In the six years since he left the White House, President George W. Bush has often claimed that it is too early for historical judgments about his presidency. “It’s too soon to say how many of my decisions will turn out,” he wrote in “Decision Points,” his presidential memoir.
In this, Bush was indulging in what we will call the Truman Consolation. President Truman was deeply unpopular during most of his time in the White House and in the years immediately afterward. Only decades later did historians begin to rate his presidency highly for the actions he took in the early years of the Cold War. At one time or another, when their poll ratings are slumping and their media coverage is biting, most modern American presidents like to believe they will eventually be vindicated, just as Harry Truman was.
But Bush is largely wrong: In some of the most important areas of his presidency, it’s not too soon to draw conclusions. Just by judging against Bush’s own forecasts, some of the most far-reaching and important initiatives of his presidency didn’t work — or turned out poorly.
At the top of the list is the war in Iraq. Bush and his advisors badly misjudged what it would entail. They overestimated the international support the United States would be able to obtain for military action. They asserted before the war that American troops would need to stay in Iraq for no more than a couple of years. The administration’s public estimate before the war was that it would cost less than $100 billion; instead, it cost $2 trillion.
Intended originally as a short-term demonstration of American power and influence, the Iraq war over the longer term brought about the opposite. In its unhappy aftermath, Americans became increasingly cautious, more reluctant to become involved overseas. Overall, the war will go down as a strategic blunder of epic proportions, among the most serious in American history.
A similar fate will befall the second-most far-reaching aspect of Bush’s legacy, his historic tax cuts. Bush argued that they would stimulate the economy and spur economic growth. The short-term benefits proved dubious at best, but the harmful long-term consequences were incalculable, both for the federal government and, more importantly, for American society.
When Bush took office, America was in a brief period of budgetary surplus. There was actually a debate, forgotten and almost unimaginable today, about how to use the surplus: Pay down the debt? Launch new federal initiatives? Bush chose to cut taxes, and then did so in ways (tax cuts on dividends and capital gains) that proved immensely beneficial to the wealthiest Americans.
It’s true that President Obama eventually allowed the Bush cuts on upper-income Americans to expire. But the damage had been done. Over the course of nearly a decade, the federal government became increasingly short of funds, while wealthy Americans built up greater and greater assets. Whenever you use a road, bridge or airport that needs repairs (or read a news story about the Pentagon complaining about budget constraints), you might pause to think about the Bush tax cuts and the role they played in shaping the America we see today.
Bush’s second round of tax cuts, in 2003, were historic in another sense. By then, he had already dispatched American troops to Iraq. In every previous military conflict since the Civil War, American presidents had raised taxes to help defray the costs. Bush bucked this historical trend: He lowered them.
It’s true that in a few other policy areas judgments of Bush’s presidency may improve over the years as events unfold and as more information comes to light.
The primary example could be counter-terrorism. The Senate’s recent report on enhanced interrogation techniques makes current judgments on that dark era even harsher than they would have been otherwise. Torture is torture, and no passage of time will change the moral judgments on that.
On the other hand, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Europeans began to ask why the attackers had not been kept under greater surveillance. If such terrorist attacks were to continue over many years, then judgments on the Bush-era surveillance programs might eventually come to be less harsh than they are today. Or they may come to be seen as the true beginning of a new surveillance state. More time needs to pass before historical judgments on this issue take shape.
Overall, Bush’s presidency is likely to be remembered for his lack of caution and restraint. Once, in the midst of a discussion with his military advisors, Bush made a telling observation: “Someone has got to be risk-averse in this process, and it better be you, because I’m not.”
George W. Bush was certainly not risk-averse. He took gambles both in foreign policy and with the economy. Sometimes they paid off. Yet overall, the country paid heavily for the risks he took. History isn’t likely to revise that judgment.
James Mann, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent, is a fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book, “George W. Bush,” is a volume in the American Presidents Series of biographies.