President George W. Bush thinks history will be kinder in its assessment of his foreign policy than current popular opinion. It is difficult to see how.
Bush’s reputation is tied up entirely with the Iraq War. It is a commonplace to say that the world is well rid of Saddam Hussein and who can argue? Well, many Iraqis can be forgiven for thinking that even the evil, capricious repressiveness of Hussein’s regime was preferable to the chaos that followed his downfall. And, as Bush leaves office, the verdict on the future of Iraq is still out. Perhaps a reasonably stable government will be able to bring some sense of order to that war ravaged country. Perhaps not. But, if stability is achieved it will be an achievement of the Iraqis not the Bush administration.
What about the Surge? The much acclaimed Surge only succeeded in stopping a precipitous decline into worse chaos. It succeeded militarily in quelling the sectarian violence, but stopping the violence was a means to an end and the end of achieving political reconciliation has not been achieved. Ultimately, the future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqis and, sadly, its neighbors. The U.S. intervention had the immediate effect of strengthening Iran strategically, and both we and the Iraqis will long have to live with that consequence of Bush’s fiasco in Iraq.
The danger of strengthening Iran was foreseen at the time. General Wesley Clark warned both that there was no way that an invasion of Iraq, and the consequent instability, would not fortify Iran and that Iran was the greater long term threat to American interests. Saddam was a petty tyrant, but Iran’s leaders are ideologically motivated, unpetty tyrants. And, while the Iraqi weapons’ program was a shambles, the Iranian weapons’ program is emerging as the single most deadly threat to stability in the region, to say nothing of the existential threat posed to our ally Israel.
The Iraqi War has served a recruiting vehicle for Islamic terrorists of all stripes. It has strained our relationships with our allies. It has entailed dangerous legal precedents regarding detaining prisoners. It removed our focus from the fight in Afghanistan which has deteriorated.
Worst of all, the effects on America itself have been enormous. The chasm, cultural and social, between the military, which has borne the brunt of the war, and the American people, who were not called upon to sacrifice for the war effort, was widened. Future presidents will be severely circumscribed in their ability to use force without raising suspicions both at home and abroad about the government’s intentions. The politicization of our foreign policy – always a bad thing – was worse than it ever has been.
Harry S. Truman left office with low approval ratings but history has judged him one of our greatest presidents. But, look at the difference between his foreign policy and Bush’s. He sat down with Republican leaders, specifically Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, and crafted the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine as bipartisan initiatives. He worked closely with the Congress in all phases of his strategic and military planning. Many viewed the Korean War as a mistake, but Truman did not divide the country for partisan advantage in the prosecution of that war.
George W. Bush’s hope for a kinder verdict from history is, well, the worst example of the audacity of hope. Next Tuesday, as he leaves Washington, the whole world will breath a sigh of relief. Sadly for him, so will history.