- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2010

President Obama made brief mention of his predecessor Tuesday night, but the end of combat operations in Iraq has some wondering whether former President George W. Bush deserves more acclaim for having left in place the framework Mr. Obama is following to wind down the war.

Mr. Bush slinked out of office 18 months ago leaving a bum economy and two wars, including the fight in Iraq, which came to define his two terms in office. But now, some are arguing he is due the lion’s share of credit for the fact that combat troops are coming home and leaving an Iraq that is decidedly more stable than just a short time ago.

“This is a time to be grateful for the incredible sacrifices the men and women in the armed forces have made, are making, and will continue to make on our behalf in the struggle against terrorism. But I think we should also be thankful that another president had the determination and the will to carry out the plan that made tonight’s announcement possible,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a speech at the Commerce Lexington Public Policy Luncheon on Tuesday.

He wasn’t alone - Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits were using the name “Bush” this week in ways that hadn’t been heard in years.

So is Mr. Bush facing the prospect of a re-evaluation?

“Too early to tell,” said professor Tom Kelly, one of the directors of Siena College Research Institute’s regular survey of U.S. presidents’ greatness, who said it will take decades before the dust settles, documents are declassified and historians get a better sense of the decisions made.

The early going wasn’t promising for Mr. Bush. The institute’s 2010 survey of presidential scholars found the still-tenured Mr. Obama ranked as the 15th best president and Mr. Bush ranked 39th, or fifth worst. Foreign policy, Mr. Kelly said, “was not a strong suit” for Mr. Bush among the academics surveyed.

Voters, though, may be ahead of the scholars in their rethinking.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, said a survey to be released Wednesday found that more Ohio voters would rather have Mr. Bush in the Oval Office now than Mr. Obama, by a 50 percent to 42 percent margin.

Tom Jensen, the poll’s director, said that is a marked shift from January 2009, when Ohio voters by a 51 percent to 33 percent margin predicted that Mr. Obama would be more successful as president than Mr. Bush. Mr. Jensen said some independents have switched, but the key drivers were Republicans, who were pessimistic about Mr. Bush in early 2009 but have rethought their sentiments.

“For Republicans, absence has made the heart grow fonder,” he said.

In a nod to Mr. Bush’s role, Mr. Obama phoned him from Air Force One on Tuesday to chat for a few minutes. Mr. Bush stuck with the troop surge despite opposition from many in Congress, including Mr. Obama, who was a senator at the time.

John R. Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006, said Mr. Bush’s presidency became defined by foreign policy after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said the Iraq policy was characterized by two key moves: the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and the way the administration handled the aftermath.

“I think the surge strategy, beginning in very late ‘06, ‘07, as he announced it, was a significant step toward achieving the status of things in Iraq right now, but I don’t know that will tell us what Iraq will look like three or four years from now,” he said, since the country’s fate has passed from the hands of Mr. Bush to Mr. Obama and Iraqi leaders.

He said he fears Mr. Obama might ignore conditions on the ground as he plans for the final withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011, and noted that same danger exists in Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama has set a deadline on his own surge.

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Mr. Bush does deserve some credit “for shifting towards more pragmatism” at the end of his term. But he added that the main credit should go to Iraqis for the steps they’ve taken to quell sectarian violence and to try to reach agreements through the political process.”

“This war, in and of itself, will still go down in history as one of the biggest errors made in our foreign policy,” Mr. Katulis said.

Mr. Obama was careful Tuesday to avoid using words like “victory,” and clearly wanted to avoid a repeat of Mr. Bush’s infamous 2003 speech under the “Mission Accomplished” banner strung across the USS Abraham Lincoln’s tower.

White House aides, talking up the Obama speech beforehand, tried to avoid mentioning Mr. Bush.

In a morning interview with Fox News, press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked repeatedly whether Mr. Obama would credit Mr. Bush, and repeatedly deflected the question, saying only that the troops deserved praise.

White House aides also avoided answering questions about whether Mr. Obama’s opposition to the war meant that the world would have been better off with Saddam still in power.

But that led to some rhetorical gymnastics. Mr. Gibbs told NBC on Tuesday that as a candidate in 2007, Mr. Obama said the additional troops would improve security. Republicans, though, dug up comments from Mr. Obama in which he said the exact opposite: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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