WASHINGTON — In May 2003, President George W. Bush ’68 stepped onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. “Mission Accomplished,” read the sign displayed prominently above the flight deck, referring to the war in Iraq.
Five years and over 4,000 American lives later, the United States remains in Iraq. But Bush has left the White House.
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All in all, this display of success in the face of continued adversity is emblematic of the Bush presidency, one in which Yale Diplomat-in-Residence Charles Hill says well-intentioned actions were executed poorly.
Described by Steven Weisman ’68, a classmate of Bush and a former reporter for The New York Times, as deeply moralistic, almost to a fault, Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was a sincere one. He viewed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a threat to the security of the United States and as a destabilizing actor in an unstable region. So, Weisman comments, Bush felt compelled to challenge Hussein at all costs.
But by all accounts, Bush failed to anticipate the conditions on the ground in Iraq, and later disregarded calls to send in more troops to prevent sectarian violence; he was convinced the task could be accomplished with fewer troops.
Bush’s incomplete execution has plagued other areas of his presidency as well. He has indeed prevented several known terrorist plots against the United States. And he has demonstrated a willingness to tackle difficult issues, including reform of immigration and health care policies and Social Security. But, Bush has generally been unable to follow through — today, immigration and health care reform remain unresolved.
Though he has meant well and found some success, Strobe Talbott ’68 believes Bush has also made some mistakes that will have significant and long-lasting ramifications for the United States and the world.
In his final weeks in office, Bush and those around him have tried to tie his presidency to that of President Harry S. Truman. As with Truman, they assert that Bush’s policies will be vindicated by history.
“President Truman had low ratings in his second term largely because of the Korean War, which was very unpopular and can be identified with the Iraq war in Bush’s term,” said Hill, who served as chief of staff of the State Department after serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East under President Ronald Reagan. “Like Truman, in 15 to 20 years, Bush’s stance will be vindicated once the full effect of his policies can be measured.”
But, Hill acknowledged, that argument is not particularly compelling.
Indeed, when asked if the Bush-Truman comparison is valid, Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institute and the deputy secretary of state during the Clinton administration, said simply: “No, no, no, that is nonsense.”
“The fact that Truman was not very popular in his second term is not relevant when comparing his presidency to Bush’s,” Talbott said. “You have to examine the merits and lasting consequences.”
By that measure, Talbott explains, Bush is no Harry Truman.
“He saw the United States as having an opportunity in the post-World War II world as the master builder in a rule-based international system,” Talbott said of Truman. “Bush has done the opposite, particularly in his first term, dismantling the FDR-Truman-Eisenhower system [of international cooperation] by demonstrating disdain for treaties and negotiations.”
Contrasting Bush’s doctrine of preemption to the system espoused by Truman, Talbott said Bush alienated foreign governments with his strong belief in unilateralism and an extreme version of American exceptionalism — that the United States is different and better than the rest of the world and should be allowed to do as it pleases.
Talbott contends that as opposed to Bush, Truman possessed a fundamentally sound strategy for minimizing the threat of Soviet aggression.
“The biggest international threat during the Bush administration was 9/11 and terrorism,” Talbott said. “But unlike Truman, [Bush] did not come up with a sound strategy — he over militarized the response to the threat.”
But others are not convinced. Christopher Michel ’03, deputy speech writer and former assistant to the president, said he firmly believes that Bush’s actions were strategically sound in the long run, and that only with time will the administration’s policies will be seen as correct.
“I think the grand strategy of the administration has been right,” said Michel, a former editor in chief of the News. “The fundamental moment of this presidency came on 9/11 when President Bush was faced with the question of whether this was an isolated event or evidence of a different world. The president’s fundamental insight was that this is a global movement of extremism by a group of determined radicals. He understands the only way to combat it is to offer a better world for those who they recruit. It is for that reason that history will look back on Iraq and Afghanistan as positive actions.”
And, as classmate and friend Donald Etra ’68 adds, “President Bush stands in no worse position than Truman did when he left. He will ultimately go down in history as a great president.”
Indeed, supporters and critics alike believe Bush may deserve at least some recognition for his response to the attacks of Sept. 11.
“I remember thinking and everyone else was thinking [after Sept. 11] that there was just no way we would go seven years without another terrorist attack,” Michel said. “I think everybody can agree regardless of ideology that the President deserves credit for that.”
So agreed Lanny J. Davis ’68, an advisor to President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and a critic of many of the Bush administration’s policies.
“To be fair, he deserves some credit that no such attack has occurred since Sept. 11, 2001,” he wrote in a column in The Washington Times on Jan. 12, 2009.
But Talbott criticizes Bush for merging the invasion of Iraq with the larger and more important War or Terror.
“He conflated the problem of the radical Islamist threat with the threat of Saddam Hussein in a way that did not make factual and strategic sense,” Talbott said.
Two terms, two presidents
One often overlooked aspect of the Bush presidency, Talbott notes, is the stark difference between the policies — particularly foreign policies — of his two terms. Indeed, Talbott said Bush worked in his second term to correct some of the ideology and policy mistakes of his first.
“In his second term, Bush made a conscious effort to work with allies,” Talbott said. And Hill and Michel cite the military “surge” in early 2007 as an example of Bush learning from his mistakes in Iraq.
“In late 2006, the anti-war movement was massive,” Hill said. “Congressional leaders were declaring the war was lost. Everyone thought that was it — that the United States was finally going to give up. But instead of reading the handwriting on the wall, Bush gave a major speech promoting a surge. He stood against all of the political wind and by the fall of 2007, it made important progress. It was act of important political courage.”
Michel said the toughest speech he worked on at the White House was in January 2007 when Bush introduced the troop surge in Iraq.
“It was something really unpopular and most people didn’t think it would work. To look back on it now, it is unmistakable that he saved Iraq and gave it a chance to succeed. I respect, and I think the president has made it clear that he respects, those who disagree with the invasion, but the success of the surge is indisputable.”
But according to critics of the former administration, one success may not necessarily excuse a slew of failures.
As Talbott commented, “Bush has left a lot of work for President Obama in restoring the country’s reputation abroad.”
For the future
Bush left office Tuesday with the lowest presidential approval rating since Gallup began recording approval levels 70 years ago. And in his farewell address to the nation on Jan. 15, he acknowledged mistakes.
Yet Bush remains adamant that history will vindicate his actions.
“Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks,” he said in his Jan. 15 address. “There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I’ve always acted with the best interest of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”
Coming out of the relative peace and economic prosperity of the ’90s, the beginning of the 21st century was a particularly trying time for the United States. Inaugurated in January 2001, Bush was the president faced with these unexpected challenges, and Michel, Etra and Weisman each said Bush showed he was willing to make the tough decisions, willing to tackle the unpopular and controversial issues.
But, Talbott notes, as recent events have shown — in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Pakistan and Somalia, in New Orleans and on Wall Street — Bush has failed to solve many of America’s and the world’s key problems. He says Bush was unable to deal with them in a comprehensive way.
During his farewell address, Bush read a quotation from President Thomas Jefferson: “‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,’” America’s third president once said.
Indeed, for Bush, the future provides hope for vindication of a past riddled with missteps and controversy.