Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997

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Donald Nuechterlein

HOW SHOULD WE ASSESS GEORGE BUSH'S LEGACY?

JANUARY 2009

President Bush asserted in a speech at the Army War College last month: "While there's room for an honest and healthy debate about the decisions I've madeā€¦there can be no debate about the results in keeping America safe. Here at home, we've prevented numerous terrorist attacks." ("Bush Says His Post 9-11 Actions Prevented Further Terrorism," Wash. Post, Dec. 18)

Some pundits and historians say that he will leave the White House with a legacy of being among the worst presidents in American history. Before rushing to judgment, we should recall that Harry Truman left office in 1953 with lower approval ratings than does George Bush. Today, however, Truman is regarded as a great president for rescuing Europe after World War II and building the Atlantic Alliance, which eventually persuaded Moscow to end the Cold War.

The case against Bush's eight-year tenure on foreign policy is easy to describe. The Iraq war is the most obvious and includes both his decision to launch that operation without United Nations support and the war's huge financial cost and its casualties.

Many in Congress who voted for the war in 2002, including incoming vice president Joe Biden and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, castigated Bush and the Pentagon for bungling the occupation and the anti-insurgency campaign. They were less critical after the U.S. troop surge in 2007 stabilized security in most of Iraq's cities.

A second criticism is Bush's failure to prevent Iran's drive to become a nuclear power. Despite the buildup of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf and strong diplomatic efforts by the Europeans, Tehran's government is neither enticed by offers of aid nor intimidated by American power to suspend its enrichment of nuclear materials.

A third case against Bush's foreign policy is his failure, despite great efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush did, however, persuade former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to evacuate the Gaza Territory. But like Bill Clinton's failed efforts in 2000, Bush's push for a two-state solution to the Palestine crisis has ended in failure.

The plus side of the Bush foreign policy record is less obvious today, but the longer-term benefits could be significant. Examples are:

He recently concluded a historic nuclear cooperation agreement with India that changes the strategic balance of power in the Indian Ocean area and may lead to agreement between India and Pakistan to settle their long-term conflict over Kashmir.

Bush also built on the efforts of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to open China to world markets and help it become a major economic power. He enlisted China's support for diplomatic pressure to dissuade North Korea from building nuclear weapons and intimidating its neighbors, especially Japan.

Bush's early success in establishing good working relations with President Vladimir Putin were less successful, however, as Russia began to intimidate its neighbors and institute a semi-authoritarian government at home. NATO's expansion, the projected U.S. missile shield in Poland, and Russia's brief invasion of Georgia last summer have soured its relations with Washington and NATO.

A major question mark for Bush's legacy is the Middle East, where Iran's Islamic regime threatens the Persian Gulf states and violence between Israelis and Palestinians may quickly erupt into another major conflict. This issue adversely affects U.S. relations with all the Arab countries.

An optimistic scenario for the Middle East in the next two years runs like this: Iraq's democratic government becomes stronger in 2009 following national elections in January; U.S. combat forces are withdrawn as violence is curbed by Iraq's police; Iran is persuaded by strong U.N. sanctions to suspend work on its nuclear weapons program; and international pressure is brought on Israel and the Palestinians finally to agree on a settlement that gives the Palestinians a viable state with security guarantees fort Israel.

If any of these developments occurs, George Bush will get a good deal of credit for staying the course in Iraq and not giving up on efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Otherwise, his legacy will be mostly negative.

An argument can be made that regardless of what history concludes about Bush's foreign policy, his legacy will be largely determined by the deep recession the United States and the world entered in 2008. Some think he will be remembered as the 21st century's Herbert Hoover.

But unlike the Hoover administration's inaction in its final year in office, Bush's Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve are being vigorous in using federal funds to bolster the banking system, to prevent a financial collapse like the one in 1932-33.

As for his assertion that his administration prevented other 9-11 type attacks on the United States, scholars rarely consider the importance of events that don't occur. Nevertheless, history will record that this accomplishment was worthy of noting.

File last modified on Sunday, 11-JAN-2009 5:24 PM EST

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