As the United States lowers its flag in Iraq, President Obama is entitled to bask in the glory of an election promise honoured and a military mission accomplished. To have brought home tens of thousands of troops in time for Christmas, dismantled all the infrastructure, and departed without a hint of the panicked humiliation of Saigon is an achievement that, alone, should speed Barack Obama to a second term.
There is also a corollary to this success. To the many people in the US and around the world who opposed the Iraq war, it will only underline the criminal folly of the invasion mounted by George Bush almost nine years ago. A war of choice – grounded in false evidence, crassly mismanaged, and scandalously wasteful of human life – stands as the epitaph to an abysmally failed presidency.
Look ahead another five, 10, perhaps 20 years, however, and it is worth asking whether this sweeping judgement will endure; whether history's verdict on the Iraq war will be the same as it is today; whether that war – good or bad – will remain the touchstone for the Bush presidency, and whether the image of George Bush will still be that of the bumbling ignoramus who claimed "mission accomplished" almost before the worst of the fighting had begun.
It pains me to write this, but on some of the very big ideas, this drink-driving, draft-dodging, born-again son of American privilege may turn out to have been more right than wrong. He had many, many faults. As he might be the first to admit, he was not good at the small print, and he was at his worst when confronted with crisis.
He over-reacted, along with the rest of the US, when he treated the attacks of 9/11 as acts of war, rather than crimes – precipitating the decade-long, and mostly counter-productive, embroilment in Afghanistan. He was by nature a Polyanna-ish optimist. He trusted too much. He allowed himself to be convinced that Iraqis would welcome US troops with flowers, and bought his defence secretary's erroneous idea that a smaller, nimbler force could control Iraq.
He retained the services of Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve, in the mistaken belief that he was a talisman of economic success, rather than an economist who had already exhausted his competence. By condoning, if not actually authorising, torture, he ruined any claim the US might have had to moral leadership, and he inflicted the same damage on the Constitution, when he set up the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay with the express aim of obviating US jurisdiction.
This is a charge-sheet as grave as it is long. But, in some of the broad principles and long-term policies he espoused, it is starting to look as though Bush could be vindicated. Take Iraq. I would not argue in favour of a war of choice, at any time, anywhere (not in Libya, either) – and actually starting one, as Bush did, is madness, unless there is a direct military threat to your own country.
Yet in his conviction that those of another religion and culture – in this case, Islam – shared the same aspirations as, say, Americans, the past year's events in North Africa and the Middle East have proved him triumphantly right. Whatever happens next, the uprisings across the region did not originate in religion, but in a popular quest for a say in the running of the country, for justice and for a better life. It turns out that there really was a desire inside these countries for regime change. Indeed, it could be argued that US intervention in Iraq delayed political change – both there and elsewhere – by poisoning the American "brand". It took the olive branch extended by Obama in Cairo, 18 months before the anti-Mubarak uprising, to detoxify the US model. But Bush's instincts about the forces at work were right.
There is another, almost equally significant area in which Bush can be credited with seeing farther and more clearly than most of his contemporaries: that of energy. As President, Bush was excoriated by opponents at home and abroad for his early rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and then for the support he gave to companies wanting to prospect for oil in a protected area of Alaska. "Drill, baby, drill," became the tedious catchphrase of his many adversaries.
By emphasising Bush's supposed antipathy to environmental issues, however, those same adversaries neglected a strand of his domestic policy that warranted just as much, if not more, attention: his determination that the US should reduce its dependence on imported energy. Many ascribed the "drilling" aspect of Bush's policies to what they saw as his profound distrust of environmentalism – although, in fact, his views were generally more progressive than those of mainstream America. Others saw the residue of his early career as a Texas oilman, and his continuing contacts with the industry.
There may be an element of truth in both. Probably the overriding consideration, however, was his belief that the US was constrained in its foreign policy, as in its economy, by its dependence on imported energy. Previous presidents, from Nixon on, had nurtured the same ambition – to make the US self-sufficient in energy – but Bush set about systematically trying to achieve that.
Shifting national energy policy wholesale from an import-base to domestic production is neither easy, nor quick, in any economy, let alone one as orientated to the free market as that of the US. But, thanks to a combination of commercial incentives, technological advances and luck – the discovery of new and exploitable shale gas deposits – the US has now decreased its dependency on imported energy below 50 per cent. Obama and his successors will reap the political benefits, but the foundations were laid, or rather drilled, by George Bush.
By 2020, it is estimated that the US could be the world's biggest oil and gas producer, ahead of both Russia and Saudi Arabia, with much of what it still imports coming not from the volatile Middle East, but from Canada and Mexico. This is a potentially huge shift – one with the potential to transform US foreign policy and remove all rationale for military adventures such as the Iraq war. From the perspective of 20 years hence, not only could the Muslim world be a quite different place, but US progress towards energy self-sufficiency could be seen as the trigger for a whole new geopolitical order. Thus would the wrongs of Iraq be eclipsed, and George Bush's legacy need to be judged afresh.Reuse content