The fight over George W. Bush’s legacy has begun in earnest.
The encomiums, the odes, the words of praise for President Bush - long reviled by many - are beginning to usher forth.
Fareed Zakaria began the reassessment of the president’s eight years in office with his mid-August Newsweek cover story, “What Bush Got Right.”
Mr. Zakaria’s verdict was critical in many respects, but now come a trio of essays that argue that Mr. Bush, in his foreign policy at least, will be vindicated over time.
“Whatever else the Bush administration has failed to do, it has not failed to protect Americans from another attack on the homeland,” conservative heavyweight Robert Kagan writes in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum says in the fall issue of Foreign Policy that the Bush administration’s approach in Iraq and Southeast Asia will be carried on by Mr. Bush’s successors.
American historian Edward Luttwak goes so far as to call Mr. Bush “a Truman for our times,” a comparison to the president who left office deeply unpopular but is seen in history’s long view as having done many things right.
The flurry of acclaim for Mr. Bush has stirred controversy. Many analysts and historians strongly disagree with the claim that the man who called himself “the decider” will ever be viewed positively.
Nevertheless, “time has a way of accentuating the positive,” said Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. “He is so vilified right now by historians and so unpopular with the public that he can’t go anywhere but up.”
A global legacy
Praise for Mr. Bush so far has been limited generally to his foreign policy - there are few fans of his domestic fiscal management - but the appearance now of strong pro-Bush arguments marks the beginning of the battle over how he’ll be remembered.
Analysts, historians and political experts interviewed by The Washington Times were split evenly in their opinions.
“I suspect history will judge his foreign policy mistakes even more harshly than many do now. The enormity of his miscalculation on [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and Russia is only now becoming clear,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution.
“The cost of the Iraq war will be borne by future generations who will ask why Bush did not raise taxes to pay for his adventure in Mesopotamia,” said Mr. Riedel, a former CIA officer.
Thomas W. Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, said that “the relatively modest gains of Bush’s second term amount mostly to damage control, not positive global leadership.”
“The turnaround in Iraq was largely the work of General [David H.] Petraeus. The North Korea deal is substantially the same as the 1994 agreement of the Clinton administration,” Mr. Lippman said.
“And don’t forget that searching look into the soul of Vladimir Putin.”
Mr. Zakaria’s Newsweek cover story made many of the same points. He said Mr. Bush’s foreign policy changes in his second term were “admissions of failure.”
“No matter what he does, or what happens in the world, the public seems to have decided that Bush has been a failure. As a result, both [presidential] candidates are promising a change from the Bush presidency,” he wrote.
However, Mr. Zakaria also cautioned against diverging from the Bush administration’s current approaches to today’s major geopolitical challenges: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.
“The foreign policies in place now are more sensible, moderate and mainstream. In many cases, the next president should follow rather than reverse them,” Mr. Zakaria advised.
Tacking to the center
Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have tacked toward the middle in their approach to Iran and North Korea, opting to allow European negotiators to take the lead with Tehran and accepting a less-than-total declaration from Pyongyang of its denuclearization progress.
This has appeased some former critics, but it also has enraged past advocates such as John R. Bolton, the president’s former United Nations ambassador, who advocates a hard line against the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang.
Mr. Bolton deemed the Bush presidency’s foreign policy to be “in total intellectual collapse.”
Yet Michael J. Green, a former top Asia policy adviser to Mr. Bush, said that if Iran and North Korea preserve their nuclear programs, “historians will note that Tehran and Pyongyang blew right through the diplomatic approaches of Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43.”
“In other words, there will be plenty of blame to go around,” he said.
Mr. Green argued that “much of the current mythology about the failures in Bush foreign policy is factually wrong.”
“Critics argue, for example, that the United States has lost its standing in the world, but in the most dynamic regions of the world - particularly Asia - the United States is much more popular today than it was before Bush came to office,” he said.
The same holds true for Africa, where the president’s massive aid packages to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases have made him a hero to many on the continent and even have impressed Europeans.
“I think George W. Bush will be rated fairly well. Perhaps not as high as his father, but higher than his predecessor,” Mr. Green said.
In the end, “it’s how these things turn out,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.
“The president gets off this escalator, he can’t stop it, it keeps going, and in 10 or 20 years, the Middle East looks like this or that,” Mr. Hess said. “In a sense, he’s held hostage by how well his policies ultimately do.
“It is fascinating to see how many presidents we once thought of as disasters are now being written about as pretty good.”