January 14, 2009
A Flawed Legacy
The fact that George W. Bush is about the most unpopular president in history does not necessarily mean he is the worst president in history. Popularity is judged during one’s term in office, with all the immediacy of turbulent political passion. Historical judgment will rest on cooler appraisals, from a dispassionate distance. Moreover, popularity and leadership are not identical. Abraham Lincoln was reviled in office; Harry Truman’s unpopularity rivaled Bush’s. Today both have taken their places among the most highly regarded presidents.
Also, when high stakes require high-risk decisions, if you succeed, you’re considered a genius; if you fail, you’re considered an idiot. Thanks to the Islamist attacks of Sept. 11, Bush had a much more high-stakes presidency than almost anyone expected. Every president, like every human being, makes mistakes. Bush’s were bound to be magnified in significance.
Still, things don’t look good for Bush and his reputation. He is neither evil nor stupid. But his inclination to lofty rhetoric with inadequate preparation or inconsistent follow-through has doomed even his better ideas. (And not every idea was so wonderful.) This is the recurring theme throughout his presidency. Some examples:
Israel. No one doubts Bush’s commitment to Israel’s security. Yet his policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians have not enhanced Israeli security. Bush correctly identified liberalization of Palestinian society as a condition for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. He correctly rejected chief terrorist Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner. But he insisted on premature Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas to power. Hamas’ implacable Islamism has brought a rain of terror on Israel and a reign of terror in Gaza.
Compounding that mistake, he embraced the new Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who said last February, “Now we are against armed conflict because we are unable. In the future stages, things may be different…. “ U.S. policy has reverted to propping up a Palestinian strongman instead of demanding changes in Palestinian society and political culture. The desire for a quick peace treaty made Bush forget that treaties are worthless as long as the Palestinians who matter — the ones with guns, bombs and rockets — still hope to displace Israel.
Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran/The War Against Islamism. After Sept. 11, Bush rose to the challenge, however imperfectly. He overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and drove al-Qaeda into the mountains. He recognized that Islamism is the enemy. He understood that to defeat the enemy, liberalization must come to the Muslim world. Afghanistan today is an emerging democracy, as is Iraq, after its liberation from Saddam Hussein. These are important achievements.
But it has not been done well. Our Iraq mission long teetered on the edge of disaster. It took Bush too long to change tactics. Afghanistan, thrust into the background while Bush focused on Iraq, is menaced by the Taliban again. Most seriously, Bush has not pushed consistently for reform in the Arab world. Bush has never seriously challenged Saudi Arabia, the fountainhead of Wahhabi propaganda. After prodding Egypt on free elections, Bush accepted sham reforms; now Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour sits in prison. Reform in Lebanon has stalled as Hezbollah subverts the government. Throughout the Middle East, liberals wonder whether they can really count on American support over the long haul.
Bush’s Iran policy in particular has been a failure. He repeatedly announced, “America will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.” These were empty words. The mullahs ignored U.N. resolutions and pretended to negotiate, buying time to enrich uranium; Bush has watched, speaking loudly and not using the sticks at his disposal. At this stage Iran is actually very likely to acquire nuclear weapons.
National Security/Civil Liberties. The claim that Bush shredded the Constitution is unserious. Undeniably, the balance between personal liberties and personal security has shifted toward the latter. But many would argue that this is appropriate in time of war; not being murdered by terrorists is also a civil right. Thus, for example, while it’s debatable whether the Patriot Act was necessary, it has done little real damage.
But Bush plainly overreached at times. The status of the detainees at Guantanamo is legally complex and just what rights they should be accorded is something reasonable people can argue about. But it was tyrannical to forbid access to the courts, even to determine whether their detention had any factual basis. Bush stubbornly clung to this policy long after reflection should have revealed its error.
Again and again, whatever his intentions, Bush achieved poor results. Everyone agrees on the importance of ending American dependence on foreign oil. What did Bush accomplish? Nothing. The No Child Left Behind Act, in the name of “high standards,” requires all students to become above average, a logical impossibility. While he didn’t bring down the economy single-handedly, he has presided over its collapse.
The arguments over Bush’s place in history will go on for a long time. But today we must judge his presidency, if not a failure, at least a series of lost and mismanaged opportunities.l