L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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25 February 2008 Blog Home : February 2008 : Permalink

Dubya's Place in History

John Scalzi tentatively puts GW Bush second in list  of worst US presidents (it is worth noting that his worst president, Buchanan, is the run away winner though). The Belmont Club thinks history will treat GW Bush rather better than Clinton. Other commenters seem to vary but many on the left think he alienated the world and split the US while those on the right give him hassle over perceived mismanagement in Iraq and an inability to stand up to the pork faction in congress at home.
Abroad he seems to be generally reviled by MSM pundits and practically everyone in Europe except the folk in Kossovo. In Africa he's loved, Asia and South America mixed with the pundits on the European track but the man in the street rather less radical as far as I can tell.

So er what did he do?

If anyone can remember what he did before 11 Sept 2001 then they're doing well. The only thing I recall was the China spyplane incident which highlighted the fact that W did not intend to continue the Clintonian "We ♥ China" policy of handing the Chinese anything they wanted for military development. Had 9/11 not happened the US/PRC cold war could have been interesting. As it was no one has noticed.

Post 9/11 he started off well. The invasion of Afghanistan was done well and, while one can quibble about the follow-up on the whole Afghanistan showed very clearly that there are limits to acceptable behaviour by minor powers. Even if

Then there was Iraq: a good idea marred, in my opinion, by poor execution and even worse marketing. Hussein deserved death and his regime deserved to be overthrown. I'm with Hitchens when I say that the biggest error Bush Sr made was not continuing the war in the early 1990s, especially not supporting usefully the Shia uprising in the south. And the oil for food scandal etc. really really didn't help afterwards. But getting rid of Saddam was one thing. Replacing him with something better turned out to be rather harder and it certainly didn't help that the US appeared to have a very limited plan for what to do next. Of course, as an armchair general looking back with hindsight, I am no doubt guilty of failing to understand the limits he and his team were working under at the time but I still think he could have done better in planning the post invasion government. Far worse, IMO, is the way he let the liberal, lefty media, pundits and politicians (e.g. Chirac and Schroeder) win the marketing campaign over the justification for invading Iraq. I don't know whether a better sales effort could have been made but I think so as the messages were mixed and the concentration on WMD was a mistake. It was a mistake not because of what we subsequently learned about the state of Saddams WMD program but because it distracted from the Saddam as dictator and terrorist sponsor message that was the real reason why Bush thought about invading Iraq in the first place.

In the fullness of time I expect Iraq to be listed as a Bush achievement. The Petraeus "surge" will go down in military history as one of the most successful counter-insurgency strategies ever. Further more, the swing amongst Arabs against Al Qaeda resulting from their attempted takeover and subsequent rejection in Sunni Iraq may be seen in the future as the second point at which it became clear that militant Islamofascism (or your epithet of choice) was not inevitable - the first being Afghanistan. So if we get to a point where we say in a decade or two from now that it was odd how everyone got worked up about Islamic fundamentalism then Bush is likely to be the main cause of that.

In the same vein, whether or his foreign adventures end up being ultimately successful he restored morale and belief to a US military that, under Clinton, felt unloved and unappreciated. Not to mention being made politically correct in inappropriate ways. He also, and I count this in the win column others may disagree, caused the hysterical anti-war left to jump up and down and identify what it stood for so that the majority of the US could decide they didn't like it and wished it would go to Canada like it promised to.

On the other hand I think we can safely lay the public relations mess that is Gitmo at his door. Guantanamo seems to have been a deliberate attempt to lawyer a way through a situation that isn't lawerable and all the lawyering has done is make things worse. Had the US simply left Al Qaeda captives in Afghanistan (or Iraq) and interrogated them there in conjunction with the local government things would probably have been better. They could also have let the local government hold the trial necessary to shoot the scum once they had spilled their guts. But no, people captured in all sorts of different places and in all sorts of different legal situations were all taken and mingled at Gitmo thus allowing human rights lawyers and other useful idiots to make the case that because subject A was illegally detained so are all other inmates.

On the domestic side his economic policies have been adequate. I don't think his administration has made enormous errors but I also don't think he's done any major good either. He did sign Sarbanes Oxley which was probably a mistake but then it was passed by both houses of congress and there was a palpable demand for Washington to DO SOMETHING. SOX is a bureaucratic paperpushing nightmare and his latest "stimulus" package little better but neither seems to be actively harmful in a Nixon or Carteresque way.

It looks to me like his appointments of Roberts and Alito were very sound (although why Harriet Miers was touted first seems bizarre). Indeed Miers, like a nunber of his other appointments or would be appointments, seems to be a classic case of rewarding loyalty with a job the person is not qualified for. Also domestically he managed to fracture a good deal of the Reagan republican coalition by, at different times and in different ways, seriously annoying just about every component of if. From anti-pork libertarians to religious conservatives via anyone who hated gun-contol or thought that national security would include trying and jailing security leakers at some point he managed to bend when he could have stood firm. In particular his lack of backbone over pork, and especially pork within the republican party, means that he missed a very clear (and I think popular) way to differentiate the republicans from the democrats. Reagan talked a good talk about cutting government spending and people tended to give him a certain amount of benefit of the doubt. Bush has never really talked the government cutting talk and has shown little desire to walk the walk either.

I can't comment on No Chld Left Behind or some of the other stuff that has happened. I suspect its mostly Sarbanes Oxley in other areas - i.e. classic "government must do something, this is something, hence this is good" sorts of legislation that isn't going to fix the problem it is supposed to but isn't immediately fatal either.

Overall though I suspect his legacy is mixed. He's not the worst or even the 5th worse US president but he's not the best or 5th best either. Somewhere in the pack around the middle I reckon. We only think he's special now because he's the most recent and none of us were around to debate the strengths etc. of Teddy Roosevelt or Andrew Jackson.