Commentary Magazine


Judging President Bush

Contentions readers might be interested in my Los Angeles Times op-ed today: “Bush’s Bluster.” In it, I raise a longstanding problem: the disconnect between the president’s grandiose rhetoric and the decidedly more modest actions of his administration.

You can defend Bush by saying that it is appropriate to use presidential speeches to set ambitious goals; even if they are not met, they can nudge lower-level officials in the right direction. The problem is that Bush seems to have done so little to turn his goals into actions, especially in the second term, that he has created a damaging credibility gap. Iran is a case in point. Bush has long talked of holding states to account for their support of terrorism and attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. But there is not much evidence that he is doing much to hold Iran to account. Or Pakistan. Or Syria. That breeds contempt for American power-and lack of fear is far more dangerous for a superpower than lack of love (the problem that Obama et al. always complain about).

I hope the article doesn’t sound unduly negative. I am by no means suggesting the Bush administration has been a complete failure. I was part of a small minority at the Intelligence Squared debate in New York a few weeks ago that voted against this resolution, “Resolved, Bush 43 is the worst president of the last 50 years.” And it wasn’t just because I think the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations were far worse failures (although they were). It’s also because I believe Bush has gotten some big things right-notably the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the post-9/11 tax cuts that revived the economy, and the surge which saved the day in the war. The surge, in particular, revealed the obstinate Bush at his finest. Whereas his stubbornness has often been a major defect, in this instance it was a virtue, because it allowed him to hang tough when everyone else in Washington was wimping out.

But Bush will be judged harshly by history, I think, for a number of fiascoes. The most obvious of these are the failures to send adequate troop numbers to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan after the overthrow of their previous regimes, the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, the dubious reliance on executive authority to enact tough anti-terrorism measures rather than trying to forge more of a congressional and public consensus, and of course the ongoing economic meltdown. It is just conceivable, however, that these failures which we know about may be dwarfed by two looming failures whose consequences are as yet unknown: the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program and the failure to stop western Pakistan from becoming a sanctuary for jihadist terrorists. If Iran goes nuclear in the first year of the Obama administration, as now appears likely, or if there is an attack on the U.S. staged from Pakistan, which is at least possible, then I believe Bush’s reputation will suffer far more than it already has. On the other hand, if somehow we avoid the worst in both Iran and Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan, then Bush’s standing may rebound.