Two major figures in American politics will retire in January 2009, one of them voluntarily, the other because of term limits. Senator John Warner of Virginia ends his political career in the U.S. Senate after thirty years, and President George Bush leaves the White House after eight years.
What are their legacies likely to be?
It's easier to assess John Warner who is esteemed by Virginians as well as his Senate colleagues. George Bush will conclude his eight years as president with low public approval ratings, largely because the Iraq war continues to divide Americans.
Warner's career in Washington included service as secretary of the Navy in the early 1970s and an appointment by President Gerald Ford to head the 1976 Bicentennial Commission, the celebration of America's 200th birthday. Elected U.S. Senator from Virginia in 1978, Warner quickly rose to prominence as a member on the Armed Services Committee and eventually became its chairman.
The senator was at the University of Virginia last month to receive the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Medal in Citizen Leadership for outstanding public service. The Miller Center of Public Affairs also hosted "a conversation with Senator Warner" which elicited his reflections as well as his emphasis on the importance of public service. A week later he was honored by eight current and former Virginia governors who joined in a large reception for him in northern Virginia. John Warner is assured of a fine legacy.
Assessing George W. Bush's place in history is problematic because the outcome of his foreign policies will not be known for some years. A recent survey of American historians found that a large majority think he will be viewed as one of our least effective presidents, some calling him "the worst."
Historians may not be the best predictors of a legacy, however. When President Harry Truman left office, his approval ratings were in the low 20s, largely a result of the Korean War. A decade later he was hailed as the president who sponsored the Marshall Plan and NATO, which helped to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union.
President Ronald Reagan was dismissed while in office by many scholars as a "Hollywood cowboy" not suited for the office. Today he is acknowledged as the architect, along with Mikhail Gorbachev, of ending the long Cold War.
In assessing Bush's legacy, it is useful to look at two major foreign policy issues that will likely determine whether his presidency is viewed as successful.
Peace in Palestine. Bush has staked much of his legacy on achieving a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority before he leaves office. Skeptics say there is little basis for optimism because hardliners in both Israel and Palestine make irreconcilable demands on their leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PLA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Nevertheless, quiet talks behind the scenes with the leaders of Hamas, facilitated by Egypt and former president Jimmy Carter, suggest that Palestinian leaders may accept the two-state solution promoted by President Bush, provided Israel returns to its 1967 borders. If it happens, Hamas would implicitly recognize Israel as a state.
Bill Clinton as president came close to achieving that objective before leaving office in 2001. But PLA leader Yasser Arafat scuttled the plan. This time new Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem more inclined to agree, under continuing strong pressure from the United States and the European Union.
Peace in Iraq. Iraq's government is finally starting to provide security to most parts of the country, with support from U.S. and allied forces. Prime Minister Maliki's success in cracking down on militias in Basra and Baghdad is giving Iraqi troops new confidence that they can eventually replace Americans as the main security force.
If Iraq is sufficiently stable by the end of this year to enable George Bush to begin a major reduction of troops, will Congress give the next president authority to keep a smaller force there for an extended period?
Like Harry Truman, George Bush will end his presidency with low approval ratings. But he has more public support for "staying the course" in Iraq than Truman had for continuing the Korean War. Congressional Democrats who insist on a quick withdrawal of the troops may find that the public is not willing to leave Iraq in chaos.
As a result, the new president in 2009 will quietly work out an agreement with congressional leaders to retain a smaller force in Iraq, perhaps 50-60,000, for the next four years. By then Iran will probably have nuclear weapons and try to use its new influence to intimidate its Persian Gulf neighbors and Israel.
If U.S. forces in Iraq prove to be a real deterrent to a nuclear-armed Iran, George Bush could receive far more credit for leadership in foreign policy than he has today.
File last modified on Saturday, 10-MAY-2008 10:43 PM EST