Sigmund Freud was unavailable for comment, but George W Bush saying Iraq instead of Ukraine when condemning “a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion” certainly suggests he still has a lot on his unconscious mind.
The former president jokingly attributed the slip to his 75 years, but there has always been a faulty connection between his brain and his tongue. There are whole books full of “Bushisms”, like his boast that people “misunderestimated” him, and how much he felt for single mothers “working hard to put food on your family”.
There may have been something Freudian about his 2004 warning that America’s enemies “never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we”. And then there was the time he was thanking an army general for his service in 2008, telling him he “really snatched defeat out of the jaws of those who are trying to defeat us in Iraq”.
Bush has already told us that the fiasco of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction still troubles him.
“No one was more shocked and angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons,” he wrote in his memoir, Decision Points.
“I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”
But Bush sought to justify the 2003 invasion anyway, on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a vicious despot “pursuing” weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and therefore the US was safer without him in the world.
The 43rd president was making a similar argument to an audience at his presidential library in Dallas when he made his gaffe on Wednesday.
Bush was making a distinction between a democratically elected Volodymyr Zelenskiy, “the Churchill of the 21st century”, and the rigged elections and despotism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the absence of checks and balances led to “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq – I mean Ukraine”.
The audience laughed along, but the mistake was a reminder that the world is still living with the consequences of that invasion. It broke Iraq and set off a sectarian civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
Nearly two decades on, it continues to weaken the US on the world stage, and is undoubtedly a factor in the ambivalence of countries in Africa and the Middle East over joining a decisive global response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Putin has cynically copied from the Iraq playbook the Bush administration left behind, with spurious claims of Ukrainian WMD. The US failure to prosecute war crimes by US troops and contractors, its use of torture in the “global war on terror” and Bush’s campaign to undermine the international criminal court, all contributed to a more permissive environment for the many crimes against humanity that have followed Iraq, from Syria to Ukraine and well beyond.
Wednesday’s Bushism was a reminder that for all the former president’s aw shucks self-deprecatory jokes about Iraq, it was never really funny.