"This administration has had a good, solid record, and I'm very proud of it. I tell people I leave town with a great sense of accomplishment and my head held high.”
—George W. Bush, Jan. 13, 2009
As the 43rd president waves goodbye to Washington, relatively few Americans share his proud assessment of his own presidency.
George W. Bush leaves the White House with one of the lowest approval ratings in history. According to Gallup, only Richard Nixon and Harry Truman, who suffered the double whammy of a bad economy and the unpopular Korean War, had lower approval ratings when they left the White House.
Today, Bush’s legacy to his successor is two unresolved wars, a global image that is deeply tarnished, and the greatest economic crisis in modern times.
Conservatives who backed Bush in two successive elections have little to show for their efforts. Bush, in fact, has decimated the Republican brand.
Bush oversaw the greatest increase in discretionary social spending in history as the federal government usurped new powers in its war on terror. He placed the United States on a global interventionist path for the elusive goal of “democracy.” Ronald Reagan would not be able to recognize the party he knew, which espoused limited government, protection of personal liberty, and the idea that the U.S. should lead globally by example rather than by force.
The best that can be said of President Bush is that he kept America’s homeland safe. During his watch, we did not experience another terror attack on U.S. soil after Sept. 11.
It is a laudable fact, but one that came at enormous financial cost and an erosion of personal freedoms. Still, for all the talk about al-Qaida’s weakened state, Osama bin Laden remains at large despite Bush’s pledge to capture him “dead or alive.”
And if a major terror attack were to take place under the new Obama administration, his supporters will be quick to pin the blame on the Bush regime.
Voters’ bitter memories of George Bush may soften with time. As Truman’s example suggests, presidencies often appear quite different once placed in a historical context.
On the other hand, if the economic crisis worsens or another major terror attack happened soon after Bush departs the White House, he may be “Hooverized” – with a generation of Democratic politicians running successfully against his memory as they did against Herbert Hoover whose policies were linked to the Great Depression.
There’s no escaping the fact that Bush presided over one of the most tumultuous, and least popular, presidencies of modern times, in large part because of the Iraq war.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have come at enormous cost in terms of blood and national treasure.
About 4,200 Americans have died, and more than 30,000 have been wounded. The U.S. has spent more than $800 billion on the Iraq effort, with estimates of the ultimate cost as high as $4 trillion.
The war was justified on the legitimate evidence, first offered by the Clinton administration, that Saddam Hussein was intent on developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Hussein had flouted agreements with the United Nations, and his riddance was a desirable goal.
But almost from the beginning, the war was flawed. The American occupiers quickly fired the entire Iraqi military, leaving not only a tremendous vacuum of authority but also turning loose trained military professionals to join terror cells and paramilitary groups who would work to undermine the U.S. efforts.
Some Pentagon military advisers suggested the U.S. military force was too light to accomplish the goal of both invading Iraq and stabilizing the country. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld strongly resisted deploying a larger force.
And as casualties mounted in the early part of the war, the administration continued to resist sending additional troops. Only after the 2006 elections did Bush sign off on the surge that added 30,000 troops in the spring of 2007, under the command of Gen. David Petraeus.
The surge helped, as did a more aggressive policy to pay off Iraqi Sunnis who turned against al-Qaida — the so-called “Anbar Awakening.”
Another ingredient: U.S. and Iraqi authorities rounded up tens of thousands of likely dissidents and imprisoned them. The effect of this action may be short lived, as many of these agitators eventually will be released. But the immediate impact of the surge has been good. By the end of 2008, U.S. troop deaths dropped to an average of 14 per month, down from 100 a month two previous years.
Still, the likelihood is that such calm will not prevail once American troops are removed and the goal of establishing a stable democracy in an Arab state may still prove elusive.
It should be remembered that, sometime after the invasion, the raison d’etre of the war changed from removing Saddam from power and stopping his weapons of mass destruction program to a dreamy plan of creating a democracy in Iraq.
In Bush’s second inauguration speech, he echoed the thoughts expressed in former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky’s book “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” Bush said: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
Such Wilsonian thoughts are laudable, but have long been discarded by conservatives as dangerous and unworkable. Even Sharansky himself had said that Iraq did not have the necessary cultural and political ingredients to create a stable democracy.
In that effort to create a new Iraqi democracy, the Sunni Muslims — more sympathetic to the West — were pushed aside and the Shias ascended to power in Baghdad. The American-backed power shift in Iraq also created a new regional ally for Shia-dominated Iran, a major threat to the region.
After 9/11, as the U.S. considered making Saddam’s regime its prime target of revenge, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly warned the president, "You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people.” He noted that the U.S. would have little room to maneuver in dealing with other global problems.
"It's going to suck the oxygen out of everything," Powell added. "This will become the first term."
It also became the second term. Powell’s stunning assessment was accurate. The U.S. became stuck in an Iraqi mire after its successful 2003 invasion, meanwhile elsewhere its enemies grew in power.
Shortly after Sept. 11, Bush himself warned of an “axis of evil” and identified not only Iraq but also Iran and North Korea as posing real threats to American security interests. Ironically, as a result of U.S. efforts to occupy Iraq, Iran and North Korea have progressed in their desire to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Iran, for example, continues to defy U.N. Security Council demands to suspend its controversial uranium enrichment program, which is key to fashioning fuel for an atomic weapon. A recent report disclosed that Iran could soon have enough enriched uranium to build a small nuclear weapon. That’s a daunting thought considering that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
More disturbing is a recent New York Times report that Bush rejected a plea from Israel last year to help it raid Iran’s main nuclear complex.
