Bush Considered

American is a safer place thanks to his administration.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

A disinterested appraisal of Bush administration foreign policy will take years. For millions on the Left, events in Iraq, Guantánamo, and New Orleans rendered the 43rd president an ill-omened phantasma — omnipotent, ubiquitous, and responsible for all mischief big and small. “Bush Did It” soon became a sort of ritual throat-clearing that critics evoked at each new Florida hurricane, Israeli-Palestinian mini-war, or serial “revelation” from a Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, or Scott McClellan.

The fact remains, though, that most of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives shared Bush’s desire to remove Saddam Hussein after 9/11. They patted the president on the back when he finally did so (after 16 months of acrimonious debate between the fall of the Taliban and the invasion of Iraq), abandoned him when the postbellum insurgency arose, opposed the surge when he nearly alone supported it, and gave him no credit for Iraq’s eventual success. Now, in a sort of theater-of-the-absurd fashion, they claim Iraq worked largely because they once declared it lost and thereby prompted the necessary changes. The congressional opposition’s record on Iraq is largely one of opportunism, his of principle — and that too will become part of the historical record.

Yet, strangest of all, well before even assuming office, the ever-flexible President-elect Obama has done much to prompt reassessment of Bush’s tenure. He apparently has chosen to drop most of his primary-election rhetoric and instead intends to continue nearly all of the sitting president’s anti-terrorism and foreign-policy initiatives — albeit cloaked in far-more-winning mantras of hope and change, energized by youthful charisma, and predicated on subtle appeals to multiracial fides.

The only discontinuity seems to be with the stance of the mainstream media. Without apology, journalists have already gone from the narrative of Bush, the destroyer of civil liberties, to Obama the continuer of “problematic” and “complex” measures. So just as Bush once eagerly licked his chops and salivated over Gulag Guantánamo, so Obama now with wrinkled brow and bitten lip is himself tortured that he has to sorta, kinda keep it open for a while longer.

Abroad, Bush has had three major successes.

We were not attacked after 9/11, despite serial warnings that such a comparable terrorist assault was inevitable. Bush created a new methodology of anti-terrorism. In magnitude and comprehensiveness (though unfortunately not in explication), it was analogous to Truman’s similarly controversial promotion of anti-Soviet containment that proved successful for the subsequent near half-century.

For all the rhetoric about Bush’s manufactured war on terror, today it is much more difficult — as the dozens of failed plots during the last seven years attest — to pull off a terrorist act inside the United States. War abroad and new anti-terrorism vigilance at home have decimated those who would wage such attacks.

Even Obama recognizes the success of these measures. We can see this well enough with the president-elect’s shifting positions on FISA, renditions, the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, and withdrawal from Iraq (once envisioned by Obama to be completed by March 2008). Bob Gates II won’t be that different from Bob Gates I at Defense; Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State will be far closer to Condoleezza Rice than to Howard Dean or Al Gore. Gen. James L. Jones could easily have served as national security adviser in the Bush administration. Hamas and other Palestinian groups will probably not get better actual treatment from Obama than they got from Bush — just some soothing rhetoric about dialogue and engagement rather than dead-or-alive, smoke-’em-out lingo. Add all the foreign-policy alignments up, and either Bush was right then, or Obama is wrong now.

The tired neocon slur has been that a secretive group of pro-Likud Jewish advisers of dual loyalties — Feith, Libby, Perle, Wolfowitz, Wurmser, etc. — convinced the clueless Bush to remove a largely harmless and irrelevant Saddam and, soon after, to consider further regime change for a host of other dictators (all to help Israel and steal the region’s oil resources, of course). The truth was far different. Bush undertook just two operations to remove the two worst regimes in the region and, in a departure from Cold War–era policies, to encourage constitutional governments, not oligarchies, in their places.

The Taliban was a nightmarish Murder Inc. masquerading as a fundamentalist theocracy that rented its soil to al Qaeda and other global terrorism networks. Saddam Hussein had been at war, in various manifestations, with the United States since 1991, using his oil to fund terrorists, build an arsenal, and attack his neighbors. Accordingly, the Clinton administration, when it was not bombing Iraq or taking over its air space, had passed legislation calling for regime change. Congress passed decrees citing 23 reasons why the United States president should be authorized to remove Saddam by force.

