Monday, January 19, 2009

George W. Bush, whose eight years in the White House end tomorrow at noon, leaves the presidency a very unpopular man - very much like President Harry Truman when he left office in 1953. As historians carefully examined the larger Truman presidential record over the next few decades, his legacy changed substantially, and to some extent this could be the case with Mr. Bush.

Some diehards have hated Mr. Bush since his first, cliffhanger, election in 2000, thinking somehow he was and is an illegitimate president, even though a variety of independent post-election studies of Florida votes show he beat Al Gore no matter how the count was conducted or interpreted. Today Mr. Bush’s unpopularity stems from the credit crisis and declining economy; the war in Iraq; and the federal government’s performance in handling Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. But just as it was a mistake to judge Mr. Truman’s presidency based solely on the Korean War or the communist takeover in China, it would be wrong to view the Bush presidency solely through the prism of the credit crisis, Katrina or the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The credit crisis had many fathers, from laws and policies passed in Democratic administrations to greed and terrible thinking by financial institutions and individual homebuyers alike. Katrina was an unprecedented disaster that overwhelmed all levels of government. Iraq had actually used WMDs in its war against Iran and subsequently defied repeated U.N. efforts to verify compliance with its promises to get rid of its arsenals. In context, Monday morning quarterbacking in these areas is somewhat unfair.

When al Qaeda struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, it appeared certain that terrorists would attack the American homeland again. But that has not happened - thanks at least in part to the Bush administration’s vigilance. In the past seven-plus years, U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies foiled numerous terrorist attempts to strike this country. These included plots to blow up skyscrapers in Chicago and Los Angeles; to bomb the military base at Ft. Dix, N.J.; and to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. The Treasury Department launched an aggressive campaign to cut off U.S. sources of funding for terrorist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

Last summer Mr. Bush won passage of legislation reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) after fending off efforts by congressional Democrats to hamstring U.S. intelligence agencies’ ability to monitor terrorists. Mr. Bush thwarted Democratic efforts to force U.S. intelligence agencies to obtain warrants to listen to terrorists’ overseas telephone calls if they were transferred using switches that were located in the United States. Mr. Bush was also successful in winning retroactive liability protection for telecommunications companies that cooperated with Washington’s requests to wiretap terrorist telephone calls after September 11. The apoplectic concern over waterboarding (simulated drowning) techniques authorized by Mr. Bush that the CIA used against suspected terrorists (which the agency ended in 2006) involved a grand total of three - count ‘em, three - cases.

Thanks to Mr. Bush, more than 55 million people today in Afghanistan and Iraq are freed from brutal dictatorships: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban staged a comeback with the help of radical Islamists who re-supplied it from bases in neighboring Pakistan, and in Iraq there was for a time a brutal terrorist insurgency following the fall of Saddam Hussein. After Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned in late 2006 and was replaced by Robert Gates, Mr. Bush made the critical decision that changed the course of the war: bringing in Gen. David Petraeus to head the Multinational Force in Iraq and sending close to 30,000 additional troops there (against intense partisan opposition) as part of a counterinsurgency strategy focused on protecting Iraqi civilians from terrorists. As Mr. Bush leaves office, al Qaeda, the most violent terror group in Iraq, has effectively been defeated. The security situation has improved to such a degree that last month Washington and Baghdad signed an agreement to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Administration officials, in particular former Undersecretary of State John Bolton, pressed relentlessly to force Iran to come clean about its nuclear-weapons programs. But during Mr. Bush’s second term, Mr. Bolton’s tough stance gave way to a much softer policy advanced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: one that involved working with the European Union to try to reform Iran’s behavior by providing it with “peaceful” nuclear technology and other incentives. But Tehran continued to stonewall, and the administration leaves with little to show for its multilateralist second-term approach beyond a number of flaccid Security Council resolutions condemning Iran.

Equally unsurprising, the administration was unsuccessful in its efforts to persuade North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons in exchange for a variety of economic and diplomatic concessions, including diplomatic recognition, removal from the U.S. list of terror-supporting states, and financial assistance. But the Bush administration scored a number of critical successes in areas including nonproliferation and missile defense. Mr. Bush signed agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland to build a missile defense system in Europe that would defend against an Iranian ballistic-missile or nuclear-weapons attack and began to deploy missile defense systems in Alaska and California, and aboard U.S. naval vessels in the Pacific, to deter a North Korean attack. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a voluntary U.S.-led effort involving more than 90 nations, helped uncover the Pakistan-based A.Q. Khan atomic-weapons network, which was providing nuclear equipment and technical expertise to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Seven new countries entered NATO during the Bush presidency. But Russia’s August invasion of Georgia served as a reminder about Moscow’s willingness to intimidate an independent, democratic nation that had been left essentially defenseless because it had yet to be granted admission to the alliance.

The Middle East proved to be a political roller-coaster for Mr. Bush, as it has with most presidents of the past half-century. In June, 2002 Mr. Bush announced a major diplomatic initiative aimed at creating an independent, democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. During the next six and a half years, Israel withdrew from parts of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip. In Gaza, the response to Israel’s pullout was a massive increase in the firing of rockets into the Jewish State - which eventually provoked the Israeli military operation now taking place in Gaza. Last week, Mr. Bush overruled Miss Rice’s effort to win support for a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution - which would have stopped the Israeli military campaign in its tracks.

When it came to domestic policy, Mr. Bush’s leading achievements included persuading Congress to enact across-the-board tax cuts and standing against efforts by Democrats to increase taxes. Conservatives were cheered by many of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominations, in particular those of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Joseph Alito. Mr. Bush was pro-life, and he opposed taxpayer-funded fetal stem-cell research. After his re-election in 2004, Mr. Bush tried to do something that most politicians are afraid to do: to broach the possibility of permitting American workers to establish private retirement accounts in lieu of Social Security. He opposed efforts by Washington environmentalists and congressional Democrats to force the United States to comply with an international climate-change pact that would have wreaked havoc on the American economy. Mr. Bush won plaudits from many conservatives for support of faith-based initiatives (in other words, ensuring that social-service groups would not be barred from receiving government contracts because of their religious orientation). But the jury is out regarding whether the No Child Left Behind educational program, which Mr. Bush touts as one of his top domestic policy achievements, has actually improved student educational performance.

In other areas, many conservatives found the Bush domestic policy abysmal. He repeatedly tried and failed (fortunately) to win passage of mass amnesty for illegal aliens. Mr. Bush signed into law McCain-Feingold, which imposed draconian restrictions on the ability of people to participate in political campaigns. His biggest black mark, in our view, is that domestic spending exploded, with his acquiescence, encouragement, or fecklessness, and Mr. Bush presided over the largest increase in federal spending since LBJ’s Great Society. This included the Medicare prescription-drug entitlement program enacted in 2003 that added more than $17 trillion to federal liabilities over the “infinite horizon” - an amount greater than the entire annual output of the U.S. economy. The $700 billion bailout program enacted in October that was supposed to alleviate the credit crunch did nothing of the sort. Instead, it set a troubling precedent: the notion that many questionably run businesses are “too big to fail,” and encouraged a “me too” mentality from many sectors of dialing for dollars. By doing so, that bailout laid the groundwork for additional commitments of trillions more during the final months of the Bush presidency.

In the end, the Bush presidency was something of a mixed bag: massive increases in the power of the federal Leviathan was the dark side. But President Bush’s most important legacy is the fact that he kept Americans safe after September 11.

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