Mr. Bush Exits
A legacy of grave errors and mismanagement but also of promoting just causes

Sunday, January 18, 2009

ADDRESSING the nation for the last time as president Thursday night, George W. Bush identified Sept. 11, 2001, as the defining moment of his eight years in office. The lesson of that awful day, he suggested, was that "good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right." Americans can never afford to grow complacent, and, above all, must "maintain our moral clarity," he said.

In those few sentences, Mr. Bush encapsulated both what was valuable in his approach to national security and foreign policy -- and what has been so very troubling. He was and is essentially correct to define Islamist terrorism as an unappeasable menace. His certitude amid the crisis of Sept. 11 helped galvanize the initial national response, including the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Alas, that same certitude led Mr. Bush down many blind alleys and, in the worst moments, caused him to debase his country's moral currency. In rejecting the Geneva Conventions, he seemed not to realize that the world, even those parts of it that were friendly toward the United States, does not assume American righteousness -- and that even a necessary counterattack against al-Qaeda and other enemies must therefore be constrained by law. History may credit him for avoiding a second attack on U.S. soil but not for his handling of Guantanamo or "enhanced interrogation."

In Iraq, too, Mr. Bush gambled his nation's international alliances and reputation. We agreed with him that Saddam Hussein's defiance of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions was intolerable and that sanctions against his regime could neither contain the long-term threat of weapons of mass destruction nor deliver the Iraqi people from unendurable tyranny. Like the president's, our sense of the war's necessity was shaken by the absence of WMD. Unlike the president's, our sense of his administration's competence was shaken by the war's disgracefully bad planning, which contributed to Iraq's post-invasion plunge into horrific violence. The global backlash against the war, especially in Europe, has cost the United States dearly, making it more difficult to rally the world against Iran's nuclear ambitions. Though relations with Europe have been significantly repaired, Iran exploited the divisions in Western ranks to make mischief in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- and to advance its bomb-building.

But, as matters in Iraq now stand, there is a decent chance of a reasonably pro-American incipient democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East. This would be a major accomplishment, and one that would cast the invasion, the failures of the early years of occupation and the painful loss of more than 4,000 American lives and many thousand more Iraqi lives in a different light than the one in which they are seen by most Americans now. It would also vindicate his unpopular decision to stabilize Iraq with more U.S. troops rather than abandon it to civil war and possible genocide -- an instance in which Mr. Bush's self-assurance and steadfastness paid off.

Perhaps the brightest example of humanitarianism in Mr. Bush's record is his commitment of vast new resources to the battle against AIDS in Africa. With the Millennium Challenge Account, he attempted to link foreign aid to honest and efficient governance. And he put the United States firmly on the side of democracy and freedom, arguing, correctly, that the transformation of dictatorial regimes is, in the long run, necessary to peace and security. "Around the world, America is promoting human liberty, human rights and human dignity," he declared on Thursday. But he did not always practice what he preached; in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, support for dictators, justified by the anti-terrorism campaign, trumped support for liberty. The same desire for anti-terrorism cooperation may explain his protracted reluctance to recognize or respond to Russia's descent toward autocracy at home and bullying abroad. In China and North Korea, trade and denuclearization, respectively, prevailed. It is still too early to tell whether his choice of diplomacy in those areas will pay off; by not following through on his rhetoric, though, Mr. Bush ensured that he would get blame for being inconsistent without getting credit for any results. And, it's worth remembering, his blind faith in simplistic economics -- tax cuts for every season -- led him to pay for all his wars and foreign aid on credit, helping produce today's fiscal disaster.

It won't be easy to undo what Mr. Bush has done. We say this because some of the damage is irreversible. But we also say it because some of the dilemmas he confronted will persist beyond his presidency. As President-elect Barack Obama has recognized, for example, closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not as simple as many of its critics imagined, because a significant number of those detained there would try to attack Americans if released. Mr. Bush's characteristic failing was to apply a black-and-white mind-set to too many gray areas of national security and foreign affairs. But as they assume power with a mind to clean house, Democrats must be careful not to make the same mistake.

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