President Bush leaves office mostly unloved, with some poll respondents saying that they consider him one of our worst presidents ever. This in itself is odd. Generally, our worst Presidents have been one-termers, for obvious reasons: James Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover (if you buy into the myth). But George W. Bush was re-elected rather easily in 2004. Thus, if he really was one of our worst Presidents, either the electorate was subject to mass hypnosis, or something must have gone seriously wrong in his second term.
If we strip away the partisan hysteria, it’s pretty clear that Bush was a reasonably good President, not an epochally horrible one. Let’s start with domestic policy.
Bush took office just as a recession was beginning, a recession that could have been made much worse by the September 11 attacks and the subsequent stock market collapse and business contraction. Instead, Bush’s tax cuts gave needed relief to taxpayers and fueled an expansion that lasted almost throughout his terms in office. This is one of several instances where Bush, despite a number of small errors, got the biggest things right.
With his usual ill luck, Bush saw the Fannie/Freddy/house price bubble burst at the tail end of his administration, with the results that we have all seen over the last few months. But Bush deserves little if any blame for the collapse, just as Bill Clinton deserves little if any blame for the stock price bubble, and inevitable collapse, that scarred the last year of his administration. Bush tried to rein in Fannie and Freddy but was blocked by Congressional Democrats. One can argue that, notwithstanding those efforts, he failed to foresee the full impact of the financial tsunami that has now exploded. But so did pretty much everyone else. Except insofar as we view the President as a good luck charm, it makes no sense to blame Bush for those events.
On the other hand, Bush does deserve blame for backing the $700 billion bailout for financial institutions, auto companies and, apparently, all comers. Even if we assume that “something” needed to be done to calm financial markets, the Bush administration chose the most expensive, most intrusive course. Not only was the bailout economically destructive, it had the political effect of cutting the ground out from under conservatives as the Democrats’ fiscal follies continue.
While his stewardship of the economy was generally good, Bush fell down in other areas of domestic policy. His sponsorship of comprehensive immigration reform and the Medicare drug benefit and his acquiescence in ridiculous levels of federal spending are all black marks. They are balanced by Bush’s excellent judicial appointments and his management of a strikingly scandal-free administration.
In foreign policy, the terrorist attacks dominated, perhaps too much. Few would have predicted on September 12, 2001, that there would be no more successful attacks on American soil or even against American interests abroad, yet that is what happened. As we noted here, President Bush’s strong anti-terrorist policies stopped a long string of successful terrorist attacks that stretched back to the late 1970s. His record in this respect is truly extraordinary, and he deserves an enormous amount of credit for it.
It is too soon to say that President Bush destroyed al Qaeda to the extent that it will not threaten us in the future, but that may well prove to be the case. If so, succeeding Presidents will garner the credit that was sadly denied Bush.
President Bush directed a brilliantly successful invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the bitterly hostile Taliban regime. The effect was to deprive al Qaeda of its undisturbed training grounds and drive that organization into hiding in caves, to the great benefit of our national security.
His most controversial decision, of course, was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, carrying out the U.S.’s longstanding policy of regime change in Iraq and enforcing the U.N.’s various resolutions. Whether that was a good decision or a bad decision will not be finally known for many years, but at present it looks like a good bet that history will record Iraq as a successful foreign policy initiative, and possibly one that started the long process of reforming the Arab world, to everyone’s great benefit. Apart from anything else, al Qaeda’s fatal decision to turn Iraq into the main front in its war against civilization was a disastrous one. To a greater degree than anyone could reasonably have foreseen, our victory in Iraq turned out to be a key turning point in our war against international Islamic terrorism.
President Bush also deserves credit for cementing our relationship with India and, to a lesser degree, for his humanitarian breakthroughs in Africa. In general, the Bush administration was a model of diplomatic success, gaining many tangible ends through close cooperation with allies.
The great unknown, of course, is whether Bush dropped the ball on Iran or North Korea. My own view is that, given the fallout over the invasion of Iraq, it was always pointless to talk about military action against Iran. It simply wasn’t, and couldn’t have been, in the cards.
