Pundit Roundtable: George W. Bush and history

Will Franklin and Ken McCracken of WIllisms started a program a little while ago they call “Pundit Roundtable.” I’ve been invited to participate since the outset, but never actually did. (And rude lout that I am, never bothered to reply at all — a dreadful way to treat a distinguished former GuestBanger.) But they didn’t give up hope on me, and sent me their latest questions:

Topic 1: This has been a rough last few weeks for the Bush administration. Maybe this is a good time to ask: what will be history’s verdict on the Bush administration? Will it be that of a decisive administration that cut taxes and prosecuted the War on Terror, or that of a dishonest regime that lied to get us into a war of opportunity? Will it be seen as a success, or failure?

Topic 2: How should the Democrats play the Alito nomination to get maximum political gain? Should they fight tooth and nail and Bork him, filibuster the nomination, or just let it slide? What, if any, benefit can they get out of a nomination fight to go into the 2006 elections?

I chose this week to participate, and to tackle the first topic. I would have kicked around the second, but I am hopelessly outclassed on matters of the Supreme Court by Kevin and Wizbang! Special Correspondent Mary Katharine Ham. Besides, by the time I was finished, I’d put together almost 2,000 words on the first one, and I figured I’d bored everyone enough by that point.

So if you’re interested in my take on the question, get yourself a beverage of your choice, put up your feet, and give it a read. Then go over to Willisms to see their roundup of others’ takes on the questions.

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I have always thought of historians as having a smidgen of a lazy streak, and I suspect that many future analysts of the Bush ’43 administration will take the easy approach and draw many parallels between it and the Reagan administration. To wit:

1) The only Republicans to serve two full terms since Eisenhower.

2) Both were seen as intellectual lightweights.

3) Both campaigned on a promise to cut taxes, and did so.

4) Both had undistinguished, easily-mocked military careers during wartime.

5) Both had to deal with a highly-unconventional war against a monolithic opponent.

6) Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and several other high-ranking Bush administration officials also served under Reagan.

7) Both had been governors, as well as dabbling in the business end of professional sports.

8) Both embraced the ranching life, and often retreated to their ranches during their administration.

9) Both strongly espoused family values, yet had “black sheep” relatives they kept at arms’ distance (Reagan and his children, Bush and Neil).

But that is, as I said, the lazy approach to the situation. How will Bush be judged by history?

I think it’s still too early to tell, but I get the feeling that I will not be allowed to weasel out. So, with the option of simply deferring the question taken off the table, and forced to actually express an opinion, I think that Bush ’43’s legacy will be much like Reagan’s; seen as spotty at best when it ends, growing more and more respected as time passes.

One of the key elements of any president’s legacy is the economy. Under Bush, the economy has grown significantly, with most of the indicators showing positive signs. The bubble of the 90’s seemed destined to end in a crash, much like an aneurysm keeps expanding until it bursts, often killing the patient, but Bush managed to deflate it
safely and resume steady, sustainable growth.

But the defining characteristic of the Bush administration will be the war on terror.

I’ve often said that Bush seemed to run for office with no clearly defined goals, just to “be president” out of some sense of obligation or entitlement. He didn’t seem to have any single defining issue of his own, no great goal or objective that drove him to seek the office. (It was a feeling I had again last year, in the form of John Kerry.) I voted for him anyway, because Gore seemed even more so, except he intended to drift along in the general direction of Clinton’s administration, and I’d had enough.

But sometimes when we lack purpose, one is provided for us. For George W. Bush, that was 9/11.

That attack energized him, gave his presidency something to fight for. (I’ve seen some people say that God made sure Bush was president because he was best equipped to fight the war on terror. I’m an agnostic, and don’t put any stock in Providence micromanaging matters to that degree, but it seems a hell of a lot more probable than God steering hurricanes based on how much money people send Pat Robertson.) He saw the circumstances that over 20 years of appeasing terrorism had left us in then, Alexander-like, took out his sword and unraveled the Gordian Knot. Overnight, he redefined American policy towards terrorism and those who sponsor it, and did what no other nation in history had done: invaded and overthrew the Afghani government. And did it with such efficiency and
effectiveness that the world was stunned.

Then he began the truly revolutionary part of his campaign: he started working towards replacing the Taliban regime with a democratic government. And it seems to be working.

People often talk about democracy as a “tree” or some other form of plant, and I’m going to run with that metaphor for a bit. Tyranny can be seen as a great dam, holding back freedom and staunching liberty. But no dam is perfect, and they all have their tiny cracks. These are not enough to substantially weaken the dam, but they are there.

In this metaphor, democracy is a seed of a tree. The seed falls into one of these cracks, and starts growing. Eventually, it will outgrow the confines of the crack, and widen it. Eventually, the crack will become a crevice, and then — if all goes well — will eventually lead to the crumbling of the dam, and the release of the liberty.

(The metaphor falls apart here, as the tree often doesn’t survive the death of the dam, but no metaphor is perfect.)

