Bush’s legacy: vindication or villainy?

Today, York and Lomonaco debate the president's legacy. Previously, they evaluated calls for removing Bush from office, assessed Bush's relationship with Congress and discussed his remaining agenda.

A president who fought backBy Byron York

Today's topic, again requested by our editors, is: What might the Bush legacy look like if the Iraq war had never happened? How much of his legacy depends on Iraq? Could he eventually receive a Truman-like vindication?

Of course, it's too early to say definitively. But at the moment, my answers would be: Better. Almost all of it. Maybe.

Oops. Laconic again. To elaborate:

President Bush came into office determined to throw Saddam Hussein out of Iraq. In his book, "The Right Man," former White House speechwriter David Frum described a February 2001 get-acquainted meeting of Bush and his speechwriting team. Frum took notes. "As I reread them now," Frum wrote the next year, "I am startled at how much of what would happen over the next year is prefigured there: Bush's optimism about Russia and Vladimir Putin, his wariness of China, his focus on the danger presented by Iran, his determination to dig Saddam Hussein out of power in Iraq."

I don't think that, at the time, Bush necessarily wanted war in Iraq, but I also don't know why he was quite so determined to get rid of Hussein. Whatever the reason, he obviously became more determined after 9/11. If I remember correctly, Paul Wolfowitz told Sam TanenhausÖÖ in 2003 that there were lots of reasons the Bush team wanted war, but the one that the most people agreed about — and the one that would serve best to build public support — was weapons of mass destruction. So WMD it was. And that means that whatever the other reasons for going to war — to remake the Middle East, whatever — the bottom line, as far as Bush's legacy is concerned, is that he went to war on the basis of bad intelligence. Maybe it will work out well in the end. But the whole thing was predicated on a giant screw-up, which is not good legacy material.

In retrospect, he should have remained more focused on killing members of Al Qaeda wherever they were in the world, and especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Killing Osama bin Laden would have been a good idea too.

Obviously, that is what a lot of Democrats, opposed to the war in Iraq, have called for. But my guess is if that if Bush had stayed focused on the war in Afghanistan and stayed out of Iraq, those Democrats would have ended up opposing that too.

Imagine the following scenario: Bush, after the fall of the Taliban, decided to keep more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, determined to finish the job against Al Qaeda. The troops had some success but also discovered you can't search every cave in that part of the world. Meanwhile, locals began to resent the U.S. presence. Aided by outsiders, they formed an insurgency, killing U.S. troops with improvised explosive devices. American casualties rose.

I feel certain that the Democrats who today say Bush should have stuck with Afghanistan would have been opposing him for staying in Afghanistan. They might well have said that being so determined to root out every member of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan meant that the Bush administration ignored other dangers in the world, like the threat posed by — shall I say it? — Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Now, could Bush's legacy change as the years go by? As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, I don't think so. The facts are the facts. But could he receive a Truman-like vindication in the end? It depends. We are now in the sixth year of the war. We have had significant success with the surge, but there are clearly worries in the Pentagon and the administration as a whole that the progress will be endangered if we take troop levels below where they were in January 2007. A President John McCain would keep that commitment; a President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton wouldn't.

In a larger sense, though, I hope Bush will be remembered well for one big thing: He was the president who, faced with the worst attack ever on U.S. soil, was determined to use all his war powers to defend the United States. He messed up a number of things and, as they were in past wars, the results could be awful: Just read the heartbreaking stories of American troops dying by the hundreds and sometimes thousands because of various screw-ups in World War II. But Bush will be the man who fought back, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.

Byron York is the White House correspondent for National Review.

The president who lost Iraq and the Muslim worldBy Jeff Lomonaco

I don't really understand your point about the credit Bush deserves for fighting back against Al Qaeda, and I think the way you frame the prospects for Bush getting a Truman-like vindication from the outcome of the Iraq war falls apart upon inspection.

Bush, you say, was determined to use all his war powers to defend the United States. But exactly what do you think he deserves credit for? Bush responded aggressively against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and no doubt deserves credit for that. But it is hard to imagine that President Gore would not have gone after Al Qaeda in its Afghanistan safe harbor. And it is easy to imagine that President Gore, not determined to turn to Iraq, would have pursued the war in Afghanistan more conclusively.

Beyond that, the Bush administration has been dominated by a relentlessly short-term, tactical outlook in the campaign against Al Qaeda. Combined with an ideological — perhaps quasi-theological — commitment to the expansion of executive power as an end in its own right, the White House was guided by an indiscriminate determination to do everything it could rather than a judgment about what should be done. The result — as I think American public opinion has recognized — is that we are more vulnerable than we should be, and we are not winning the conflict.

You and I seem to agree that the entire decision to go to war in Iraq was one terrible misjudgment in the larger conflict with Al Qaeda and the ideological battle for hearts and minds in the Muslim world more generally. We also agree that the surge has produced significant, good effects, most dramatically in reducing the number of Iraqis being killed. But you give no specification of what success in Iraq might be, and I think that undermines your suggestion that a McCain presidency but not a Democratic one would vindicate Bush's war. Indeed, you appear to imply that success simply is continuing the commitment to maximizing the number of American troops in Iraq. But to what end? I think you are stuck with either defining success in realistic terms, which means success is not victory but largely a matter of minimizing the damage done by Bush's war in the first place; or defining success in more robust terms, in which case it cannot be accomplished simply by maxing out on troops.

Realistic success in Iraq means avoiding three things: a terrorist safe haven in Iraq, a regional war and genocidal killing. Those are all very important objectives, but they are all problems created by Bush's decision to go to war in the first place. Achieving them would merely minimize the damage done by the Bush administration.

More robust success — say, a stable, democratic Iraq able to defend itself — is, as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has reminded us from time to time, not something that the military alone can achieve. It requires a political solution, and it requires action on the part of the Iraqis themselves. I will admit that I think the best chance to accomplish this is to elect a Democrat who, unlike the Bush administration and Sen. John McCain, can credibly leverage our threatened departure to make Iraqi political accommodations more likely. But even then, such robust success is not a likely outcome.

Either way, Bush's legacy in Iraq looks pretty bleak — and that is without even getting into the broader costs and consequences of the war in terms of everything we have had to forgo and the damage to our standing in the Muslim world, where the wider conflict has to be waged. It's no wonder Bush likes to publicly reassure others and himself that the so-called judgment of history will not be made until long after we are all dead.

I've enjoyed the Dust-Up this week, Byron, and wish you well.


Jeff Lomonaco is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and co-editor, with Murray Waas, of "The United States v. I. Lewis Libby." His current work focuses on the tension between national security and civil liberties in the post- 9/11 period.

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