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Bush's Achievements: Ten things the president got right -- plus others articles
Bush's Achievements:  Ten things the president got right.
by Fred Barnes
01/19/2009, Volume 014, Issue 17

The postmortems on the presidency of George W. Bush are all wrong. The liberal line is that Bush dangerously weakened America's position in the world and rushed to the aid of the rich and powerful as income inequality worsened. That is twaddle. Conservatives--okay, not all of them--have only been a little bit kinder. They give Bush credit for the surge that saved Iraq, but not for much else.

He deserves better. His presidency was far more successful than not. And there's an aspect of his decision-making that merits special recognition: his courage. Time and time again, Bush did what other presidents, even Ronald Reagan, would not have done and for which he was vilified and abused. That--defiantly doing the right thing--is what distinguished his presidency.

Bush had ten great achievements (and maybe more) in his eight years in the White House, starting with his decision in 2001 to jettison the Kyoto global warming treaty so loved by Al Gore, the environmental lobby, elite opinion, and Europeans. The treaty was a disaster, with India and China exempted and economic decline the certain result. Everyone knew it. But only Bush said so and acted accordingly.

He stood athwart mounting global warming hysteria and yelled, "Stop!" He slowed the movement toward a policy blunder of worldwide impact, providing time for facts to catch up with the dubious claims of alarmists. Thanks in part to Bush, the supposed consensus of scientists on global warming has now collapsed. The skeptics, who point to global cooling over the past decade, are now heard loud and clear. And a rational approach to the theory of manmade global warming is possible.
Second, enhanced interrogation of terrorists. Along with use of secret prisons and wireless eavesdropping, this saved American lives. How many thousands of lives? We'll never know. But, as Charles Krauthammer said recently, "Those are precisely the elements which kept us safe and which have prevented a second attack."

Crucial intelligence was obtained from captured al Qaeda leaders, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with the help of waterboarding. Whether this tactic--it creates a drowning sensation--is torture is a matter of debate. John McCain and many Democrats say it is. Bush and Vice President Cheney insist it isn't. In any case, it was necessary. Lincoln once made a similar point in defending his suspension of habeas corpus in direct defiance of Chief Justice Roger Taney. "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" Lincoln asked. Bush understood the answer in wartime had to be no.

Bush's third achievement was the rebuilding of presidential authority, badly degraded in the era of Vietnam, Watergate, and Bill Clinton. He didn't hesitate to conduct wireless surveillance of terrorists without getting a federal judge's okay. He decided on his own how to treat terrorists and where they should be imprisoned. Those were legitimate decisions for which the president, as commander in chief, should feel no need to apologize.

Defending, all the way to the Supreme Court, Cheney's refusal to disclose to Congress the names of people he'd consulted on energy policy was also enormously important. Democratic congressman Henry Waxman demanded the names, but the Court upheld Cheney, 7-2. Last week, Cheney defended his refusal, waspishly noting that Waxman "doesn't call me up and tell me who he's meeting with."
Achievement number four was Bush's unswerving support for Israel. Reagan was once deemed Israel's best friend in the White House. Now Bush can claim the title. He ostracized Yasser Arafat as an impediment to peace in the Middle East. This infuriated the anti-Israel forces in Europe, the Third World, and the United Nations, and was criticized by champions of the "peace process" here at home. Bush was right.

He was clever in his support. Bush announced that Ariel Sharon should withdraw the tanks he'd sent into the West Bank in 2002, then exerted zero pressure on Sharon to do so. And he backed the wall along Israel's eastern border without endorsing it as an official boundary, while knowing full well that it might eventually become exactly that. He was a loyal friend.

His fifth success was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the education reform bill cosponsored by America's most prominent liberal Democratic senator Edward Kennedy. The teachers' unions, school boards, the education establishment, conservatives adamant about local control of schools--they all loathed the measure and still do. It requires two things they ardently oppose, mandatory testing and accountability.

Kennedy later turned against NCLB, saying Bush is shortchanging the program. In truth, federal education spending is at record levels. Another complaint is that it forces teachers to "teach to the test." The tests are on math and reading. They are tests worth teaching to.

Sixth, Bush declared in his second inaugural address in 2005 that American foreign policy (at least his) would henceforth focus on promoting democracy around the world. This put him squarely in the Reagan camp, but he was lambasted as unrealistic, impractical, and a tool of wily neoconservatives. The new policy gave Bush credibility in pressing for democracy in the former Soviet republics and Middle East and in zinging various dictators and kleptocrats. It will do the same for President Obama, if he's wise enough to hang onto it.

The seventh achievement is the Medicare prescription drug benefit, enacted in 2003. It's not only wildly popular; it has cost less than expected by triggering competition among drug companies. Conservatives have deep reservations about the program. But they shouldn't have been surprised. Bush advocated the drug benefit in the 2000 campaign. And if he hadn't acted, Democrats would have, with a much less attractive result.

