Leading article: We must judge Bush by his legacy, not his own words

The greatest indictment relates to the reckless zeal with which he pursued his ideological foreign policy

The 43rd President of the United States has every right to defend his record, and his memoirs do not deserve to be dismissed out of hand just because they are his. The way George W Bush saw his presidency at the time and sees it now, with hindsight, is an essential part of the historical narrative. It might be said that for US presidents – or indeed British prime ministers – not to bequeath a memoir of their time in office amounts to a dereliction of official duty.

But there is a strange undercurrent to this week's publication of George Bush's memoirs, Decision Points. The former President's apologists are exploiting the occasion as an opportunity to plead for his two terms to be reassessed. Say what you like about George Bush's years in the White House, they argue, but give the lad a break. At root, he is a nice guy; his heart was always in the right place. The scion of an uptight patrician family, he became his own man. He had the strength of will to overcome his demons; he was ideologically consistent, and while he made mistakes in office, he also got many of the biggest things right. Such as? The centrality to US foreign policy of democracy and freedom; his so-called "war on terror"; the primacy of national security.

Bush loyalists are entitled to their view. That the former President has redeeming character traits, however, must not cloud judgements about his place in history. The private and the public are not to be confused. As a low point of his presidency, Mr Bush notes the accusations of racism over his dilatory response to Hurricane Katrina. But the facts are that the poorest residents of New Orleans were mostly black; they were egregiously let down by the administration of the richest country in the world, and Mr Bush failed to give a lead worthy of the inclusive President he professed to be. Mr Bush might not have a racist fibre in his body, but this was callous incompetence of the first order.

Mr Bush's fans also make much of certain might-have-beens, in particular the disclosure that he broached ditching Dick Cheney as vice-president before his second term – as though Mr Bush had been unjustly tarred with the Cheney brush. But Mr Bush was the President; he had the power to propose and dispose. Mr Cheney was a member of his administration, not the other way round. It is no defence of Mr Bush that he retained Mr Cheney; on the contrary, it is an indictment of his judgement.

The greatest indictments of all, though, relate to the reckless zeal with which he pursued his highly ideological foreign policy and the complacency, verging on negligence, he showed on the domestic economy. Mr Bush allowed anger to dictate that war, rather than judicial proceedings, was the proper response to 9/11. He failed to quash the notion of a direct link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida; he went to war with Iraq on a premise of weapons that proved not to be there, and tried to subvert the United Nations to the security interest, as he saw it, of the United States.

Even as he preached freedom, he authorised the use of torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial. In so doing, he stored up vast liabilities for the future, poisoning US relations with Muslim countries and opening a rift with Europe that may come to be seen as the historic parting of the ways.

At home, Mr Bush inherited a flourishing economy that had made the US the envy of the world. Through inattention and wishful thinking, he left it in ruins, discrediting not only his own administration, but elements of the free-market model, too. A successful US President leaves his country and the world better places. Nice guy or no, George Bush, through disastrous judgements, achieved the opposite. By any standards, that is failure.