- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2010

BRINGING AMERICA HOME: HOW AMERICA LOST HER WAY AND HOW WE CAN FIND OUR WAY BACK

By Tom Pauken

Chronicles Press,$29.95, 204 pages

Reviewed by Brett M. Decker

It took the Obama administration less than a year to instill nostalgia for George W. Bush in the American psyche. President Obama’s approval numbers are not only lower than President Bush’s were at this point in his presidency, the O Force is even less popular than the joke that was the Jimmy Carter administration. This trend reminds that when presidential legacies are in play, hindsight is often a better political barometer than judgments made in the heat of the moment, especially after eight years when the public is suffering a hangover from any two-termer.

The shifting dynamic of presidential reappraisal can be particularly flattering to a former leader when his successor in the White House is a total disaster. Mr. Bush will look better gradually because Mr. Obama’s policies are driving this country over the cliff. It’s inevitable. Voter remorse after Bill Clinton took office in 1993 almost immediately benefited former President George Herbert Walker Bush, who saw his place in the sun grow brighter with the same voters who thumbed down his hopes for a second term only a year before. In early 1980, following the Carter days of malaise, Gerald Ford was the most popular politician in America even though he ignominiously was sent packing in 1976 after a mere partial term.

Not everyone on the right is on board for George W’s historical reappraisal, however. In his new book, “Bringing America Home,” Tom Pauken sets out to rain on any revisionist Bush parade. Before even cracking the spine to lay eyes on the first page, the following questions are posed on the book jacket: “How did the Bush administration squander the political capital that Goldwater-Reagan conservatives took more than three decades to build? How did America go from having the strongest economy in the world to facing our most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression?” Mr. Pauken’s simplistic answer is that W blew it.

It’s undeniable that Republicans took their collective eye off the ball regarding some central conservative tenets in recent years, such as the need to cut orgiastic government spending. The moniker “compassionate conservative” justifiably makes proud, committed conservatives cringe because it implies that our dedication to individual responsibility and private charity is somehow not beneficent. All that said, the 43rd president won some significant victories. Putting Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court guarantees that traditional values will be defended for years to come, especially regarding the right to life. It’s also important not to forget that Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their leadership prevented this country from getting attacked again on our own soil after the devastating Islamic surprise offensive of Sept. 11, 2001. This success wasn’t because there was a lack of anti-American nut jobs gunning for us.

The fight against Islam naturally leads into the Iraq bugaboo. Mr. Pauken writes, “Militant Islam is an even greater threat to Western civilization than international communism was.” He correctly identifies this struggle as “a religious war” and invokes the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, during which Christian naval forces routed the Ottoman fleet to squelch the Muslim menace targeting Europe. He then goes on to argue that the Iraq invasion was a mistake, and today’s epic war against jihad can be won without “the use of military force in the Middle East as the the primary option.” This view ignores one of the most plausible defenses for the Iraq war, which is nonetheless politically sensitive to admit: After Sept. 11, the United States needed to park an army somewhere in the Middle East to get the message across to Arab states that their governments could be ousted quickly if they didn’t put a lid on radical Islamic sentiment bubbling up inside their borders. Iraq made the most convenient parking lot because Saddam Hussein had spurned international weapons inspectors and wasn’t well-liked by his neighbors, meaning his overthrow was unlikely to spark a wider Arab uprising in his defense. In the meantime, America was using professional soldiers to fight Islamists in the desert rather than in Manhattan.

As for the big picture, the author states, “Our first goal must be to recapture a Republican Party that has been taken over by Machiavellian pragmatists and neoconservative ideologues masquerading as ‘Reagan conservatives.’ ” Not as many elephants working in Washington are soulless moderate sellouts as he would like you to believe. The fact that it’s nearly impossible to roll back the government leviathan when conservatives have power reflects the real-world challenges of governing, especially when the 10-million-strong federal bureaucracy of careerists and contractors is fighting reform every step of the way. For evidence of the difficulty, we only have to consider Mr. Pauken’s oft-referenced heroes: Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The first never won executive power, and the Gipper - as great a visionary as he was - was unable to fundamentally downsize what the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent, calls Fedzilla. It’s no simple feat to implement conservative principles even when staying true to them. Today’s crises simply are not all George W. Bush’s fault.

Brett M. Decker, editorial page editor of The Washington Times, served in the first and second George W. Bush administrations.