With just a little over six months left in his last term, much has been written about how President Bush will be viewed historically long after he says his final goodbye to the American people as their President. One recent “unscientific poll” conducted by HNN suggested that 98% of “historians” viewed his presidency as a failure, while 61% said his presidency was the “worst in history.” One Columbia U. professor wrote in 2006 that Bush’s presidency could already be described as the “worst in history” – even though he acknowledged that it was hard to gauge how his presidency would be viewed in 2050. There have been plenty more pieces like that written, with so-called “experts” weighing in before his second term is even over as to how he will/should be viewed both now, and in the future.
Not so fast, says British writer Andrew Roberts. Writing in today’s UK Telegraph, he suggests history may be much kinder to President Bush than current historians suggest it will be:
If the West wins the modern counterpart of that struggle [against Communism], the War Against Terror, historians will look back in amazement at the present unpopularity of George W Bush, and marvel at it quite as much as we now marvel at the 67 per cent disapproval rates for Truman throughout 1952.
George W Bush will be remembered for his responses to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, but since neither of those conflicts has yet ended in victory or defeat, it is far too early categorically to assume – as left-wingers, anti-war campaigners and almost all media commentators already do – that his historical reputation will be permanently down in the doldrums next to poor old Warren Harding’s.
I suspect that historians of the future will instead see Bush’s decision to insist upon a “surge” of reinforcements being sent into Iraq, combined with a complete change of anti-insurgency tactics as configured by General Petraeus, as the moment when the conflict was turned around there, in the West’s favour.
No one – least of all Bush himself – denies that mistakes were made in the early days after the (unexpectedly early) fall of Baghdad, and historians will quite rightly examine them. But once the decades have put the stirring events of those years into their proper historical context, four great facts will emerge that will place Bush in a far better light than he currently enjoys.
The overthrow and execution of a foul tyrant, Saddam Hussein; the liberation of the Afghan people from the Taliban; the smashing of the terrorist networks of al-Qa’eda in that country and elsewhere and, finally, the protection of the American people from any further atrocities on US soil since 9/11, is a legacy of which to be proud.
While of course every individual death is a tragedy to the bereaved families, these great achievements have been won at a cost in human life a fraction the size of any past world-historical struggle of this magnitude.
The number of American troops killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan is equivalent to the losses they endured – for a nation only a little over half the size in the mid-Forties – capturing a single island from the Japanese in the Pacific War.
British losses of 103 killed over seven years in Afghanistan bears comparison to a quiet weekend on the Western Front in the Great War, or the numbers the Army loses in traffic accidents in peacetime. History can lend a wider overall perspective to what are nonetheless, of course, immeasurably sad events.
History will also shine an unforgiving light on those ludicrous conspiracy theories that claim that the Iraq War was fought for any other reason than to implement the 14 UN resolutions that Saddam that had been flouting for 13 years.
It’s all too easy for historians to say in the here and now that Bush’s presidency will be viewed as the “worst ever” because his approval ratings are so low, and about the only people who approve of him at this point are people in the Republican base. Not only that, but no one can accurately predict the future and how future events will be shaped by presidents past – positively or negatively – so all they have to rely on is how he is currently viewed by the public, other politicos, academics, and other countries. Since a majority of the public here in the US doesn’t approve of him, and so many politicos are running away from him (including McCain), academics naturally hate him, and the opinions of other countries towards the President are well-known, it’s easy to see why historians are already predicting how his presidency should be viewed.
I write all this not to suggest that a president should take into consideration how he will be viewed historically before he makes a decision about something. In fact, a little over a week ago, the Prez. did an interview with the UK’s Times Online in which he expressed regret at some of the things he’d said and how they’d said them over the course of his two terms in office. Many people, including conservatives, viewed that as Bush being obsessed with his legacy. I didn’t get that out of the article at all. Now, to be sure, I think it’s only human to be worried somewhat about the legacy not only are you leaving for the country to see, but the next president as well in terms of the agenda he will set. But in that interview, I saw a person who didn’t regret the decisions he’d made as they related to the war on terror, but instead regretted how he went about expressing his views on WOT-related issues. He clearly believes that had he toned down the “bring it on” rhetoric that, while still facing significant opposition from those who wouldn’t support him if their lives depended on it, perhaps the country – and the world – would not be as divided as it currently is over both him and the war in Iraq.
This is, in my view, naive thinking on his part as I firmly believe that no matter how prettily he could have worded things, 99% of the people who don’t like him now would still detest him with ever fiber of their beings. Then again, this is a president who I think believes that, even at this late stage of his final term, he can still reach across the aisle and shake the hand of a Democrat in a gesture of good will, and expect that gesture to be returned in kind. This enduring belief that the other side is willing to work with him has in some ways been a blessing, but most of the time been a curse.
I believe that if Bush was someone who was obsessed with his legacy, he’d pay attention to what all the naysayers have been saying for years about the war in Iraq and pull out. If he was that concerned with his legacy, he’d shut down Gitmo right now, which would appease to a certain extent The Usual Suspects who have painted him as a heartless, lawless dictator with no regard for “human rights.” The fact that he has resisted these calls (along with so many others) at a time when the tide has been shifting away from him on these and many GWOT issues for years shows that more importantly he’s been concerned about doing what he thinks is the right thing to do, rather than taking the easy way out by doing “what’s popular.” He might get a more favorable view from historians now if he were to backtrack on issues like Iraq and Gitmo, but he seems to realize that just because something might be “popular” to do at the moment doesn’t necessarily make it right for the long term.
I think anyone who believes Bush is obsessed with his legacy should take a look at how Bill Clinton and Friends have continuously tried to rewrite his over the years, on issues related to North Korea, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians, and, of course, his legacy as it relates to counterterrorism efforts against OBL, and you’ll see the stark differences between a man who cares more about making sure the many lives lost in this war against Islamofascism have not been in vain once he leaves office, versus a vain man whose only concern is and always has been himself and how history will view him.
By no means has Bush been perfect – in fact, as we all know by now, he’s got a knack for angering conservatives just as he has for angering liberals – but on core issues related to our national security, be it winning the war against Islamofascism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and worldwide, the right to hold suspected terrorists who fly no country’s banner at a secure site at Gitmo, and the right to wiretap the phone calls of suspected terrorists and/or those who aid them here in the US, he’s been solid and, as Roberts suggested, time could very well prove Bush correct on his GWOT policies as well as fully expose his harshest critics for the partisan hacks most of them are.
Cross-posted to Right Wing News, where I am helping guestblog for John Hawkins on Sundays.