2008-01-18 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Bush Alone
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

As George W. Bush enters the eighth and final year of his administration, it's fitting to step back and look at this president who almost wasn't, save for a court decision that still rankles his political enemies today. Though edged out in the nationwide popular vote by his Democratic opponent in the 2000 campaign, the relentless recounts ultimately gave Florida to him when the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly halted the recount process. Though later studies, funded by various media organs, showed that Bush would likely have won further recounts under nearly every conceivable scenario, these findings never made a dent in the lingering bitterness and anger of those who believed the White House rightfully belonged to them.

These folks never forgave Bush for winning and, except for a brief and grudging hiatus after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, they kept up a relentless barrage of public sniping and legislative obstruction for the duration of his two terms. Still, despite the sourness and hard feelings that have accompanied these past seven years, it's inevitable that history will have the final say. So, while it's still a might early, perhaps we can get a leg up on the historians by asking what the country has to show, after two terms of George W. Bush, besides the bitter cultural and political chasm that continues to divide us today.

Bush's administration got off to a halting start in the wake of a postnineties stock market swoon and a series of financial scandals that spilled into his first year in office. The excesses and mistakes of top tier management at Enron and MCI-Worldcom gave capitalism a bad name and Bush's enemies another brush with which to tar him, however unfairly. In that first year, too, his administration took way too long to get its second tier appointments confirmed as Democrats in Congress dug in their heels to slow ratification of Bush appointees. And then came 9/11. Manifestly, the Bush administration wasn't ready for it. Neither were any of us, though we learned later that there were plenty of intimations of what was coming throughout the nineties which previous administrations had somehow managed to miss, too. Everything looks clearer with hindsight, of course, and the huge mistakes we made in terms of intelligence and preparedness look obvious now - though they certainly weren't then.

After a stunned initial response to the attacks, the Bush administration rallied the nation and put together a response which rolled up terrorist organizations around the world. In Afghanistan they drove the Taliban (supporters and patrons of al Qaeda) from power, while spearheading a comprehensive effort to improve national intelligence and harden our defenses at home. The upshot? We haven't suffered any follow-on attacks since 9/11 while we have captured or killed untold terrorists and would-be terrorists around the world.

The downside, unfortunately, includes the fact that we're now stuck with hundreds in the limbo of a special holding compound at Guantanamo as human rights advocates in this country and globally castigate us for allegedly using "torture" and illegal detention against those captured. Adding their voices to these complaints, anti-Bush partisans have weighed in against Guantanamo and other initiatives such as the PATRIOT ACT (which aims to unify and broaden internal intelligence activities) and international telephone surveillance of suspected terrorists (given that modern telecommunications technology routes so much of transmitted data within U.S. borders thereby running afoul of an old law instituted in the seventies when telecommunications systems worked differently). So the Bush administration rallied the nation and made us safer, but the steps taken have left us arguing bitterly among ourselves about the morality and legality of the administration's actions.

More broadly, after hitting back at our attackers by unseating their protectors in distant Afghanistan, Bush decided to unseat Saddam Hussein, as well. A Middle East dictator who had become an increasingly destabilizing force in the region, Saddam was believed to have weapons of mass destruction in his arsenal, and had been backing and fomenting terrorism himself. Though undertaken with the express intent of replacing a brutal and ruthless tyrant with a more reliable and peaceful democratic regime, this effort looks, in retrospect, to have been a mistake. The administration and the intelligence agencies it depended on got the data dreadfully wrong.

Saddam, it turns out, never had those weapons of mass destruction and unseating him introduced not a reliably stable democracy in its place but even greater instability. Democracies are messy, to be sure, but Iraq has proved to be too messy, even for us. Still, Bush has clearly stanched the bleeding with the introduction of last spring's surge strategy, though it remains an open question whether that will be enough. In the meantime and in the wake of the removal of Saddam, Iran has emerged as an even more challenging threat, desiring hegemonic power in a region of the world where we cannot afford to allow unfriendly hegemons to hold sway. It doesn't look like the Bush administration has any solution to this one but neither do other leaders and politicians in the West, given the evidence so far.

On other fronts, the current president deserves substantial credit for his tax cutting which reinvigorated the economy, as advertised, after the dot.com bubble's burst at the end of the last decade, and the 9/11 attacks which took billions of dollars out of the American system. Though the economy is now showing visible signs of strain, in the seven years of Bush's presidency we've had roughly six solid years of economic expansion, including strong GDP numbers and record low unemployment. But Bush was manifestly less good on spending since he allowed his Republican Congress to spend more robustly than the Democratic majority they replaced, eventually convincing Americans to return Congress to Democratic hands. Still, Bush did try to get the country to address the looming entitlements crisis when he initiated an effort aimed at fixing Social Security. A weak communicator, especially when taking reporters' questions, the president has never demonstrated an ability to lead and convince others by rhetorical flourish, a critical skill in any politician's toolkit, and this effort collapsed.

A large portion of the American and international elites look down on this president, not least for his verbal deficits. America's elites have their reasons, of course, including a conviction Bush isn't intellectual enough to be president, coupled with a feeling that he just represents the wrong people. But the fact that Bush is not beloved by some, or even a majority, cannot be the measure of a man - or a president. Harry Truman famously left office with his poll numbers in the toilet but is remembered today as a bold, decisive and effective leader, admired by an electorate that never had the chance to vote for him. Could Bush be seen in the same way?

Writing recently in the New York Sun, Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University's Maxwell School, notes that Bush's efforts to help the developing world in Africa have been substantial though they have gone largely unnoticed by the national elite. Bush, he tells us, brought "aid to sub-Saharan Africa to the highest levels in American history" and "raised HIV-AIDS funding by 36% his first year in office." Adds Mr. Brooks, "By 2006, annual American aid to Africa had topped $4 billion."

Brooks notes that, "While critics of the Bush administration have faulted [it] for a lack of success in ending genocide in Darfur, most fail to notice the administration's impressive success in ending the conflicts in the Congo and Liberia." It's about saving lives and improving the lot of the world's most desperate people," Brooks reminds us, but Bush gets no credit for this from the national press corps which remains intent on presenting a narrative of callousness and failure. Unsaid by Mr. Brooks, but worth recalling too, is that President Bush also brought to Washington managers and cabinet level appointees from a wide swath of minorities, including two African- American Secretaries of State, arguably the most important appointive position in any American administration.

So Bush gets little or no credit for the good he's done while the mainstream media echo chamber continues to harp on what hasn't gone off perfectly. With the scramble among those aiming to replace Bush already well underway and the media refocused almost 24/7 on the Clinton/Obama/McCain/Huckabee/ Giuliani campaign, we could be a lot worse off.

As Bush works the Middle East to try his hand at a little personal diplomacy and possibly nurture peace in a region that hasn't seen anything like it in more than 60 years, it pays to remember that this president still has nearly 12 months before he enters the history books. It could well turn out that the free-for-all presidential scramble to replace him, in the final year of his administration, will provide him the opening he needs to accomplish a few more things for the country and people who sent him to Washington in the first place. rockirreg@aol.com

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