Then there were John Roberts and Sam Alito. In putting them on the Supreme Court and naming Roberts chief justice, Bush achieved what had eluded Richard Nixon, Reagan, and his own father. Roberts and Alito made the Court indisputably more conservative. And the good news is Roberts, 53, and Alito, 58, should be justices for decades to come.

Bush's ninth achievement has been widely ignored. He strengthened relations with east Asian democracies (Japan, South Korea, Australia) without causing a rift with China. On top of that, he forged strong ties with India. An important factor was their common enemy, Islamic jihadists. After 9/11, Bush made the most of this, and Indian leaders were receptive. His state dinner for Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 was a lovefest.

Finally, a no-brainer: the surge. Bush prompted nearly unanimous disapproval in January 2007 when he announced he was sending more troops to Iraq and adopting a new counterinsurgency strategy. His opponents initially included the State Department, the Pentagon, most of Congress, the media, the foreign policy establishment, indeed the whole world. This makes his decision a profile in courage. Best of all, the surge worked. Iraq is now a fragile but functioning democracy.

How does Bush rank as a president? We won't know until he's judged from the perspective of two or three decades. Hindsight forced a sharp upgrading of the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Given his achievements, it may have the same effect for Bush.

--Fred Barnes, for the Editors

January 19, 2009

President Bush leaves office mostly unloved, with some poll respondents saying that they consider him one of our worst presidents ever. This in itself is odd. Generally, our worst Presidents have been one-termers, for obvious reasons: James Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover (if you buy into the myth). But George W. Bush was re-elected rather easily in 2004. Thus, if he really was one of our worst Presidents, either the electorate was subject to mass hypnosis, or something must have gone seriously wrong in his second term.

If we strip away the partisan hysteria, it's pretty clear that Bush was a reasonably good President, not an epochally horrible one. Let's start with domestic policy.

Bush took office just as a recession was beginning, a recession that could have been made much worse by the September 11 attacks and the subsequent stock market collapse and business contraction. Instead, Bush's tax cuts gave needed relief to taxpayers and fueled an expansion that lasted almost throughout his terms in office. This is one of several instances where Bush, despite a number of small errors, got the biggest things right.

With his usual ill luck, Bush saw the Fannie/Freddy/house price bubble burst at the tail end of his administration, with the results that we have all seen over the last few months. But Bush deserves little if any blame for the collapse, just as Bill Clinton deserves little if any blame for the stock price bubble, and inevitable collapse, that scarred the last year of his administration. Bush tried to rein in Fannie and Freddy but was blocked by Congressional Democrats. One can argue that, notwithstanding those efforts, he failed to foresee the full impact of the financial tsunami that has now exploded. But so did pretty much everyone else. Except insofar as we view the President as a good luck charm, it makes no sense to blame Bush for those events.

On the other hand, Bush does deserve blame for backing the $700 billion bailout for financial institutions, auto companies and, apparently, all comers. Even if we assume that "something" needed to be done to calm financial markets, the Bush administration chose the most expensive, most intrusive course. Not only was the bailout economically destructive, it had the political effect of cutting the ground out from under conservatives as the Democrats' fiscal follies continue.

While his stewardship of the economy was generally good, Bush fell down in other areas of domestic policy. His sponsorship of comprehensive immigration reform and the Medicare drug benefit and his acquiescence in ridiculous levels of federal spending are all black marks. They are balanced by Bush's excellent judicial appointments and his management of a strikingly scandal-free administration.

In foreign policy, the terrorist attacks dominated, perhaps too much. Few would have predicted on September 12, 2001, that there would be no more successful attacks on American soil or even against American interests abroad, yet that is what happened. As we noted here, President Bush's strong anti-terrorist policies stopped a long string of successful terrorist attacks that stretched back to the late 1970s. His record in this respect is truly extraordinary, and he deserves an enormous amount of credit for it.

It is too soon to say that President Bush destroyed al Qaeda to the extent that it will not threaten us in the future, but that may well prove to be the case. If so, succeeding Presidents will garner the credit that was sadly denied Bush.

President Bush directed a brilliantly successful invasion of Afghanistan and overthrow of the bitterly hostile Taliban regime. The effect was to deprive al Qaeda of its undisturbed training grounds and drive that organization into hiding in caves, to the great benefit of our national security.

His most controversial decision, of course, was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, carrying out the U.S.'s longstanding policy of regime change in Iraq and enforcing the U.N.'s various resolutions. Whether that was a good decision or a bad decision will not be finally known for many years, but at present it looks like a good bet that history will record Iraq as a successful foreign policy initiative, and possibly one that started the long process of reforming the Arab world, to everyone's great benefit. Apart from anything else, al Qaeda's fatal decision to turn Iraq into the main front in its war against civilization was a disastrous one. To a greater degree than anyone could reasonably have foreseen, our victory in Iraq turned out to be a key turning point in our war against international Islamic terrorism.

