Finding the Proper Epitaph
Wednesday, December 17, 2008; 1:18 PM
President Bush takes his legacy tour to the Army War College in Pennsylvania today, to make the case that he deserves credit for the absence of a terrorist strike against the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
It's the latest salvo in the White House's continuing campaign to promote more positive views of the Bush presidency than the ones more commonly held by the public.
"Protected the Nation" is precisely the kind of epitaph the White House would like to see for Bush. But is it the best one? Iraq and the war on terror will inevitably be central to his legacy. Yet so may the devastated economy. There's also the matter of Hurricane Katrina, the growth of executive power, the decline of government competence, and so much more.
The Associated Press reports: "On his way out of office, President George W. Bush is returning to the theme that helped win him a second term: preventing another terrorist strike against the United States.
"Bush on Wednesday was trumpeting his record on national security, emphasizing that terrorists have not struck again since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when homeland protection became his focus. The president was expected to promote the steps his administration has taken, such as reshaping the intelligence community and disrupting terrorists' financing, that future presidents can build upon for 'the long struggle ahead,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. . . .
"The White House sees a high point in its defenses against terrorism since Sept. 11 and is determined to promote the point.
"'Keeping America safe since that tragic day did not happen by accident,' Perino said."
The choice of the War College as a backdrop for today's speech is typical, as it will provide Bush with an audience guaranteed to be polite. But it's also a reminder of some of Bush's biggest failures.
More than a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq, the War College published a prescient report -- Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario -- that the White House essentially ignored. As James Fallows wrote for the Atlantic in 2004, the report warned of ethnic and regional tensions, advised that Iraqis would quickly turn against an occupying force and set out a 135-item checklist of key tasks that might have avoided disaster.
Then, in December of 2003, the college published a scathing report saying the war in Iraq was not only distracting from the real war on terror, but that Bush was pursuing an "unrealistic" quest that might lead to wars with states posing no serious threat.
Bush nevertheless chose the War College as the site of a major speech about the war in May 2004 -- a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to reverse the growing tide of public discontent over a campaign that had turned increasingly violent.