In assessing the pluses and minuses of the Bush administration, one always returns to Iraq. Many think that Bush was too slow to change strategies after sectarian violence erupted in 2006; others think that he deserves great credit for backing the surge and ultimately winning the war. The second proposition, I think, is indisputable, while the first is questionable. I’m inclined to agree with Dick Cheney that it’s wrong to suggest that nothing good happened in Iraq until 2007.
With the benefit of a bit of hindsight, it seems to me that Bush’s failings on Iraq were mostly political. It was always obvious that the biggest challenge in Iraq would not be felling Saddam, but rather what would come afterward. The ethnic and sectarian divisions in that country were well understood, and many (like me) wondered whether Iraq was really a country that could stay together once its tyrant was deposed. But Bush failed to adequately prepare the public for the tough, ambiguous conflict that was sure to ensue once Saddam was gone.
This failure was especially regrettable since the war, when launched, was not Bush’s war but America’s. Large majorities in the House and Senate voted to authorize the war, including most leading Democrats. But because Bush failed to prepare the public for the post-major combat stage, the Democrats could plausibly take the view that they had signed on only for the easy overthrow of a dictator. When the inevitable messiness ensued, they double-crossed the President. That was shameful, but it was also foreseeable, and it was enabled by Bush’s failure to do the political work necessary to educate the American public.
In the end, the greatest failures of the Bush administration were political. Bush was the first MBA President, and he always seemed to think that results would carry the day. He followed Lincoln, who wrote that if events bore him out, no one would remember his critics, while if events did not bear him out, a thousand angels swearing he was right wouldn’t make any difference.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but Lincoln went to considerable lengths, sometimes to the derogation of the war effort, to make sure that public opinion in the North stayed with him. And he was, in the event, saved by the victories won by Grant and Sherman.
Bush’s great failing was that his focus was almost exclusively on policy, and he was unwilling to pay adequate attention to politics. This failing manifested itself repeatedly throughout his term in office. With hindsight, the beginning of the end for Bush was his unwillingness to defend himself when he was attacked for the “sixteen words” in his State of the Union address–words that were indisputably true. The same thing happened after Hurricane Katrina, the event that got his second term off on the wrong foot. In truth, the federal response to Katrina was both the largest and the fastest response to any natural disaster in world history. Yet Bush was never willing to stand up to his critics and make the case in his own defense.
That tendency to turn the other cheek was, in the end, fatal. Bush never cared much about politics. He was almost contemptuous of political leadership, willing to engage in politics on a sustained basis only in his two successful election campaigns. But he was a politician, and the job of a politician, as President, is to use political skills to lead the American people. Bush’s unwillingness or inability to do what it would take to be an effective political leader, in the end undid his administration.
No one can seriously question President Bush’s character. He did, at all times, what he thought was right for his country. For that he deserves our undying respect. But his political failures, his myopia on some issues and the fact that he was not much of a conservative seriously marred his administration.
Everything considered, I give the Bush administration a B-.
PAUL adds: I agree with most of this, and the B- grade seems reasonable to me. But I keep thinking about this sentence in John’s post: “given the fallout over the invasion of Iraq, it was always pointless to talk about military action against Iran.”
In my view, it was not precisely the fallout over the invasion of Iraq that made it pointless to talk about military action against Iran; rather it was the fallout over the post-invasion difficulties. Indeed, the evidence is that our successful invasion made a considerable impression on Iran (you don’t have to believe that the Iranians halted their nuclear program to accept that we got their attention). If we had dealt more successfully (which I think means more forcefully) with the early signs of insurgency in Iraq, then it would not have pointless to talk about military action against Iran, though it might not have been necessary.
To some extent, I’m engaging here in unfair Monday morning quarterbacking. Folks like Victor Davis Hanson are certainly correct when they remind us of how difficult it is to get wars right without a period of trial and error. But it is not Monday morning quarterback to note that military success in Iraq was the key to influencing Iran and the rest of the region. The Iranians certainly grasped the point, and reportedly it was an important element in Vice President Cheney’s thinking. Even we at Power Line emphasized it prior to the invasion.
With the stakes this obviously high, I think it’s fair to judge President Bush rather harshly for focusing too much on Iraqi “hearts and minds” and not enough on stamping out insurgents (be they Moqtada al Sadr or the Sunni killers in Fallujah) before they could mount a real insugency.
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