The accession of Barack Obama as president is an apt moment to reflect on the legacy of his much-maligned predecessor. It has become a familiar refrain that the Bush presidency amounted to eight years of failure, a harsh verdict ostensibly bolstered by the record-low approval ratings that George W. Bush will carry from the White House – among the lowest since Harry Truman exited the capital in 1953.
Yet, the comparison is instructive in another way as well. Truman left Washington on a wave of popular discontent over the Korean War, scorned by his own party and too unpopular to stand for reelection, only to be vindicated by events as the president who put the country on a war footing against the threat of the Soviet Union. It is not to downplay the very real failings of his administration to suggest that a similar rehabilitation may be in store for the 43rd president. On the big questions confronting his presidency – the threat posed by Islamic terrorism and the urgent task of protecting the country from another 9/11 – President Bush had the right answers.
No assessment of the Bush presidency will ever be complete without mention of Iraq. The decision to topple Saddam Hussein was a bold departure from the previous U.S. policy of “containment,” and for a time it seemed that the gamble would not pay off. As the triumphant invasion gave way to the macabre theater of post-war Iraq, the administration was widely condemned for the war’s initial failures: the absence of weapons of mass destruction; the emergence of the terrorist insurgency; the country’s violent descent into political and sectarian strife. This criticism was not unjustified. The failure to find WMDs and the demonstrable want of post-war planning proved especially costly to the credibility and success of the American-led mission.
But this was only part of the story. The policy of “containment,” notwithstanding its revived popularity during the war years, had been a dismal failure. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was in violation of 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, yet the rogue state paid no price for its defiance of international law. In invading Iraq, the U.S. did not so much flout the U.N. as enforce its rulings. The failure to locate WMDs, though a serious setback, was hardly the Bush administration’s blunder alone. Prior to the Iraq War, the consensus of all leading intelligence agencies held that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.
The lack of post-war strategy was a more grievous failing by the administration, precipitating five years of bloodletting and obscuring the spectacular military campaign that had ousted Saddam’s tyrannical regime. But if President Bush properly deserves the blame for the early failures of the war, he necessarily deserves credit for the “surge” strategy that has salvaged what seems tantalizingly close to victory from the jaws of near-certain defeat. Not all of the former president’s personnel decisions have been beyond reproach –the ill-fated Supreme Court nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers comes to mind – but his delegation of Iraq strategy to Army General David Petraeus will be remembered as the move that turned the tide in a war that many Americans had resolved themselves to losing. “I didn’t go over there and surrender,” Truman would later say of the Korean War. President Bush can justly say the same about Iraq.
Whether the war has justified its cost in blood and treasure remains an open question, but this much cannot be disputed. Since 2003, a brutal regime has been ousted, and eight million Iraqis have braved terror and intimidation to vote in the first free election in Iraq’s history. Slowly but steadily, a stable democratic government and a U.S. ally is emerging in the heart of the Arab world, backed by a multi-ethnic Iraqi national army on pace to maintain law and order when American forces leave. Al-Qaeda, whose strategy envisioned turning Iraq into a base of operations, has been soundly defeated with the aid of Iraqis, while Shiite militants like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army have been marginalized.
It is a measure of the hard-won achievements in Iraq that even President Obama, who made rapid withdrawal from Iraq a central pillar of his campaign, has come to appreciate the wisdom of preserving them. Last week, Vice-President Biden signaled his approval for a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that would set a three-year timeframe for the full withdrawal of American forces – a far cry from the 16-month timetable with which Obama had once rallied his supporters.
Iraq of course is only one front in the “war on terror.” This, too, is a testament to the administration’s foreign-policy achievement. Where the 1990s marked a “holiday from history,” as America rejoiced in its Cold War victory and al-Qaeda plotted a devastating attack, the post-9/11 years were the age of the “Bush doctrine”: a time when the United States would make no distinction between terrorists and the states that harbored them, and when it would act militarily to remove those threats, preemptively if necessary.
Contrary to the administration’s critics, these were not novel notions in American policymaking. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has noted, America’s involvement in “preemptive wars” dates back at least to 1814, when the U.S. invaded Spanish-ruled west Florida on the grounds of self-defense. The Bush administration simply revived them for the age of global terrorism and underground nuclear trafficking. Hence the American involvement in Afghanistan and, less prominently, the American military’s ongoing efforts to train count-terrorism forces throughout Africa and Latin America. Political rhetoric aside, it’s hard to see any American administration, Republican or Democrat, abandoning the core principles of the “Bush doctrine.” If anything, President Obama has repeatedly stressed his intention to strengthen the American presence in Afghanistan.
While putting the United States on the offensive against jihadist terrorism, the Bush administration made an equally important contribution to domestic defense. Despite its regrettably Orwellian acronym, the PATRIOT Act has proved critical, breaking down the “wall” that prevented intelligence sharing between law enforcement and national security agencies while providing investigators with new tools and cracking down on funders of terrorism. Thanks in part to the PATRIOT Act and similar legislation, the Department of Justice reports that it has “prevented a number of domestic and international terrorist plots and successfully prosecuted many of those involved.” Those prosecutions include not only aspiring terrorists like “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and would-be 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, but also terrorist financiers like Hamas-linked charities the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and the Global Relief Foundation. More broadly, the administration’s record speaks for itself: In the years since 9/11, there has not been a single terrorist attack on American soil, an achievement few thought possible in the aftermath of the attacks.
Even the most controversial elements in the administration’s counterterrorism program – the warrantless surveillance of foreign communications and the detention facility in Gauntanamo Bay, Cuba – are being vindicated just as President Bush leaves office. The New York Times reported last week on the judgment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court of Review, which found that the administration did indeed have the constitutional right to order domestic wiretapping without warrants – a telling concession from a newspaper that had spent years vilifying the administration for its alleged abuses of FISA authority. The outgoing president has also won a little-noticed victory on Guantanamo, as his successor has recently acknowledged that its detainees are “very dangerous,” and that the facility can be closed only in such a way that it “doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.” In this context, it is probably prudent of President Obama to reject an inquiry into Bush administration counterterrorism programs like domestic surveillance and the treatment of terrorist captives. Considering their record of success, it would come as no surprise if he adopted them during his administration.
This is not to deny that serious mistakes were made during the Bush years. Some of these stemmed from flawed principles. In making of virtue of democracy promotion, the administration too often forgot that democratic elections were a means to an end and not an end in themselves. The empowerment of Hamas in Gaza in the 2006 Palestinian elections was one unfortunate consequence. But many of the administration’s missteps were a result of its failure to abide by the very principles it had set forth. In North Korea, the administration offered the Stalinist regime of Kim Jong-il one olive branch after another. In dealing with Iran, it chose to outsource diplomatic efforts to European allies. In both cases, the administration abjured its own policy of confronting terror-sponsoring states, with grimly predicable results: the likely nuclear armament of a communist tyranny and of a revolutionary Islamist state. That the administration won no plaudits for its determined multilateralism only underscores how deluded was its chosen diplomatic course.
Still, the fact remains that President Bush’s current unpopularity reflects not the failure of his administration but its success. As 9/11 faded from the country’s collective memory, the admonition to “never forget” the lessons of the day became just another slogan. A CNN poll released this September 11 found that concerns about a terrorist attack were “the lowest point on record since the attacks of September 11, 2001.” Meanwhile, just 10 percent of Americans considered terrorism “the most important issue” in casting their vote for the president. Bush well appreciated the phenomenon, which he explained in his farewell address last week: “As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.” Whatever his other failings, the president was true to his word. In the long term, history will remember him much more fondly than the country he has led.