A reassessment of the 43rd president has already begun.
by Victor Davis Hanson
Critics are tallying the Bush administration’s pluses and minuses, and some consensus is emerging that in time George W. Bush, like Harry Truman, will be seen in a far more favorable light than his low poll ratings reflected.
Three great crises marked the Bush administration: Iraq, the “war on terror” following 9/11, and the mid-September 2008 financial meltdown. Yet as critics debate his performance amid these ordeals, lost in the controversies are a number of other lasting achievements.
Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito have proved superior appointments — far more inspired than any made by Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush. The HIV-relief package of some $15 billion to Africa saved millions of lives and exceeded any AIDs effort by any past president, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton included.
While Bush the caricatured cowboy remains unpopular abroad, the governments of most key allies and neutrals — Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany and India — remain pro-American and appreciate Bush’s stance on free trade, collective security and multilateral efforts post-Iraq.
What then about Iraq, the war and the economy? Bush — in the uncertainty of a post-9/11 landscape — completed the earlier efforts of Bill Clinton to end the Hussein regime. He inherited no-fly zones and legislation calling for regime change, but then got a majority of the Congress to authorize the removal of Saddam.
Most of Congress subsequently canonized him after the brilliant three-week victory over Saddam, abandoned him when the insurgency took more than 4,000 American lives, and ignored him when — against the advice of the Iraq Study Group, most of the joint chiefs and grandees of his own party — he gave the go-ahead to David Petraeus and the surge.
Millions in Iraq today enjoy the opportunity of consensual government unimaginable in the era of Saddam. Iraq, in short, is Bush’s Korea: a messy and controversial war against authoritarian evil that in time will be vindicated by the growth of a constitutional society in place of a monstrosity.
There remain three great truths about Bush’s so-called “war on terror.” First, the American mainland has not been hit by a major terrorist attack in the last seven years, when almost every expert warned us that it most assuredly would be.
Second, our enemy, al Qaeda, is depleted and scattered, now largely isolated to the wild lands of Waziristan. Bin Laden’s popularity and support for suicide bombings have plummeted throughout the Middle East.
Third, reforms in the CIA and FBI, changes in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s wiretaps accords, and the Guantanamo detention facility were derided as a veritable shredding of the Constitution. That slur ceased with the election of Barack Obama, who apparently thinks such measures were efficacious rather than unconstitutional, and the media has reacted similarly, seeing such decisions as complex and problematic rather than fascistic.
And the debits? The Bush administration spent too much money during the first term, running up deficits and discrediting the revenue enhancements that accrued from his tax cuts. That said, Bush’s instinctual worries about closer monitoring of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were right; their defenders in Congress were wrong.
His rapid federal infusions of capital to shore up tottering financial institutions probably helped stave off a general collapse. He was about as culpable for the American banking and stock crises as are the leaders in Europe, who are presiding over even greater and more unforeseen economic disruption in their own countries.
For all the talk of the dismal world that awaits Barack Obama, Iraq is quiet, a policy of containment of, and victory over, radical Islam is in play and federal intervention to restore financial credit and trust has already begun.
Why then such Bush vitriol? The contested election of 2000 for the first time in history required the Supreme Court to adjudicate the outcome, giving the victory to a candidate who did not receive the popular vote. In reaction, Bush was easily caricatured by our influential cultural elite as a bible-thumping, Texas-twanged, inarticulate incompetent. In the euphoria of brilliant victories in Afghanistan and over Saddam Hussein, he strutted and accentuated such stereotypes instead of, as was true later, nuancing them with reflection and humility.
Finally, Bush placed an inordinate amount of faith in less than competent loyalists. A Michael Brown or Scott McClellan would have been over their heads as small-town bureaucrats. Others such as Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Meyers and Karen Hughes were simply unable to overcome media charges that they were mediocrities.
Unmentioned has been Bush’s character of both honesty and resoluteness. He ran one of the most corruption-free administrations in memory, something we are already beginning to appreciate as we compare the prior scandal-ridden Clintons and the Chicagoesque ambiguities that already swirl around Barack Obama and his cabinet appointments.
In time, historians will come to a fairer verdict of George W. Bush; in the meantime such a favorable reassessment has already begun.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson