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When Bush Is History

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009; Page A15

Not to kick the president on his way out the door, but he was wrong when he told White House reporters at a wistful, nostalgic news conference yesterday that "there is no such thing as short-term history." It's true that some presidencies look different after a few decades. But it's also true that presidential acts can have immediate consequences -- and that George W. Bush will leave office next week as a president whose eight years in office are widely seen as a nadir from which it will take years to recover.

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"I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged," Bush said in perhaps his most spirited response of the session. "I disagree with this assessment that, you know, people view America in a dim light."

Has he been paying attention? Did he not notice that both President-elect Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, felt the need to promise to restore America's honor and standing in the world? Or does Bush believe they were just joshin'?

Asked to identify the biggest mistake of his presidency, Bush gave a curious answer that had more to do with public relations than presidential decision making. He mentioned the "Mission Accomplished" banner that prematurely announced the end of major conflict in Iraq -- but not his decision to invade Iraq in the first place. He mentioned his failure to visit New Orleans at the height of the devastating, deadly flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina -- but not the decision to entrust the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the hapless and ineffective Michael Brown.

In Bush's mind, the revelation of shocking prisoner abuse by U.S. military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was "a huge disappointment" -- but he doesn't take any responsibility, as commander in chief, for the atmosphere of lax training and supervision that allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib to happen. The failure by U.S. forces to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq qualifies only as "a significant disappointment" -- even though the administration's apocalyptic rhetoric about WMD was what sealed the deal for an invasion and occupation that never should have taken place.

In what may turn out to have been his last news conference as president, Bush spent surprisingly little time on his actual achievements. Yes, I said achievements. Bush was the first U.S. president to put real money and serious effort into a campaign against AIDS in Africa. Even if the administration wastes far too much on "abstinence only" programs of questionable effectiveness, the fact is that millions of people in Africa are being kept alive and relatively healthy with antiretroviral drugs that wouldn't have been available without Bush's funding and commitment. In sub-Saharan Africa, he made a difference.

Bush also tried his best to move his party away from small-minded xenophobia on the immigration issue. This doesn't really count as an achievement, since Bush never got a reasonable immigration bill passed. But short-term history has proved him right. Latino voters defected to the Democrats in such numbers that the Republican Party looks even more like a country club than when Bush took office, and that's saying something.

As his greatest achievement, Bush would cite the fact that there has been no terrorist attack on U.S. soil -- I won't use Bush's unfortunate term, "the homeland," which sounds vaguely Teutonic and evokes lederhosen -- since the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda atrocities. Here, though, he relies entirely on short-term history. His argument, in effect, is that since we've made it through seven years and four months without an attack, his administration's anti-terrorism methods must be both necessary and effective.

That must be a comforting thought for the president, but it's unjustified. That there has been no new attack does not justify waterboarding, Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons or warrantless domestic surveillance. Bush believes these departures from American values and traditions were necessary, but from what we know so far, they look more like overkill -- an excess of cruelty and a disdain for the rule of law that have seriously damaged this nation's sense of itself.

What we know so far isn't enough. I understand Obama's reluctance to conduct criminal investigations of the Bush years -- and I realize that Bush might well pardon everybody in advance anyway. But it's important to convene an investigation and learn the truth, all of it, so that no president is tempted to take such liberties again. History, both short-term and long-term, will be grateful.

The writer will be online to answer questions at 1 p.m. today. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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