Have we misunderestimated George W Bush?

We may think we've got the measure of the 43rd President of the United States, the most unpopular man to have occupied the White House in modern times. But we'd be wrong, argues Rupert Cornwell. At home and abroad, the Bush years have seen real achievements – and history may judge him far more kindly than his critics would have us believe

Monday 01 September 2008 00:00

History can throw up some improbable villains. Take, for example, Bud Selig. It can be argued that America's, and the world's, woes would now be less had Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, in 1992 appointed George Bush, then the managing partner of the Texas Rangers franchise, to the vacant post of commissioner of baseball. But Selig, at the time acting commissioner, took the job himself. Bush, instead, went into politics and the rest is... well, history. But might it just be that Selig did everyone a favour?

At first glance, to even ask the question seems preposterous. Four months before he disappears into the Texas sunset, Bush is the least loved president of modern times. He will step down with the US embroiled in two unpopular wars, up to its eyes in debt, its economy sliding into recession, its moral standing in the world deeply damaged.

Not even Harry Truman during the worst of the Korean war, or Richard Nixon as he sank in the morass of Watergate, matched Bush's current disapproval rating of 70 per cent. As early as midway through his second term, a panel of historians ranked him as America's worst ever president.

Already, his performance in the job can be book-ended by two "My Pet Goat" moments. The first came on 11 September 2001, as he sat in a classroom reading the book of that name to a group of Florida schoolchildren even after he was told of the two attacks on the World Trade Centre. The scene symbolises Bush as he is widely perceived to be, out of touch and for all his talk of being "The Decider", anything but the commanding chief executive figure he fancies himself to be.

The second occurred in Beijing last month. There was Bush sitting and joking with Vladimir Putin at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, at the very moment that Russia was going to war to crush Georgia, poster-country for the Bush mission of bringing liberty and democracy to every corner of the planet. Once again, in the dimming twilight of his presidency, he appeared completely caught out by events.

But just maybe the legacy Bush will bequeath his successor, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, won't be as bad as is made out. Normally, historical rehabilitation observes a decent pause after its subject has left the stage.

But even with Bush still firmly (if rather irrelevantly) ensconced in the Oval Office, some commentators here are revising their judgements of him – upwards. The reappraisals may be merely punditry's version of "dead cat bounce", as Wall Street charmingly terms a misleading rally in a market headed irreversibly downwards. Equally though, they might be a sign of things to come.

These Bush defenders are an eclectic bunch. Some you might have expected, such as Robert Kagan, neo-conservative turned realist, responsible in 2002 for the thesis that "Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus" to explain the tough-guys-against-wimps transatlantic rift on Iraq and much else besides. Now he argues that history, its lessons so often ignored by the neo-cons, is back, warts and all.

Others are less obvious, for instance David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter partly responsible for coining the term "axis of evil" which Bush used to describe that unholy trinity of Iraq, Iran and North Korea in his State of the Union Speech, also in 2002. Frum may have been a true believer once; he now believes that, thanks in part to Bush, American conservatism is in such a mess that Republicans this autumn could face a wipeout to match that of Democrats in the 1980 election that swept Ronald Reagan to power.

And what about Fareed Zakaria, international affairs pundit du jour thanks to his book The Post-American World, arguing that the rise of "the rest" – China, India, Russia and so on – spells the end of the unchallenged global supremacy of the US? Zakaria, firmly on the "soft power"/realism end of the foreign policy spectrum, last month produced an article for Newsweek, provocatively entitled "What Bush Got Right". Put the arguments advanced by these three gentlemen together and the short answer is that he may be getting quite a bit right. The tragedy is that the light has been so slow to dawn.

In domestic, but above all foreign policy, Bush's policy has been a tale of U-turns. He came to office an avowed free marketeer, deregulator, and advocate of small government. Even before boom turned to bust last year, he had presided over a stealthy expansion of government unmatched since the 1960s and 1970s.

Since the crisis broke, his administration has embarked on what may prove the most ambitious programme of state intervention and "re-regulation" of the economy since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Few would now dispute that course. As Bush himself said at a recent fundraiser, after its credit binge, Wall Street was behaving like "a drunk with a hangover". Indisputably, markets have shown they cannot police themselves.

But the volte-face at home is more than matched by the changes in America's dealings with the world. The problem for Bush is that perception still lags behind reality. The perception, set in his first term, is of the ignorant Texan bully, in hock to big business and the oil industry, who, guided by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, ripped up the Kyoto treaty, needlessly antagonised Russia and spurned the UN to launch his misbegotten invasion of Iraq.

That was then. Today's reality is nowhere better measured than in the apoplectic attacks on administration policy by John Bolton, disillusioned neo-conservative super-hawk, sworn foe of the UN, and advocate of military strikes against Iran. If Bolton – whose truculent world view is summed up by the title of his book Surrender is Not an Option – is so furious, Bush surely is doing something right.

But the policy shifts can be hard to detect, in part because this President's image is set in stone, in part because Bush is reluctant to announce them, in keeping with a stubborn nature that finds it virtually impossible to admit mistakes. But they are momentous, nonetheless.

