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George W. Bush, who barely scraped into office but ran a presidency marked by executive hubris, imperial overreach and epic incompetence, leaves the stage on Tuesday to a national and global sigh of relief. The “decider” and self-styled “war president” who relied on his gut got many things terribly wrong, even if it is fair to say he did face some extraordinary challenges.
With his preternatural ebullience, fathomless lack of curiosity and disdain for empirical reality, Mr Bush compromised America’s reputation as a power that stands by the rule of law – giving real succour to an enemy he helped multiply.
After offering himself to voters as a conciliatory and compassionate conservative, he deliberately polarised US politics in search of a durable new Republican majority. After preaching humility in foreign policy, he preferred unilateralism and superficial muscularity.
The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001 would have tested the mettle of the greatest statesman. Mr Bush was not that. But he was right – and widely supported – in going into Afghanistan to deal with Osama bin Laden and his followers, a long-standing problem he has left unresolved.
But his war of choice on Iraq, and the very concept of the global war on terror, misidentified the nature of the strategic threat facing the US and the liberal international order of which it is the lead custodian. The late Roman republic was once badly defeated by the Parthians, who ruled most of today’s Iraq and Iran. But no historian records that the Romans thereafter declared a global war on the Parthian shot.
Iraq was the Bush administration’s single worst error of judgment. The invasion and subsequent occupation broke a state, dissolved a society and created a new incubator of jihadi extremism far worse than the Afghanistan of the Taliban, as well as uncorking a Sunni-Shia sectarian rift from the Levant to the Indian subcontinent.
As Anthony Cordesman, a strategist in favour of the invasion, ruefully summarised three years into the occupation, “We essentially used a bull to liberate a china shop.”
The stain of Abu Ghraib and the lawlessness of Guantánamo; the idea you can bomb people into moderation from high altitude; and the loss of nerve on Arab democracy and the “freedom agenda” – all this is a terrible setback for the ideas and values that have so long made America a beacon for the world. The security gains of the troops “surge”, moreover, are still too fragile and reversible for us to know if Iraq can be put back together again.
Domestically, the Bush team, led by the overmighty vice-president, Dick Cheney, sought to expand executive power and dismantle checks and balances. Torture and rendition abroad were accompanied by warrantless snooping at home.
Loyalty and ideological zeal rather than competence were the path to preferment. That exacerbated already difficult challenges.
Social security reform sank without trace. The response to Hurricane Katrina was bungled as Mr Bush sunnily acclaimed a “heck of a job”. From a team that manufactured the case for war, it was unsurprising when officials with no scientific training doctored administration climate research to play down the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Mr Bush’s real achievements in aid to Africa look less impressive once one realises it is a principal victim of the climate change he long denied and has done so little to address.
He showed a surer touch in Asia: with China, after the tricky start of the Hainan island spy-plane crisis; and with India, although his consecration of Delhi as a new, nuclear-armed power and counterweight to Beijing is itself a gamble as well as a blow to nuclear non-proliferation.
Mr Bush cannot be cast as the principal villain for the financial meltdown and recession that resulted in good part from the loose monetary policies and regulation of the Alan Greenspan era spanning several presidencies. But the US would clearly have been in better shape to confront it had President Bush not spent like President Johnson while cutting taxes like President Reagan. This most fiscally incontinent of presidents took a wrecking ball to the public finances.
This economic crisis will be extremely difficult to resolve. Conflicts such as Afghanistan and the Middle East are intractable for any president, even if the Bush approach has made them more so.
George W. Bush did enormous damage to America’s standing in the world and its strength at home. Yet the vitality of the US system resurfaced, and American voters have chosen in Barack Obama a man of vision and statesmanship. It now falls to him to renew the confidence and restore the reputation of the American republic.