What the descent into the tangled mess Iraq became in 2005-2006 demonstrated, though, is that Bush didn’t always act as a leader. During much of that time, which of course included Hurricane Katrina and the cleanup, Bush’s leadership style vacillated between distant and disengaged. Bush simply checked out. Some have theorized that Karl Rove’s legal troubles in the Plame affair drove Bush to distraction, but whatever the reason, the swagger was gone—and so was his leadership.
Perhaps the best metaphor for Bush’s aloofness was when then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated what our Commander-in-Chief said while staring out from Air Force One at the Katrina-caused wreckage below, “It’s devastating, it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.” For the bulk of two years, while the country was dealing with an ever-worsening war and a devastating natural disaster, Bush was the flyover president, looking down on us from 30,000 feet.
It was at his nadir that Bush rebounded to provide the kind of leadership that justifiably earned him admiration in the aftermath of 9/11. Licking wounds and cutting losses is the path most would have chosen following two dreadful years on the battlefield and a serious thumping at the ballot box. But not Bush.
Had Bush’s decision to deploy 30,000 more troops and significantly overhaul strategies and methods not worked, his legacy would have suffered accordingly. The “surge,” though, did work. And it succeeded better than anyone could have anticipated.
Many conservatives have correctly noted that Bush deserves real credit for keeping the homeland secure for seven years after 9/11. In the weeks and months after the attack, few Americans believed we could stave off another major strike for so long. But the absence of something—no matter how bad that something is—is generally not memorable after time elapses. And as Charles Krauthammer has noted, President Obama now backs many of the security measures Candidate Obama had opposed, meaning our successful-so-far counterterrorism strategy could stretch a few more years, if not longer.
The financial crisis and the mammoth government reaction could have long-lasting ramifications on markets, but Bush was truly just one of many hands on deck. He was on the same train as most in the elite classes, and there is little in the sweeping measures that actually bears his fingerprints.
Ultimately, the biggest factor in fashioning Bush’s legacy could be that the framework has already been established, whereby recent presidents are remembered first and foremost for foreign policy achievements: Nixon going to China, Carter allowing the Ayatollah to topple the Shah of Iran, and Reagan defeating the Evil Empire.
Though this chapter in Iraq’s history is not yet complete, the plot has already enjoyed a once-unfathomable turnaround—and there should be no doubt as to the author.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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