Take North Korea. Bush came to office vowing to have no truck with the communist regime in Pyongyang until it changed its ways. Early on, he publicly repudiated Colin Powell, when his first Secretary of State suggested that the Clinton era policy of limited engagement would continue. Seven years on, the administration has come full circle, and further. The US is now ready for bilateral talks, and apparently ready to take Kim Jong Il's regime off the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The case of Iran is no less striking. Bush inherited a mini-thaw with Tehran, and the chances of a real breakthrough after two decades of deep freeze only improved after the 9/11 attacks, in which Iran was a de facto US ally against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, who then controlled Afghanistan.

By 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, a nervous Tehran – by now branded a founder member of the "axis of evil" – was putting out feelers for a grand bargain with Washington. The overtures, alas, were spurned. Thereafter, the bluster of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran's steadily advancing nuclear programme, and its interference in neighbouring Iraq only made matters worse. The US refused to have anything to do with Iran until it stopped enriching uranium (although Tehran is perfectly entitled to do so). By late last year, it seemed a matter of when, not if, the US would take military action.

Then, quietly, things changed. Washington is still darkly suspicious of Iran. But the war rhetoric has cooled markedly and, albeit gingerly, the two sides are talking. The State Department soon may even open a US interests office in Tehran, manned by the first American diplomats there since the 1979/1981 embassy hostage crisis.

In Iraq itself, the US troop "surge" of early 2007 has brought a measure of stability. American casualties have tumbled, and the government of Nouri al-Maliki is starting to deliver. Thanks in good measure to the bungled early occupation, Iraq's long-term prospects remain very cloudy, while the war's costs have climbed to $10bn (£5.2bn) a month. But conditions for at least a limited US withdrawal are in place.

As he did with North Korea, Bush also long avoided Clinton-like engagement in the Middle East. For its first six years, the administration did not get involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Bush came out in support of a Palestinian state, but did absolutely nothing to bring one nearer. Israel was given free rein to expand settlements; the onus for progress was placed squarely on the Palestinians.

Today, signs of movement in the region abound. Much reflects an internal dynamic, in Israel, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, that owes less to US pressure than the realisation in Israel that without a viable two-state solution, Israel itself is in the long run doomed. But with the Annapolis conference last November, Washington signalled it was back in the Middle East peace business. The US still will not lean heavily on Israel, but at least its diplomatic apparatus has a focus again.

Elsewhere, the administration has mended fences with Europe after the angry disagreements over Iraq. Partly as a result, the "big three" of France, Germany and the UK have as collectively pro-American a leadership as at any time since the 1980s. This President has established a reasonably satisfactory relationship with China. Despite the West's inaction over Darfur, Bush may be proud of his record in bringing assistance to Africa, in particular to fight HIV-Aids.

The chances are that, be it McCain or Obama who wins in November, none of these policies, most of them formulated since 2006, will greatly change. The former will not send cruise missiles against Iran, the latter will not pull US troops out of Iraq overnight. What will change, of course, is the perception, especially with a President Obama in the Oval Office. Bush, alas, is a prisoner of his image. Only the long sweep of history can alter that fact.

One achievement, however, may be appreciated already, without the need for re-evaluation by historians a decade or two down the line. No news can be astonishingly good news. There has not been a single foreign terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. The reasons are several: a vigilance bordering on the paranoid, the no-nonsense (to put it politely) treatment of terror suspects, and more effective collaboration both between those historic rivals at home, the CIA and the FBI, and between the latter pair and foreign police and intelligence agencies.

Nonetheless, who would have dared predict that between 12 September 2001 and 12 August 2008, the homeland would remain inviolate? Loathe him you may. But Bush has undeniably performed his basic duty of keeping the country safe.

The maddening thing is that he took so long to change his ways, and present this more reasonable US face to the world. In fact, the transformation was brought about not by strength but by weakness. America went more multilateral and less belligerent for two reasons. Drained by Iraq and Afghanistan, it simply no longer had the wherewithal for more wars. Meanwhile, the popularity of the President and his party was dropping like a stone.

The new approach was evident early in the second term, with the reassertion under Condoleezza Rice of the State Department – so trampled upon during Powell's tenure as neo-con hubris ran riot. But the watershed moment was the mid-term election of 2006. That 7 November, the Republicans lost control of both House and Senate. The next morning, Bush dismissed Rumsfeld, the swaggering, bullying, "Old Europe"-deriding emblem of the Bush mark 1 approach to the world. His replacement, the wise old Russia hand and former CIA chief Bob Gates, could not be more different. Almost at a stroke, confrontation was replaced by deal making.

But is this enough to buy redemption in the history books? Or, in other words, are today's marginally more favourable reviews a sign of things to come, or merely short-term devices to sell books and magazines? Bush perforce takes the long view. As he put it in an interview with Fox News earlier this year, "I've read three books on [George] Washington in the last couple of years, and they're still analysing the first guy. What do I have to worry about?" And as for the collective punditry, "I take great comfort in knowing that they don't know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach." Shades of the former Chinese prime minister Zhou En Lai's famous line, when asked about the impact of the 1789 revolution in France, that it was still "too early to say".