After the fall of Afghanistan, many would have been content to say that 9/11 had been avenged. Indeed, it had. But 9/11 wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the culmination of a series of attacks by Al Qaeda, beginning in 1993 with their first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. More importantly, it was the single most successful of a
long line of terrorist attacks, all motivated by Islamist drives and their desire to re-establish the Caliphate, and to drive out all the unbelievers (meaning Christians, Jews, Animists, Buddhists, and the “wrong” type of Muslims) from the Lands of Islam. That would be followed by the expansion of the Lands of Islam until the whole world was united under Allah — more specifically, His chosen leaders, the Islamists.

Bush could easily have called it a day after Afghanistan, contenting himself to hunt down the last remnants of Al Qaeda and said the battle is over. And he would have been right — that battle was won, and won handily and decisively.

But battles are not wars. We never lost a single battle in Viet Nam, but we didn’t win the war.

The seeds of democracy growing in Afghanistan were working wonders, but they were too far removed from the center of gravity of the conflict. More seeds had to be planted, in the heart of the Arab world, if the war was to be won.

And that brings us to Iraq.

Much has been made about the “pretext” of our invasion of Iraq. I’m not going to go into that here, but I’m simply going to discuss it in the context of the greater war. The Arab world has stagnated for far too long, a motley collection of monarchies, tyrannies, and other forms of dictatorships, eagerly exporting terrorism and unrest and death around the world, fueled by Islamist radicalism and the great good fortune of sitting atop a huge percentage of the world’s oil. It was a status quo that had stood for far too long, and needed to be shaken up — but no one had had the right combination of nerve and vision to attempt anything radical enough to succeed.

Until Bush.

Iraq represented the “perfect storm,” the confluence of events, circumstances, geography, history, politics, economics, and a host of other factors needed to trigger cataclysmic change throughout the Middle East.

1) It had a brutal dictator with a history of initiating wars of aggression.

2) It had repeatedly violated the terms of its surrender from the first Gulf War, giving us a pretext for attacking.

3) It had a minority faction tyrannizing the population, including an oppressed majority and a persecuted minority.

4) It was geographically near the center of the Islamist movement, with borders with Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — all noted sponsors of terrorism.

5) It had borders with two reliable allies, Kuwait and Turkey.

6) It had significant oil of its own, to fund the reconstruction and development of a democracy, but because of sanctions was not allowed to sell it freely, minimizing the impact on the world’s day-to-day oil supply.

7) Its military was still debilitated by its defeat in the first Gulf War, and had not been allowed to regain its former strength.

8) Saddam had repeatedly refused to comply with sanctions, on the one hand insisting that he had no weapons of mass destruction nor programs to develop them, while on the other hand denying inspections and hinting strongly to his neighbors that he, indeed did have them, to keep them at bay.

9) He had long been a supporter and sponsor of terrorist acts and groups. He gave bounties to the families of suicide bombers in Israel, had several training camps for terrorists, and had frequent contacts with Al Qaeda itself both before and after 9/11.

With all that, the idea of invading Iraq, removing Saddam, and establishing a democracy in his place seemed the perfect solution. And it seems to be working — despite the best efforts of Saddam and the countless people he bribed to stave off our attack. (See George Galloway, France, Kofi Annan, Russia, and Germany for examples.)

The invasion and conquering of Iraq, and the beginnings of a democracy to take its place, are already showing signs of progress outside Iraq’s borders. Libya’s Qaddafi might not have “seen the light,” but he felt the heat, and he promptly surrendered his entire nuclear program, kit and kaboodle, to the United States. Lebanon, inspired by the Iraqi people’s own efforts towards freedom, started stirrings of their own to remove the Syrian yoke they’d worn for decades. And when Syria clumsily tried to crack down on the movement, it exploded into a full-fledged national drive towards freedom. Syria itself is now finding themselves on the hot seat over Lebanon, with the United Nations coming down on them for their actions in Lebanon. And Pakistan, who helped spread nuclear weapons technology throughout the Muslim world, is now seeing India as less of a threat than its own Islamist extremists, and is starting to crack down on them and ease the tensions with their fellow nuclear power just to their east.

The question remains, though — will this hold? Will Bush’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq actually continue to send reverberations of freedom throughout the world, shaking tyrants and dictators out of their sinecures and letting loose the tide of freedom?

I honestly don’t know. The critics of Bush’s policies raise some valid points — we are stretched very thin, militarily, and the general sentiment of the world seems to be pretty strongly against his efforts. It’s still a very questionable thing, which way the matter will be resolved. It’s still questionable of whether Bush’s plan could ever have worked.

I sincerely hope it does. And I hope that history will judge it to have been the right action at the right time, and that Bush will be one day regarded with the same respect and admiration as Reagan, both Roosevelts, Lincoln, and Washington.

For while Bush will accept the judgment of history, the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of his legacy. And I would much rather have that be a successful one, than a failure.

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