There are billboards in the U.S. with George W. Bush’s face and the slogan “Miss me yet?” The people answering “yes” are, unexpectedly, liberals. Since conservative activists have been campaigning against the construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York—egged on by many key Republicans—left-leaning commentators are nostalgically recalling Bush’s more enlightened attitude toward Islam. “For once,” wrote Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, “I really do miss George W. Bush.”
After 9/11, Bush combined his red-meat rhetoric (not to mention the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) with more conciliatory speeches. He visited an Islamic Centre in Washington, assured U.S. Muslims that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” and said that Muslim women who cover their heads “must not be intimidated in America.” When he was criticized for calling the War on Terror a “crusade,” he stopped using the term. Imam Faisal Rauf (who is now in charge of the planned mosque) was chosen by the Bush administration as a goodwill ambassador to the Middle East.
The left didn’t give Bush much credit for these gestures at the time, but he’s getting plenty now. Duncan Black, whose Eschaton blog was one of the most popular Bush-bashing sites, recently agreed that “after 9/11 Bush was surprisingly good about limiting the general anti-Muslim hate.” Even Stephen Colbert paid Bush a compliment on his show by showing a clip of one of his speeches as an example of conciliatory attitudes toward Islam.
Some think that Bush is a reason why anti-Muslim sentiment didn’t become a major problem after the attacks; his popularity with conservatives, wrote Joshua Marshall at the blog Talking Points Memo, “put a real brake on the forces of xenophobia, extremist religion and religious hatred.” Now, instead of discouraging such sentiments the way Bush did, Newt Gingrich said last week that putting a mosque near Ground Zero is like “putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.” Sarah Palin called on non-violent Muslims to “refudiate” Rauf’s mosque. Ron Ramsey, lieutenant-governor of Tennessee (where there have been attempts to block an Islamic centre), said that “you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion.”
According to the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, Bush knew it would be “a victory for the extremists” and a recruiting tool for terrorists if he had defined U.S. foreign policy “as a battle between the West and Islam.” Indeed, he used to mock conservative pundits who wanted him to bomb Iran, referring to so-called neoconservatives like William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys.”
By contrast, many potential GOP candidates today have embraced the clash-of-civilizations rhetoric. Gingrich apocalyptically warned that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” That sort of rallying cry would only further prove a point made recently by American Prospect’s Paul Waldman: “Today’s Republicans,” he wrote, “are making [George W.] look better and better.”