KUHNER: Bush’s mixed legacy

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COMMENTARY:

George W. Bush will go down as one of the most consequential presidents in American history.

For the past eight years, liberal conventional wisdom has held Mr. Bush is a rigid right-winger, a Christian cowboy obsessed with an anti-government ideology and imposing an American world empire. Mr. Bush, however, is not a conservative imperialist; rather, he is a big-government nationalist, who has presided over the greatest expansion of the state since the Great Society.

Conservatives made a mistake in believing Mr. Bush was one of their own. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he erected a domestic bureaucratic monstrosity, the Homeland Security Department. He implemented the Medicare prescription drug plan - a massive, new entitlement program. He pushed for the No Child Left Behind Act, carving out an unprecedented role for the federal government in education. He refused to take on the big spending, corrupt, pork-laden ways of the congressional Republicans. Under Mr. Bush’s watch, domestic spending exploded. Budget deficits have soared. The GOP is no longer the party of fiscal restraint and competence. The result: The party has become relegated to political minority status.

Mr. Bush’s greatest domestic achievements - tax cuts and appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court - preserved the fragile Republican coalition for much of his presidency.

But by his second term, conservatives began to revolt. They rightly opposed the Dubai ports deal, the nomination of Harriet Miers to the high court, and most importantly, the proposal granting amnesty to nearly 20 million illegal immigrants.

Mr. Bush’s enduring political legacy is the death of the conservative movement. He was not a small-government individualist in the mold of Ronald Reagan. In fact, he was the very embodiment of the “Third Way” fusing cultural conservatism and social liberalism that was espoused but never really implemented by the likes of former President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair: an activist big government combined with a defense of traditional values.

Conservatives did not mount a frontal assault on the Bush administration for one simple reason: the war on terror. Most on the right supported Mr. Bush’s foreign policy - and, therefore, they overlooked many of his flaws. Mostly, he was an ineffective communicator. It is not just that he mangled words, displayed a poor vocabulary, and uttered silly phrases such as “strategery” or “misunderestimated.” He presided over the most rhetorically inept administration in recent memory - a public diplomacy failure that enabled his opponents to misrepresent his national security strategy and fill the vacuum with lies and half-truths, especially about the Iraq war. It eventually cost Mr. Bush his popular standing at home and abroad, thereby reducing his presidency to rubble.

Mr. Bush, however, was farsighted in foreign policy. He toppled two dictatorships in Afghanistan and Iraq, liberating more than 50 million Muslims from totalitarian regimes. His actions broke the back of al Qaeda, disrupted countless terrorist cells, and exposed Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s corruption of the United Nations through the massive Oil-for-Food scandal.

Also, his administration dismantled A.Q. Khan’s international black market nuclear network. It convinced Libya to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program. It managed to contain rogue states, such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. It forged a path toward an independent Palestine - providing it embraces democracy and renounces terror. Most importantly, it achieved its primary goal: preventing another attack on American soil. Mr. Bush kept the American people safe. And he did this in the face of ferocious Democratic opposition and a hostile mainstream media.

Mr. Bush’s central insight is that the key to defeating Islamic fascism is to bring democracy to the Middle East. Arab autocracies have fostered the conditions for a culture of jihadism to take root. Political and economic reform will drain the swamps of Islamist terror at its source. This is why the Iraq war is pivotal to winning the larger war on terrorism: A stable, democratic Iraq will serve as a strategic linchpin for transforming the wider region. The Bush Doctrine is similar to President Harry Truman’s containment policy in one crucial respect: Mr. Bush has laid down the foundations for eventual victory - but only if his initiatives are sustained.

Just like Truman, Mr. Bush is a reviled leader. In fact, Truman’s popular approval ratings were even lower when he left office than Mr. Bush’s. Both men oversaw protracted, unpopular wars (Truman in Korea; Mr. Bush in Iraq). Both men ushered in transformative foreign policies opposed by media elites. Both men alienated key aspects of their base (Truman with economic liberals and Southern Democrats; Mr. Bush with fiscal conservatives and border security Republicans). And both men saw their respective political parties decline under withering partisan attacks (Truman from McCarthyism; Mr. Bush from the netroots, loony left).

Yet Truman is now viewed as a courageous, successful president. His staunch opposition to Soviet communism was vindicated. Mr. Bush’s principled stand against Islamofascism will be vindicated as well.

Thus, Mr. Bush’s legacy is that he was half-right: He ushered in more domestic big-government incompetence and was a foreign-policy visionary.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.

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