The Times said Israel was rebuffed after it requested from the U.S. specialized bunker-busting bombs that it needs to attack Iran’s nuclear complex at Natanz. The U.S. also reportedly nixed permission to the Israeli warplanes to fly over Iraqi territory to reach Iran.
With the focus in Iraq, the second war, in Afghanistan, almost became a forgotten one. The effort at first appeared to be highly successful, dethroning the Taliban, with the U.S. and NATO seemingly playing ancillary roles to bolster an indigenous government. But the government of Hamid Karzai has weakened increasingly and is rife with corruption. The Taliban has regrouped and has benefited from the Afghan opium poppy trade, which has grown enormously. Now the U.S. is preparing to pour at least 20,000 extra troops into southern Afghanistan to cope with a Taliban insurgency that is fiercer than NATO leaders expected.
As the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia has aggressively asserted its power over its neighbors. It recently used its “energy weapon” and shut down its delivery of natural gas to Eastern Europe via the pipeline network in Ukraine over a pricing dispute. It shockingly disregarded all international conventions by sending its troops into Georgia. Its strongman, Vladimir Putin, has moved his nation from a nurturing democracy to an authoritarian state.
Others, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also have run amok, thumbing their noses right in our own back yard. Across Latin America, with Chavez financing, leftist, anti-American governments have swept to power. In Mexico, perhaps the most critical nation for the U.S., the political infrastructure has crumbled as it moves perilously close to becoming a narco-regime.
A U.S. military report warned that Mexico could face a “rapid and sudden collapse,” and just last week, retiring CIA Director Michael Hayden said Mexico could rank alongside Iran as a challenge for Barack Obama and be a greater problem than Iraq.
Perhaps the most calamitous effect of the Iraq war is the decline of the Republican Party’s fortunes. When Bush came to power in 2001, the GOP controlled both the House and Senate. But with the war wearing thin and no clear exit strategy in place, the Republicans lost control of both houses in 2006 after a dozen years in power.
The signal from the American people was clear that the Iraq war, at least its prosecution outlined by the president, did not have their support.
Rather than act on that signal, Bush refused to offer a practical exit strategy. The Republicans in Congress, who should have read the tea leaves and begun distancing themselves from Bush, continued their unfailing support the president.
The results in 2008 were disastrous. Obama, the most liberal candidate ever nominated, not only won the nomination from favorite Hillary Clinton, who had been early supporter of the war, but also delivered a crushing defeat of Republican John McCain, carrying 29 states and winning 365 electoral votes.
Republicans in Congress, who could have mitigated losses by becoming an active critic of Bush’s domestic policies, were hit harder. In the House, Democrats gained 21 seats to hold a 257-178 majority, while they picked up seven seats in the Senate for a total of 58, not including the disputed Senate seat that shows Al Franken leading in Minnesota.
Bush knew that his unchanging and unyielding course would hurt the party, recently saying he refused to "bail out my political party" by withdrawing troops "during the darkest days of Iraq."
He said in an interview: "I had faith that freedom exists in people's souls and therefore, if given a chance, democracy and Iraqi-style democracy could survive and work. I didn't compromise that principle for the sake of trying to bail out my political party."
But by failing to modify his desire for long-term democracy in Iraq and to offer a clear exit strategy, Bush not only hurt his own party but also helped his strongest political adversaries, paving the way for Democrats to gain almost complete hegemony over Congress and putting a strident critic of the Iraq war in White House. Obama, while moderating on issues since his election, has stated that he will seek a pullout of all U.S. forces within the first 16 months of taking office.
In the end, the result of the Iraq war will likely be no democracy in Iraq, virulently liberal control of all three branches of the federal government, and the threatened extinction of the Republican Party itself.
Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq and issues abroad also turned his attention away from pressing domestic issues and contributed to several major problems, including the financial meltdown.
The Bush-led federal government’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina drew widespread criticism and turned public sentiment against Bush and the Republicans after their post-9/11 rise in popularity.
A Vanity Fair article featuring interviews with people close to Bush disclosed that the consensus among his friends and critics alike is that Katrina marked the turning point of his presidency.
Dan Bartlett, White House communications director and later counselor to the president, was quoted as saying: “Politically, it was the final nail in the coffin.”
And Matthew Dowd, Bush's pollster, said: “Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public.”
Bush had the misfortune of being in office during the bursting of the housing bubble and the financial calamity that followed.
At a recent news conference, Bush said it was not his fault that the economy tanked on his watch, as if he were an innocent victim of the meltdown. But Bush is not without blame in the ongoing crisis.
During Bush’s tenure, his administration pushed the Federal Reserve for easy money as his administration turned a blind eye to far out banking practices, such as zero percent equity mortgages and Wall Street financial practices that were motivated by greed, not good business sense.
Huge amounts of cash flowed into new types of securities following the 2001 downturn, after the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to essentially replace the tech-equity bubble with a housing bubble. This occurred without the preoccupied Bush strengthening regulatory oversight to reduce risks to the overall economy.
The bottom line is that Bush’s overriding focus on Iraq — and his refusal to readjust course as circumstances and facts warranted – became the touchstone of an administration that, in so many areas, seemed unaccountable to principles or good sense.
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