If You Can't Say Something Nice . . .

Sunday, August 17, 2008

As the moving vans approach 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the foreign policy establishment has begun churning out its obligatory judgments on the lessons and legacy of the George W. Bush era. Three new essays render an unexpected verdict, suggesting that history may treat The Decider much more gently than many of his critics might imagine. Although Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan and even former Bush aide David Frum find plenty to dislike about the past eight years -- say, the rise of enhanced interrogation techniques, the bungled post-invasion planning for Iraq or the nuclear ambitions of Iran or North Korea -- they all contend that a President McCain or a President Obama will actually find a great deal to emulate in his predecessor's policies. Kagan and Zakaria argue that although the administration made significant mistakes along the way, it learned from them and took steps to make things right.

Which of course raises a delicate question: How should history, not to mention Bush himself, feel about a legacy in which the ability -- which implies the need -- to frequently self-correct ranks as a major selling point?

-- Carlos Lozada, national security editor, The Washington Post

"The administration that became the target of so much passion and anger -- from Democrats, Republicans, independents, foreigners, Martians, everyone -- is not quite the one in place today. The foreign policies that aroused the greatest anger and opposition were mostly pursued in Bush's first term: the invasion of Iraq, the rejection of treaties, diplomacy and multilateralism. In the past few years, many of these policies have been modified, abandoned or reversed. This has happened without acknowledgment -- which is partly what drives critics crazy -- and it's often been done surreptitiously. It doesn't reflect a change of heart so much as an admission of failure; the old way simply wasn't working. But for whatever reasons and through whichever path, the foreign policies in place now are more sensible, moderate and mainstream. In many cases the next president should follow rather than reverse them."

-- Fareed Zakaria, "What Bush Got Right," Newsweek, Aug. 18-25, 2008

"Granted, the next president will feel the need to create an appearance of distance between himself and the unpopular Bush. . . . Yet the continuity between Bush and his successor will be strong. A U.S. drawdown from Iraq will probably proceed more slowly than most expect. Relationships with India, Japan, and Vietnam will continue to grow. The United States will continue to spend much more on military power than all other major countries combined. Financial pressures on Iran will continue to intensify. And even democracy promotion, Bush's most maligned foreign-policy goal, will continue to figure prominently in presidential addresses for years to come.

George W. Bush's political opponents will surely revile him long after he's gone. But you can be sure of this: Just as the Bush presidency led Democrats to express an unexpected nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, the next Republican president can expect to hear from pundits and academics alike that he falls far short of the high standard set by the last one."

-- David Frum, "Think Again: Bush's Legacy," Foreign Policy, September/October 2008

"Judged on its own terms, the war on terror has been by far Bush's greatest success. No serious observer imagined after September 11 that seven years would go by without a single additional terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Only naked partisanship and a justifiable fear of tempting fate have prevented the Bush administration from getting or taking credit for what most would have regarded seven years ago as a near miracle. Much of the Bush administration's success, moreover, has been due to extensive international cooperation, especially with the European powers in the areas of intelligence sharing, law enforcement, and homeland security. Whatever else the Bush administration has failed to do, it has not failed to protect Americans from another attack on the homeland. The next administration will be fortunate to be able to say the same -- and will be contrasted quite unfavorably with the Bush administration if it cannot."

-- Robert Kagan, "The September 12 Paradigm," Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008

© 2008 The Washington Post Company