Monday, January 12, 2009

Judging Bush

It is difficult to properly judge a president during his last days in office. When asked to judge Ronald Reagan at the end of 1988, George Will, a long-time Reagan supporter, insisted on judging Reagan's first and second term separately. Time has blurred the distinction. The issues that Will was referring to in Reagan's second term have faded. What is remembered is that he was a transitive president - something that Barack Obama aspires to be. During his administration, Reagan was depicted as an amiable oaf, taking the position of the last adviser he talked with or the one with the showiest graphics. Since he left office a different picture emerged of a smart, knowledgeable, and engaged president who achieved his goal of destroying the Soviet Union, thereby making the world a better place.

Trying to judge Bush is equally difficult. The press, mainly Gore supporters in 2000, defined Bush as a dumb party-boy who only made it into office because of favors owed to his father. It has been widely supposed that he is the puppet of either his Vice-President or Karl Rove. The war in Iraq was supposed to have been fought solely to benefit big oil companies, Israel, or both. He has been blamed for every part of Hurricane Katrina including the hurricane itself. At the same time, his achievements have been ignored or minimized. Bush has most often been characterized as "disinterested" and "incurious".

Now that we are in the last days of the Bush administration, the press is letting some other voices through. People who are close to Bush say that he is very informed and hand-on. Advisers know that they have to have all facts available because Bush asks detailed questions and can tell when someone doesn't have detailed answers.

The Howard Dean version of events has been repeated so often that we often forget the real Bush record on the defining points of Bush's presidency: the war of terror, Iraq, and Katrina.

According to polls taken after 9/11, most of the country expected a similar or larger attack within two years. Instead we've gone more than seven years without any terrorist attacks. Other countries have not been so fortunate. Great Britain has had a couple of attacks. India just had a horrendous one. Even Germany, which thought that it was safe for not supporting the Iraq invasion, was the subject of a failed attack.

Bush deserves a great deal of credit for this. His administration has disrupted al Qaeda's international operations and stopped several domestic plots. Much of this seldom makes the news or, when it does, it dismissed as irrelevant. The defense attorney for a domestic group recently convicted tried to downplay his clients as people who talked big but would not have actually acted. This, after they bought weapons, practiced with them, and made a trial run through the military camp that was their target.

In a few days Barack Obama will discover how difficult it is to conduct the war in Afghanistan. The left has often complained that Iraq was a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan. With al Qaeda and the Taliban taking shelter in Pakistan, it is nearly impossible to take the war to them. In the meantime, the training camps in Afghanistan are closed.

The war in Iraq should be judged in three parts. The initial overthrow of Saddam was accomplished quickly and easily. US tanks were rolling through the streets of Baghdad almost before the MSN could finish the word "quagmire". The occupation went poorly. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives were squandered. About the only good thing that you can say for this part of the war was that al Qaeda put its reputation on the line in Iraq and lost. They lost numerous people but more important, the world's Muslim population now sees them as willing to kill Muslims in order to stir up trouble. They tried to provoke a civil war in Iraq and failed.

Bush's outstanding achievement was to push a new strategy in Iraq. There was strong resistance to this from the Pentagon and Bush ended up overriding his generals. As it turned out, the Surge worked. Had Bush pulled out of Iraq when things got difficult it would have handicapped every future president for generations to come. al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq were sure that they could outlast us. Our pull-out in Viet Nam and Somalia proved to them that we were technologically strong but unwilling to take casualties. If Bush hasn't put the memory of Viet Nam to rest, he has at least shown that not all quagmires are unwinnable.

Katrina is an example of Bush's worst weakness - its inability to refute critics and play up its own accomplishments. Yes, Bush showed a tin ear by doing a fly-over of the damage rather than land and inspect it first hand. This wouldn't have changed how it was handled but it would have reflected better on him.

Things that Bush was incorrectly blamed for:

  • The hurricane itself. While it was a huge storm when it was in the Gulf, what hit the coast was a typical hurricane. What hit New Orleans didn't even count as a category 1 hurricane. Some people speculated that, had Bush ratified the Kyoto Protocols, global warming would have been stopped and the storm would have been lessened. Kyoto only called for minor reductions in the amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere. It was never meant to stop global warming, just slow it slightly over fifty years.
  • The flooding. Before the water finished rising, liberals had found stories about funding cuts for the levies. If only Bush had spent the money on the levies instead of on Iraq, they insisted, then the flooding wouldn't have happened. As it turned out, the flooding happened because flood walls, not levies, collapsed. The problems with the flood walls went back decades and had more to do with local corruption than federal funding.
  • The people stranded. Thousands of people had to be rescued from their homes. The left insisted that Bush was somehow responsible for this. Later studies found that most of them had been offered a ride out of New Orleans but preferred to remain.
  • Then there were the outright lies - the murders in the Superdome. Gangs of men breaking into hotels and raping occupants. People shooting at rescue helicopters. None of these reported stories happened.
What did happen was that the military worked night and day to rescue people who ignored warnings to leave. This was seldom mentioned. The news anchors preferred to stand in knee-deep water and say that it was Bush's fault.

It is hard to believe that Bush started his administration with a push for bipartisanship. He invited leading Democrats to the White House for pizza and movies. The No Child Left Behind act was a joint effort with strong Democratic support. So was the Medicare drug benefits.

By several traditional measures, the Bush administration was to the left of the Clintons. Spending increased across the board and projects like AIDS in Africa got an order of magnitude increase. This has lead some Republicans to name Bush a RINO (Republican in Name Only). At the same time, Democrats refused to acknowledge any of this.

International relations under Bush have been a mixed bag. Anti-Americanism existed before Bush and will exist after him. Some governments, most notably France and Germany, have moved closer to the US while others such as the UK and Austrailia are more critical. Our ties with India are closer than ever which is good for several reasons. Keep in mond that the people currently protesting US policies against terrorists were protesting 25 years ago against the policies that ended the Cold War. Sometimes it is better to be right than loved.

It is still too early to evaluate the last six months of the Bush administration and its response to the financial meltdown. We don't know how this will end. About all that can be said is that he did not react as a fiscal conservative.

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