Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Legacy of George W Bush

The presidency of George W. Bush will be hotly debated in the near future. Many who denigrate his work will do so because they've never forgiven him for the 2000 election, others simply because he’s a Republican. More than a few will continue to feel betrayed by President Bush, and others will honestly believe he was the best thing that could have happened to the United States of America.

As the years lengthen and emotions fade, how will historians and political scientists rate his administration? Decades hence, will they be able to say he had a good presidency, a bad one, or simply a very complicated one?

I am persuaded that long term the judgment of history will be that he was an imperfect president, one with a spotty record, but also one who did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.

The September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent “War on Terror” will no doubt be the part of the Bush years that provokes the most debate and the most books in the decades to come, and since I can do little more than scratch the surface here, I will simply make a few brief statements on the topic.

Conspiracy theorists not withstanding, I don’t think most people believe the Bush administration “allowed” the attacks to occur. If the administration and/or intelligence community dropped the ball prior to 9/11, they certainly made up for it afterwards. On Sept. 10, 2001, no one believed we could suffer such a blow; on Sept. 12, 2001, no one believed we would go more than a couple of years without another. The seven years that have passed without another incident can certainly be attributed to many things, but anyone who denies the Bush administration’s hand in it is blinded by ideology.

Patriot Act & Privacy
Terrorists are an enemy unlike any we’ve ever faced and we have spent the last seven years searching for the right way to deal with them. We’ve had some hits, we’ve had some misses, and we’ve had to reconsider our old ways of thinking on many issues. Privacy rights have been one of the latter.

One of the tools the government has used to keep the country safe is the Patriot Act and similar laws. Much of this was devoted to changing how the intelligence community worked, but no small part of it concerned changing how they gathered intelligence – even in the US. Our founders new there would be crises that would require setting aside certain rights, and the Bush administration thought this was one of them. History may judge that they went too far, but in the end I think people will realize that this was a necessary sacrifice to prevent another 9/11.

The first realization post 9/11 was that those who harbored terrorists must be treated as enemies. We needed to make the cost of providing aid and comfort to al Qaida and company too high for anyone to take the risk. This also created an opportunity to do some real good in a part of the world that was suffering under oppressive regimes. We’ve been more successful with one part of that than the other. Though we haven’t rid the world of state sponsors of terrorists, we can point to real improvements in the lives of Afghanis. And the Taliban is out of power, though they have not lost all influence in the region.

The second realization post 9/11 was that we could not afford to let trouble spots continue to fester until they blew up in our faces – be it another terrorist attack, possibly with much more potent weapons, or another attack on an oil-rich ally. That realization, combined with Saddam Hussein’s continued violation of the Gulf War cease-fire agreements, resulted in the decision to invade Iraq.

Though history will probably record that Iraq possessed few non-conventional weapons, it will also confirm that every major power in the world believed otherwise and that Hussein’s goal was to re-establish WMD programs once the sanctions lapsed. Had the US and its allies not invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein would probably have achieved nuclear weapons before Iran, and it takes little imagination to envision what the presence a nuclear Iraq would have done to the Middle East.

Here, too, history will confirm that a “mistaken” invasion of Iraq resulted in great improvements in the lives of millions of people and the creation of the Middle East’s first Arab democracy.

Of course, Iraq and the “War on Terror” will bring up Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. I think history’s evaluation of these will be mixed. First, we have to confirm that people do bad things at times, and that the soldiers in Iraq are often the same age as frat boys. Given sufficient stress and peer pressure, 20-year-olds do stupid things. But I think time will provide the perspective to say that making a man wear a dog collar is not torture in the strictest sense of the word.

In Guantanamo, history will, I believe, acknowledge that the US faced an unusual situation – a war not against a nation but a diverse group with no uniforms and no rules. Though it may not judge that we acted properly in all of our treatment of the not-prisoners-of-war there, I think it will at least appreciate the struggle to determine what to do with combatants to whom no rules or precedents apply and who may hold knowledge vital to protecting American civilians and soldiers.

Outside of the War on Terror, but not unrelated to it, President Bush has a mixed record but is often unfairly criticized; I believe history will judge that his presidency was largely successful on this front.

Global Popularity
The prevailing opinion today is that the US has suffered a severe loss of popularity and credibility in the eyes of other countries – both their leaders and the people. Eventually historians will say that is both true and untrue.

Many of those who dislike the US very loudly today felt the same way before George W. Bush was president. The only change has been that the American media has given them the opportunity to voice their feelings. Many of these people dislike the US for being “Christian,” a democracy, or powerful. They have not liked us and will not like us as long as those conditions do not change.

