As Bush nears his departure, the vast majority of Americans—left, right and center—have a multitude of reasons why they’re happy to see him go.
Liberals believe Bush cut taxes too much and had an unnecessarily muscular foreign policy. Conservatives feel betrayed by his profligate spending habits, and more recently, his admitted abandonment of free market principles in response to the financial crisis. Moderates got off the Bush bandwagon not long after many of them supported his 2004 re-election, with the primary concern being competence, both in dealing with Katrina and the near-implosion of Iraq.
As time passes and history begins shaping its eventual judgment, however, likely only one issue will truly matter: Iraq.
If Iraq in 5-10 years is a stable, safe and reasonably functioning democracy, early historical reviews would be hard-pressed to ignore Bush’s singular role in one of the greatest turnarounds in modern times.
No one should—and no historian will—forget his many blunders that helped plunge Iraq into the chaos that is barely behind us, but Bush boldly chose a path mocked by opponents and not entirely embraced by supporters. He overcame ferocious opposition against a Democratic-controlled Congress—one that had only wrested power from the GOP because Bush’s bungling of the Iraq war in the first place.
We take for granted now that the “surge” happened and it worked, but Bush might have been the unique leader willing to take such a gamble and muster every last bit of leverage he still possessed to enact the risky new approach. Fighting and winning on the “surge” highlighted a combination of Bush trademarks: stubbornness, defiance, self-confidence, but most of all, his greatly under-appreciated leadership.
Leader is not a label most would affix to Bush these days. He has had as little impact on the public debate and even policy decisions in recent months as any president could conceivably have. Yet the successful adoption of the surge proved that when Bush acted as a leader, he was effective—undeniably so. Even when Democrats finally controlled the House and Senate, Bush won most key battles.
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.