President Bush also deserves credit for cementing our relationship with India and, to a lesser degree, for his humanitarian breakthroughs in Africa. In general, the Bush administration was a model of diplomatic success, gaining many tangible ends through close cooperation with allies.

The great unknown, of course, is whether Bush dropped the ball on Iran or North Korea. My own view is that, given the fallout over the invasion of Iraq, it was always pointless to talk about military action against Iran. It simply wasn't, and couldn't have been, in the cards.

In assessing the pluses and minuses of the Bush administration, one always returns to Iraq. Many think that Bush was too slow to change strategies after sectarian violence erupted in 2006; others think that he deserves great credit for backing the surge and ultimately winning the war. The second proposition, I think, is indisputable, while the first is questionable. I'm inclined to agree with Dick Cheney that it's wrong to suggest that nothing good happened in Iraq until 2007.

With the benefit of a bit of hindsight, it seems to me that Bush's failings on Iraq were mostly political. It was always obvious that the biggest challenge in Iraq would not be felling Saddam, but rather what would come afterward. The ethnic and sectarian divisions in that country were well understood, and many (like me) wondered whether Iraq was really a country that could stay together once its tyrant was deposed. But Bush failed to adequately prepare the public for the tough, ambiguous conflict that was sure to ensue once Saddam was gone.

This failure was especially regrettable since the war, when launched, was not Bush's war but America's. Large majorities in the House and Senate voted to authorize the war, including most leading Democrats. But because Bush failed to prepare the public for the post-major combat stage, the Democrats could plausibly take the view that they had signed on only for the easy overthrow of a dictator. When the inevitable messiness ensued, they double-crossed the President. That was shameful, but it was also foreseeable, and it was enabled by Bush's failure to do the political work necessary to educate the American public.

In the end, the greatest failures of the Bush administration were political. Bush was the first MBA President, and he always seemed to think that results would carry the day. He followed Lincoln, who wrote that if events bore him out, no one would remember his critics, while if events did not bear him out, a thousand angels swearing he was right wouldn't make any difference.

That's fine as far as it goes, but Lincoln went to considerable lengths, sometimes to the derogation of the war effort, to make sure that public opinion in the North stayed with him. And he was, in the event, saved by the victories won by Grant and Sherman.

Bush's great failing was that his focus was almost exclusively on policy, and he was unwilling to pay adequate attention to politics. This failing manifested itself repeatedly throughout his term in office. With hindsight, the beginning of the end for Bush was his unwillingness to defend himself when he was attacked for the "sixteen words" in his State of the Union address--words that were indisputably true. The same thing happened after Hurricane Katrina, the event that got his second term off on the wrong foot. In truth, the federal response to Katrina was both the largest and the fastest response to any natural disaster in world history. Yet Bush was never willing to stand up to his critics and make the case in his own defense.

That tendency to turn the other cheek was, in the end, fatal. Bush never cared much about politics. He was almost contemptuous of political leadership, willing to engage in politics on a sustained basis only in his two successful election campaigns. But he was a politician, and the job of a politician, as President, is to use political skills to lead the American people. Bush's unwillingness or inability to do what it would take to be an effective political leader, in the end undid his administration.

No one can seriously question President Bush's character. He did, at all times, what he thought was right for his country. For that he deserves our undying respect. But his political failures, his myopia on some issues and the fact that he was not much of a conservative seriously marred his administration.

Everything considered, I give the Bush administration a B-.

PAUL adds: I agree with most of this, and the B- grade seems reasonable to me. But I keep thinking about this sentence in John's post: "given the fallout over the invasion of Iraq, it was always pointless to talk about military action against Iran."

In my view, it was not precisely the fallout over the invasion of Iraq that made it pointless to talk about military action against Iran; rather it was the fallout over the post-invasion difficulties. Indeed, the evidence is that our successful invasion made a considerable impression on Iran (you don't have to believe that the Iranians halted their nuclear program to accept that we got their attention). If we had dealt more successfully (which I think means more forcefully) with the early signs of insurgency in Iraq, then it would not have pointless to talk about military action against Iran, though it might not have been necessary.

To some extent, I'm engaging here in unfair Monday morning quarterbacking. Folks like Victor Davis Hanson are certainly correct when they remind us of how difficult it is to get wars right without a period of trial and error. But it is not Monday morning quarterback to note that military success in Iraq was the key to influencing Iran and the rest of the region. The Iranians certainly grasped the point, and reportedly it was an important element in Vice President Cheney's thinking. Even we at Power Line emphasized it prior to the invasion.

With the stakes this obviously high, I think it's fair to judge President Bush rather harshly for focusing too much on Iraqi "hearts and minds" and not enough on stamping out insurgents (be they Moqtada al Sadr or the Sunni killers in Fallujah) before they could mount a real insugency.

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