But what will be or could be the presidential legacy of George W. Bush? It is safe to say that President Bush began his first term in January 2001 without a strong mandate. An intervention by the Supreme Court had resolved the most prolonged presidential election process in U.S. history, and the defeated candidate, former Vice President Al Gore, had actually won the popular vote. The new president’s agenda was appropriately modest; he would conduct, he promised, a “more humble” foreign policy, resisting the temptation to engage in nation-building elsewhere in the world. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, abruptly shattered that placid projection. Declaring a “war on terror,” President Bush launched retaliatory strikes on Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan that October, a campaign supported by an international community that was still expressing solidarity with the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A year later, however, as the Bush administration attempted to rally support for a pre-emptive attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the response from long-time international allies was negative. With little support from the international community and over the objections of Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders, the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, with little understanding of the challenge that postwar reconstruction would pose. It was a blunder of historic proportions. The war of choice in Iraq was not a necessary step in the campaign against terrorism but a costly distraction from that campaign. Five years later, the challenge of reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq while discharging our responsibilities to the Iraqi people will be a painful dilemma for Mr. Bush’s successor, whether Republican or Democrat.
Preoccupation with the tragedy of Iraq, however, should not prevent recognition of the positive initiatives of the George W. Bush administration. Principal among these has been the President’s Plan for AIDS Relief (known as Pepfar), a multibillon-dollar investment in programs to combat the scourge of H.I.V./AIDS in Africa. The president’s concern for educational reform in the United States drew widespread support, even from those who found fault with particular details of the No Child Left Behind program. But there are other initiatives that President Bush could take in the remaining months of his presidency that would enable his successor to meet more quickly and more effectively the challenges the next administration will face.
Any lasting solution to the challenge of overcoming sectarian divisions in Iraq and establishing a stable government in that tormented country will depend on regional cooperation. For this reason President Bush should vigorously pursue his commitment to take an active role in the search for permanent peace between Israel and its neighbors. While the president’s assurance that a lasting agreement can be achieved before the end of his term in office is unrealistic, his personal involvement in the peace process will surely move the parties closer to an agreement. In broader terms, Mr. Bush could assist the diplomatic initiatives of the next administration by following the counsel of the more moderate voices in his administration and abandoning the heavy-handed unilateralism favored by Vice President Cheney and other neoconservative diehards who promoted and defended the unnecessary war in Iraq.
When future historians assess the administration of the second President Bush, they will surely recognize that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, abruptly brought the nation and its new president into a world radically different from the one that the former governor of Texas contemplated when he was chosen as the Republican presidential candidate in the 2000 election. In his final year in office, George W. Bush could enrich his legacy to the future by learning from the mistakes of the past.