Bush's legacy will be one of protection

Donald Lambro

12/5/2008 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- As George W. Bush's wartime presidency enters its final weeks, there is increasing speculation about his legacy and how his two terms in office will be seen throughout the course of history.

But history is a funny thing that can dramatically re-evaluate past events in a far different light when they are compared in the mists of time to what follows them.

Consider Harry Truman who left office as the most unpopular president in modern history but is now seen as a decisive figure who led the nation in two wars, abruptly ending one of them with a swift decision to use the atomic bomb.

History's rehabilitation of Truman's legacy occurred over many, many years, and I suspect that Bush's presidency, too, will undergo a long-term re-evaluation that will look more kindly on the challenges he confronted as a wartime leader who faced a fiendishly different kind of conflict.

Bush has begun opening up recently about how he sees his legacy -- first in an interview conducted by his sister, Doro Bush Koch, as part of an oral-history project for National Public Radio and then in an interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC News.

He is proudest of his $15 billion offensive against AIDS and malaria in Africa that has saved millions of lives and the passage of a market-oriented Medicare prescription-drug program that has lowered medical costs for the elderly.

In national security, he points to his record in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001: He toppled two terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, liberated some 50 million people, and planted democracies in the middle of the world's worst terrorist breeding grounds.

His biggest regret on that score is the presumed faulty intelligence that led him to base his invasion of Iraq on the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

No evidence was found to show that such weapons existed, though Hussein used poison gas and other materials to kill thousands of Kurds. And the FBI agent who met with him daily in the final months before his execution said Hussein told him that he had planned to resume a program to produce nuclear materials.

The history of those wars, much of which remains unknown, is still a work in progress. There is still a lot of information, and maybe long-buried evidence, to be learned about the dangers that this Iraqi madman who had started two wars and was still threatening his neighbors.

But what will be most remembered, and I think favorably, about Bush's presidency is his leadership in the post-9/11 period when it will be said that "he kept us safe" from another attack.

In my recent interview with former Secretary of State George Shultz, Shultz pointed to President Bush's pre-emptive doctrine as his most important national-security achievement. It was based on a very important idea, Shultz said, namely that in the shadowy threat of global terrorism, we have to be able to uncover plots before they occur and then take pre-emptive steps to prevent them from happening.

Shultz credited Bush with successfully doing just that, while terrorists have carried out attacks in Great Britain, Spain and elsewhere (including the recent attacks in Mumbai). "We are a harder target," Shultz said, as a result of the elaborate national-security surveillance intercepts that are at the heart of Bush's pre-emptive defense doctrine.

On the economic front, Bush has been dealt a bad hand. He came into office in 2001 with the economy in the midst of a restructuring slowdown when the technology bubble burst, followed by 9/11 that plunged us into a deeper hole.

Bush came into office on a pledge to cut taxes across the board and, perhaps, no tax cuts were better timed to counter the shock waves that hit the country then. We weathered that storm, and the economy grew again in the midst of a housing boom and a historic global expansion that raised U.S. exports to record levels.

But all expansions run into corrections, and the housing and credit bubbles burst, ending Bush's presidency in a recession that has plunged his approval ratings to record lows. All recessions end, and the Bush administration has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this one, including the stimulus tax rebate this summer, followed by unprecedented bailout interventions in the financial markets by the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury. When the economy turns around, it will be on Barack Obama's watch and, understandably, he will get the credit for it -- though Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke at the Fed will have done a lot of heavy lifting under Bush's direction.

When Bush leaves office next month, it will be said that he governed us through some of the most difficult and turbulent periods in our history -- from the war on terrorism to a financial meltdown that was none of his making.

But in the end, it will also be said that "he kept us safe" in the Age of Terror. Now it's Barack Obama's turn.