After a brilliant three-week victory, subsequent mistakes — to my mind the worst was the obsessive focus on WMD at the expense of the other Congressional articles authorizing the war, the reprieve given the Fallujah terrorists in April 2004, and the stand down accorded a trapped Muqtada al-Sadr — turned a temporary occupation into a counter-insurgency. That said, despite the great cost in blood and treasure, Bush’s persistence, and the heroism and competence of the American soldier, finally ensured both the permanent end of a murderous tyranny and the survival of a constitutional government. The idea in 2001 that Sunni Iraqi Arabs in 2007–08 would have been fighting with Americans to destroy al-Qaeda terrorists would have seemed fantasy. By 2007, the popularity of both bin Laden and the tactic of suicide bombing had plummeted throughout the Arab Middle East.

The evacuation from Lebanon by the Syrian army, the surrender of Dr. A. Q. Khan’s Pakistani nuclear franchise, and the shutdown of Libya’s bomb-making program were results of the humiliation and fall of the Hussein dictatorship, and fears of a new no-nonsense American policy.

Aerial incursions into Pakistan have decimated al-Qaeda leaders — and Obama, who will largely continue existing policies in Afghanistan, won’t stop them. In fact, Bush’s support for democratization in the Middle East will allow Obama a far-wider range of choices than would have been the case if Bush had followed most conservative realists and simply extended blanket support for existing oligarchies. After Bush, there is no longer a simple calculus that liberals encourage democracy abroad, while conservatives don’t.

Bush, it was alleged, foolishly empowered Iran. But that too is a premature conjecture. Iran is at present nearly bankrupt from the crash of oil prices. Despite being an oil-exporter, it is dependent on foreigners for much of its own gasoline supply. Its terrorist clients — Hezbollah and Hamas — have bad habits of provoking Israel, suffering tremendous damage, declaring premature victory by virtue that they survived the IDF, and then needing even more billions from Iran to replace terrible losses in men and materiel.

Because Iranian agents once nearly destroyed Iraqi democracy, the example of a constitutional Iraq may prove in the long run destabilizing to theocratic Iran. And with the demise of Saddam’s lunatic regime, which once attacked both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab nations can far more readily rally to isolate Iran. The truth is that, in the post-Saddam climate, a new reality is emerging in the Middle East, with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran isolated from, and hated and feared by, their Muslim brethren.

The media narrative is that President-elect Obama inherits a world turned upside down by George W. Bush. If so, where exactly will come the radical corrective changes, other than soaring (and let us hope effective) rhetoric about global hope and change? Will there be a new American relationship with China and India — both of which seem to appreciate the free-trade policies of the Bush administration?

Europe clearly favors Obama, but its two anti-Bush governments of Chirac and Schroeder are long gone, having given way to staunchly pro-American replacements. Apart from offering some soothing “We are the World” rhetoric of deference to the U.N. and multilateral dialogue, it is hard to determine exactly what the Europeans want Obama to do differently than Bush did. I doubt they look forward to true shoulder-to-shoulder, share-the-risk solidarity in Afghanistan. They talk grandly about Kyoto but have hardly reduced their own carbon footprints. If in times of crisis Obama invites them to multiparty talks with the Iranians or Russians, they will probably prefer old-style American leadership to “we are right behind you” assurances.

For all the talk about Guantánamo, European suspension of habeas corpus, summary deportations, and preventative detentions outstrip anything in Bush’s America. So far, despite a larger economy, the European Union has not matched Bush’s $15 billon commitment for HIV, and other infectious disease, relief in Africa.

There can be legitimate criticism of Bush’s first-term spending spree and rising deficits, and his unwillingness to veto Congressional pork. He naively thought hard-core Congressional ideologues and partisans were analogous to the conservative Democrats with whom he had worked in Texas, and often appeased them so they wouldn’t cut off support for the war.

Often, Bush’s unnecessarily bellicose rhetoric was not commensurate with his tentative action. Too many of his closest associates were less than competent—the abject embarrassment of Scott McClellan is perhaps the best example of the apparent cronyism that hurt Bush terribly. There were too few in his circle willing or able to articulate in steady fashion exactly what our war against radical Islam was about—and how we could win it.

All that said, these are the debates that take place in times of relative peace and security—they would be impossible had we suffered a series of 9/11s. And it is largely to the honest and steady Bush’s everlasting credit that we did not. The next president already appears to appreciate that as well as anyone.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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