By William Kristol
Sunday, July 15, 2007
I suppose I'll merely expose myself to harmless ridicule if I make the following assertion: George W. Bush's presidency will probably be a successful one.
Let's step back from the unnecessary mistakes and the self-inflicted wounds that have characterized the Bush administration. Let's look at the broad forest rather than the often unlovely trees. What do we see? First, no second terrorist attack on U.S. soil -- not something we could have taken for granted. Second, a strong economy -- also something that wasn't inevitable.
And third, and most important, a war in Iraq that has been very difficult, but where -- despite some confusion engendered by an almost meaningless "benchmark" report last week -- we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome.
The economy first: After the bursting of the dot-com bubble, followed by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we've had more than five years of steady growth, low unemployment and a stock market recovery. Did this just happen? No. Bush pushed through the tax cuts of 2001 and especially 2003 by arguing that they would produce growth. His opponents predicted dire consequences. But the president was overwhelmingly right. Even the budget deficit, the most universally criticized consequence of the tax cuts, is coming down and is lower than it was when the 2003 supply-side tax cuts were passed.
Bush has also (on the whole) resisted domestic protectionist pressures (remember the Democratic presidential candidates in 2004 complaining about outsourcing?), thereby helping sustain global economic growth.
The year 2003 also featured a close congressional vote on Bush's other major first-term initiative, the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Liberals denounced it as doing nothing for the elderly; conservatives worried that it would bust the budget. Experts of all stripes foresaw great challenges in its implementation. In fact, it has all gone surprisingly smoothly, providing broad and welcome coverage for seniors and coming in under projected costs.
So on the two biggest pieces of domestic legislation the president has gotten passed, he has been vindicated. And with respect to the two second-term proposals that failed -- private Social Security accounts and immigration -- I suspect that something similar to what Bush proposed will end up as law over the next several years.
Meanwhile, 2005-06 saw the confirmation of two Supreme Court nominees, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Your judgment of these two appointments will depend on your general view of the courts and the Constitution. But even if you're a judicial progressive, you have to admit that Roberts and Alito are impressive judges (well, you don't have to admit it -- but deep down, you know it). And if you're a conservative constitutionalist, putting Roberts and Alito on the court constitutes a huge accomplishment.
What about terrorism? Apart from Iraq, there has been less of it, here and abroad, than many experts predicted on Sept. 12, 2001. So Bush and Vice President Cheney probably are doing some important things right. The war in Afghanistan has gone reasonably well.
Western Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf's deals with the Taliban are apparently creating something like havens for terrorists, is an increasing problem. That's why our intelligence agencies are worried about a resurgent al-Qaeda -- because al-Qaeda may once again have a place where it can plan, organize and train. These Waziristan havens may well have to be dealt with in the near future. I assume Bush will deal with them, using some combination of air strikes and special operations.
As for foreign policy in general, it has mostly been the usual mixed bag. We've deepened our friendships with Japan and India; we've had better outcomes than expected in the two largest Latin American countries, Mexico and Brazil; and we've gotten friendlier governments than expected in France and Germany. China is stable. There has been slippage in Russia. The situation with North Korea is bad but containable.
But wait, wait, wait: What about Iraq? It's Iraq, stupid -- you (and 65 percent of your fellow Americans) say -- that makes Bush an unsuccessful president.
Not necessarily. First of all, we would have to compare the situation in Iraq now, with all its difficulties and all the administration's mistakes, with what it would be if we hadn't gone in. Saddam Hussein would be alive and in power and, I dare say, victorious, with the United States (and the United Nations) by now having backed off sanctions and the no-fly zone. He might well have restarted his nuclear program, and his connections with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups would be intact or revived and even strengthened.
Still, that's speculative, and the losses and costs of the war are real. Bush is a war president, and war presidents are judged by whether they win or lose their war. So to be a successful president, Bush has to win in Iraq.
Which I now think we can. Indeed, I think we will. In late 2006, I didn't think we would win, as Bush stuck with the failed Rumsfeld-Abizaid-Casey strategy of "standing down" as the Iraqis were able to "stand up," based on the mistaken theory that if we had a "small footprint" in Iraq, we'd be more successful. With the new counterinsurgency strategy announced on Jan. 10, backed up by the troop "surge," I think the odds are finally better than 50-50 that we will prevail. We are routing al-Qaeda in Iraq, we are beginning to curb the Iranian-backed sectarian Shiite militias and we are increasingly able to protect more of the Iraqi population.
If we sustain the surge for a year and continue to train Iraqi troops effectively, we can probably begin to draw down in mid- to late 2008. The fact is that military progress on the ground in Iraq in the past few months has been greater than even surge proponents like me expected, and political progress is beginning to follow. Iran is a problem, and we will have to do more to curb Tehran's meddling -- but we can. So if we keep our nerve here at home, we have a good shot at achieving a real, though messy, victory in Iraq.
But can Bush maintain adequate support at home? Yes. It would help if the administration would make its case more effectively and less apologetically. It would help if Bush had more aides who believed in his policy, who understood that the war is winnable and who didn't desperately want to get back in (or stay in) the good graces of the foreign policy establishment.
But Bush has the good fortune of having finally found his Ulysses S. Grant, or his Creighton Abrams, in Gen. David H. Petraeus. If the president stands with Petraeus and progress continues on the ground, Bush will be able to prevent a sellout in Washington. And then he could leave office with the nation on course to a successful (though painful and difficult) outcome in Iraq. With that, the rest of the Middle East, where so much hangs in the balance, could start to tip in the direction of our friends and away from the jihadists, the mullahs and the dictators.
Following through to secure the victory in Iraq and to extend its benefits to neighboring countries will be the task of the next president. And that brings us to Bush's final test.
The truly successful American presidents tend to find vindication in, and guarantee an extension of their policies through, the election of a successor from their own party. Can Bush hand the presidency off to a Republican who will (broadly) continue along the path of his post-9/11 foreign policy, nominate judges who solidify a Roberts-Alito court, make his tax cuts permanent and the like?
Sure. Even at Bush's current low point in popularity, the leading GOP presidential candidates are competitive in the polls with Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Furthermore, one great advantage of the current partisan squabbling in Washington is that while it hurts Bush, it also damages the popularity of the Democratic Congress-- where both Clinton and Obama serve. A little mutual assured destruction between the Bush administration and Congress could leave the Republican nominee, who will most likely have no affiliation with either, in decent shape.
And what happens when voters realize in November 2008 that, if they choose a Democrat for president, they'll also get a Democratic Congress and therefore liberal Supreme Court justices? Many Americans will recoil from the prospect of being governed by an unchecked triumvirate of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. So the chances of a Republican winning the presidency in 2008 aren't bad.
What it comes down to is this: If Petraeus succeeds in Iraq, and a Republican wins in 2008, Bush will be viewed as a successful president.
I like the odds.
William Kristol is the editor of the Weekly Standard.