William Kristol argues that the presidency of George W. Bush will be judged kindly by history. Certainly it will be judged in a better context than the self-serving political atmosphere of today, but will history look on Bush as being a successful President? Kristol has a fairly strong argument, but I’m less than convinced.
Bush’s real record is an economy that is one of the strongest in recent history, a successful defense against terrorist attacks (which seemed inevitable in the aftermath of 9/11), and the liberation of two nations from the grip of tyranny.
Yet that has to be measured against the general sense of economic doom that pervades the country (to no fault of the President, but his critics), our inability to destroy al-Qaeda, and the turmoil in Iraq. Not to mention the frequent political meltdowns of the Bush White House: Katrina, Harriet Miers, the Dubai ports deal, steel tariffs, etc. Bush’s stance on immigration has aliened many of those who have supported him thus far. If temporal popularity polls indicated historical success, Bush would be a very poor President indeed.
However, historical success has nothing to do with temporal popularity: the theme is that the big things have been done right, and the things that only scholars care about have been done wrong. Generations from now, nobody will give a damn who Harriet Miers was or why we were so mad about immigration in 2007. What will be remembered is that the US faced the biggest attack on its soil since the War of 1812, embarked on a war to find those responsible and tried to push the Middle East towards democratic peace.
The problem for the left and for the right is that George W. Bush isn’t really important in the grand scheme of things. Whether he’s popular or not is truly irrelevant: he will probably be remembered fondly if the US wins, and poorly if not. What matters is that the United States wins — there are three outcomes of this war, two of them untenable: the first is that we win, the democrats win in the Middle East, and there’s a slow process of reform that cuts the fuel to the fire of Islamic terrorism. The second is that Bush’s successors (either Democratic or Republican) try to continue the status quo, in which case the best we can hope for is for the Middle East continues to be a dysfunctional breeding ground of terrorism and we all live under the specter of the next mass casualty attack. The final, and most terrifying, is that the Middle East fragments. Iran obtains nuclear weapons, there’s a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and the chance that someone decides to push the button becomes far too great. Meanwhile, terrorism expands dramatically, and Islamist radicals eventually pull off an attack of such magnitude that the West has absolutely no choice to respond. At that point, the clash of civilizations becomes complete: make no mistake, while pacifists abhor war under any circumstances, the US is not a pacifist nation. If al-Qaeda starts pulling off a couple Beslan-style attacks in the US or suicide bombs a few shopping malls, America’s latent Jacksonian impulses will kick into overdrive. The prospect of massive American retaliation in the Middle East is the one situation that al-Qaeda truly fears. They have every reason to believe that we won’t go that far, but they miscalculated in our response to the September 11 atrocities — they may well miscalculate again.
Only the first option is the one in which the United States has a chance to live free from the specter of terrorism and the Middle East does not continue to be the world’s biggest powderkeg. That happens to be the option that reflects the best on President George W. Bush, which seems to rankle the left to no end. The problem that the left faces is that their hatred of the man is leading to defeat of the country.
In the end, I think that Kristol is right, although everything hinges upon Iraq. The silly political scandals of today won’t matter a whit in years to come: the cottage industry of Bush bashing will be as irrelevant tomorrow as the cottage industry of Clinton bashing was a decade ago. History is not written by the temporal critics. If Iraq ends well, and we should all hope it does, then history will see this generation as the one who finally faced down a grave threat and transformed the world for the better. If Iraq fails, it will lead to further failures: the US will end up being forced out of Afghanistan as well, and al-Qaeda will become a much more potent force than it has been since the collapse of the Twin Towers. At the end of the day, Bush isn’t the issue that truly matters, and his presidency will be as much at the mercy of events as it seemingly has always been.