivan recommends.