But there are those who have truly turned against us. Some of these are appalled by the notion of preemptive military action; these people are certainly within their rights, but it is worth noting that a great many of these people are from countries that have largely abandoned any military power at all. They have a completely different way of looking at the world than the US, and there is little we can do to change that.

Another group may be classified as fickle friends. These people are easy to get along with as long as we do what they want. Once we disagree, they turn against us. This immature attitude can be triggered by our foreign policy, economic policies, environmental policies, or military actions. These people cannot be friends who agree to disagree; they must denigrate those with whom they disagree, and the only way to please them is to obey them on every issue.

While recognizing the many people who disliked the US in this period, history will acknowledge that the US maintained many friendships and made others and that President Bush’s “unilateral” action in Iraq involved dozens of other countries whose leaders, and often people, viewed the world in terms similar to his.

Axis of Evil
History will also show that many of those who criticized the US’s actions regarding Iraq immediately expected the US to take care of North Korea – which will also be seen as a case study of what Iraq could have become had it achieved nuclear weapons.

These same people were actually invited to engage Iran on the subject of its nuclear weapons program. Any historian with any sense of irony will mention the steady progress of Iran’s nuclear program when discussing the calls for more “diplomacy” with Saddam Hussein.

On non-military issues, the Bush administration has faired no better. Mr. Bush has been roundly criticized for refusing to sign the same Kyoto treaty rejected by his predecessor and given no credit for the actual decrease in “global warming” gases from the US.

Long term, I think history will lump global warming in with comet pills, but given the political climate of the day, I think historians will see the wisdom of striving to limit CO2 without signing impossible agreements that would have hamstrung our economy to advantage of our biggest competitors.

President Bush has been ignored on the AIDS issue as much as he’s been criticized on the environment, but one day the record will show that his administration made huge efforts not only to increase funding to international AIDS programs but also to implement new programs to improve the lives of AIDS patients and curb the spread of the disease, especially in Africa.

On domestic issues, Mr. Bush has been no less polarizing than abroad. His policies have generally been wildly popular with one group and vilified by the other – and it was not always his party that supported his plans.

Mr. Bush’s first and most important domestic victory was his tax cuts. Historians who are not conditioned to hate tax cuts will no doubt point to these moves as the saving grace of the 2000-2001 recession. Not only did they keep vital capital in the public sector, they serve as another set of evidence that sensible tax cuts can stimulate the economy and ultimately raise government revenues. (Extravagant government spending is a separate issue.)

President Bush has been very unpopular with the opposing party on international issues; he’s been equally unpopular with his own party on many domestic ones. Here I think historians will point back to two of Mr. Bush’s promises from his first campaign – the “new tone” and “compassionate conservatism.” These goals, combined with the problems of waging a war, will probably be seen to have resulted in some domestic moves that were very unpopular with his base.

Federal embryonic stem cell research funding, “No Child Left Behind,” campaign finance reform, and the Medicare prescription drug program will likely all be seen as compromise positions intended to give both sides a little of what was important to them – especially Congressional Democrats whose cooperation was vital to the war effort.

Of course, it’s debatable how much Democratic good will these moves actually earned Mr. Bush, but I think history will recognize that he made a sincere effort at achieving the “new tone,” especially early in his presidency.

One can question whether the Bush administration’s efforts at compromise achieved anything of importance on the issues named above, but there are some issues where all the Bush presidency will be credited with is raising awareness. Those issues include Social Security and immigration reform.

The former was essentially dead on arrival to a Congress afraid of doing anything that might be interpreted as harming a very popular program. The latter only succeeded in creating a firestorm that may have hurt his party in at least the next two federal elections –by alienating both the GOP base and Hispanic voters.

2008 Economic Crisis
It’s hard to predict what will be said about this president and this crisis when we’re still trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but I think two things will be emphasized by future historians:

First, the Bush administration called this thing years before it happened. They certainly could have worked harder to prevent the eventual crisis, but they identified at least some of the dangers in the mortgage market years before the crisis was realized and called for reform.

Second, when the crisis hit, Pres. Bush did not cling to his ideology when he thought it was not working. To use his phrase, he opted, right or wrong, for “compassionate” over “conservative.”

Looking at an 8-year administration as a whole, I think the judgment of history will be that President Bush did well at his first priority – keeping the American people safe. I think it will be said that he knew there was a time to stand by your principles and a time to compromise and that he was guided by his sense of right and wrong more than his sense of Right and Left. I don’t know that history will judge him to be a great president, but I think in the end he will be seen to have been a good president and a good man.

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