In Bush's case, redemption is possible – and well inside 200 years. Who can absolutely rule out the possibility that Iraq over the next decade or two will emerge as a stable, modern and reasonably democratic state, the model for the Middle East that the neo-cons once told us it would be? And what if subsequent events prove that the "war on terror" is being won – that 9/11, in retrospect, turns out to be not the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the end? If these two things come to pass, future historians will certainly treat Bush more kindly.

The gold standard for presidential rehabilitation is Harry Truman. When he took the train home from Washington to Independence, Missouri, in January 1953, Truman was reviled, his achievements in creating Nato and reviving Europe with the Marshall Plan were virtually forgotten. Now most historians place him high in the second tier of presidents, behind the elite trio of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. Even the reputation of Richard Nixon, who 34 years ago became the only president in history to resign, is no longer entirely negative.

On the other hand, even success in Iraq and victory over terrorism may not be enough to rescue the younger Bush. Truman had his failings. But he did not sanction waterboarding, throw out the window both habeas corpus and the Geneva conventions dealing with prisoners of war, or preside over obscenities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Winston Churchill is Bush's special hero. But it is the example of Truman he most often cites when arguing that, sooner or later, his achievements will be appreciated for what they are. Unfortunately, the man who declared that "the buck stops here" is honoured primarily in the breach. A hallmark of Bush The Decider has been his readiness to pass the buck, and avoid responsibility for mistakes – mistakes such as Abu Ghraib, the rotten fruit of policies originating at the top levels of the Pentagon, if not the White House itself.

The rise and fall of countries is dictated by deep internal rhythms, and there is usually little an individual leader can do to reverse them. But George W Bush is peculiarly badly placed to enter that plea before the court of history.

For one thing, his decisions (and non-decisions) have undoubtedly accelerated a relative American decline. Given the emergence of China and India, Brazil and the rest, a repeat of the "American" century that was the 20th was probably never on the cards. But the war in Iraq, the refusal to take action to counter US energy profligacy, the tax cuts that encouraged the country to live beyond its means, with consequences now only too visible, have placed an extra drain on American strength. The world's most powerful nation is also its greatest debtor.

The second strike against Bush is more insidious, but perhaps even more serious. His refusal to accept responsibility has been buttressed by an expansion of executive power that arguably has violated the constitution. His (and Dick Cheney's) reply to critics has often amounted to "I can do that because I'm President, and that's that."

But by placing his office – and by extension the US – above the law, Bush has grievously damaged America's moral authority. The country that brought the world Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib has scant right to lecture on human rights and individual freedoms.

For nations as well as persons, a good name takes an age to establish, but an instant to lose. Bush has done much to squander America's. His historical rehabilitation will largely depend on whether, and how quickly, his successors can quickly regain that good name.

In the meantime, one is left to ponder Bud Selig, baseball, and a commissioner's job on which history may have hinged.

Presidents whom history has smiled on – after the events

1. Harry Truman

He left office in 1953 with an approval rating of 26 per cent, and the image of a graceless small-town politician promoted above his pay grade. The country was fed up with the Korean war, distant and deadlocked after more than two years of often bloody fighting. In the past 50 years, though, his reputation has only risen. The haberdasher from Kansas City is now remembered for his clear thinking, and for deeds that shaped and protected the West for half a century – the creation of Nato, the Berlin airlift that faced down the Russians early in the Cold War, and the extraordinary act of enlightened self-interest that was the Marshall Plan.

2. George Bush Sr

The missteps of the son have lent a new aura to the father. The Bush who was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992 came across as an overprivileged member of a dying East Coast establishment, more familiar with foreign countries than his own. During the election campaign, he was famously bemused by a scanner in a supermarket. Now, however, his foreign policy achievements are gaining recognition, above all his expert, no-gloating management of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and his realisation that regime change in Iraq in 1991, when he had Saddam at his mercy, would be more trouble than it was worth. If only George Jr had listened....

3. Dwight Eisenhower

Another president whose reputation has gained from the mistakes of the present incumbent. In 1960, the former Second World War commander was viewed as an elderly throwback to another era – indolent, golf-loving and out-of-touch. Now the 1950s are viewed by some as a golden age of American innocence that unfolded under the benign gaze of a wise grandfather at the White House, and Eisenhower is regarded as a skilful handler of the Cold War. He is remembered, too, for his valedictory address, in which he delivered his warning about the perils of an emerging "military-industrial complex" that could – and has – distorted national security policy.

4. Ronald Reagan

No one ever doubted that Reagan's 1980 victory marked the triumph of modern conservatism in America. But the "Great Communicator" left office a figure of fun, assumed to have hardly a clue what was going on around him, manipulated by his wife, Nancy. His reputation soared with the collapse of communism. So dismissive of detail, Reagan is seen as being right on the big issues: the evils of the Soviet system and the virtues of free markets. He is admired for his goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, almost achieved at the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev. Like Truman, Reagan is now ranked as a "near-great" president.

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