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Bush in perspective

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COMMENTS

15 November 2007 08:50

The Lowy Institute is delighted to host a roundtable today with Dr Steven Casey of the London School of Economics, an emerging star in US diplomatic history, on 'The Bush presidency in historical perspective'. Today's Sydney Morning Herald contains an op-ed based on his remarks and the paper is also running a forum on how history will judge George W. Bush. We prevailed on Steve to post some additional comments for The Interpreter...

As his term of office reaches its final year, George W. Bush’s fortunes are at their lowest ebb. He has few admirers inside or outside the U.S. And even Republicans are trying hard to distance themselves from the man responsible for the Iraq debacle. But how will history judge the 42nd president? How will he compare to the heroes and villains who have previously occupied the White House?

Bush and his acolytes have high hopes. All re-elected presidents, they point out, face declining opinion poll ratings in their second term. Not only does the general public tire of them but they also become ‘lame ducks’ as the political classes focus on their likely successor. Over time, however, historians come to the rescue. With distance comes greater perspective. The day-to-day partisan mudslinging fades and the central achievements of even the most unpopular presidents stand out in clearer relief.

Yet Bush should not pin his hopes on this normal process working for him. Historians have clear criteria by which to judge the success or failure of presidents. And by these criteria, Bush’s record is dismal. 

Perhaps his biggest problem has been as a strategist. Bush recently told a reporter that 'the job of the president is to think strategically so that you can accomplish big objectives.' He is right, of course. But unlike other presidents who have led their country to war, Bush has not set clear strategic priorities.

In most American wars, the nation’s strategy has been subject to intense debate. In the civil war, Lincoln faced enormous pressure from radicals who wanted to transform it immediately into a war against slavery, and even from his own secretary of state who thought the best way of reconciling the nation would be to launch a preventive strike against Mexico. Lincoln, however, remained wedded to one single-minded goal: the preservation of the Union. He subordinated all other policies to this one goal. Likewise in World War II, FDR initially faced mounting public demand to concentrate U.S. energies in Asia rather than Europe, especially after Japan had dragged the U.S. into the war by attacking Pearl Harbor. But FDR would not be distracted. He recognized that Germany was America’s most powerful and dangerous enemy. And he remained firmly wedded to a ‘Germany first’ strategy throughout the war.

In large part, Lincoln’s and Roosevelt’s greatness stemmed from their determination to focus on one overriding objective. Bush, by stark contrast, has a very different record. He was easily swayed by the type of strategic diversion his illustrious predecessors so swiftly quashed. He bears ultimate responsible not just for the war in Iraq but also for all the consequences that have stemmed from it—the failure to destroy Al Qaeda, the American public’s growing distrust of their government, and the weakening of American-led institutions and alliances. These are not the sort of failures that even those historians who strive for detachment and impartiality will be able to overlook.