Comment October 2006

Unwinding Bush

How long will it take to fix his mistakes?

As for the current president, Buckley isn’t quite right. Bush will leave a legacy, in the form of four headaches.

The fiscal mess. Bush’s tax cuts and spending increases turned a $236 billion federal surplus in fiscal 2000 into a deficit of more than $400 billion four years later, an astonishing reversal. That the current year’s deficit may come in at something like $300 billion is little cause for comfort; with Baby Boomers due to retire and an expensive Medicare drug benefit kicking in, the country’s fiscal position is weak.

The Iraq mess. The invasion was a gamble; the failure to scrub the prewar intelligence and properly manage the postwar occupation were mistakes. The gamble might still pay off, but the mistakes have astronomically raised the gamble’s cost in lives, money, prestige, and U.S. strategic focus and position (Iran has been the invasion’s signal beneficiary).

International opprobrium. The Iraq adventure fueled a precipitous decline in America’s image abroad, and Bush’s pugnacious style during his first term and his tin ear for foreign opinion made a bad situation worse. This is more than just a public-relations problem. National prestige is diplomatic capital; the more unpopular America becomes, the higher the price of foreign support. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN’s deputy secretary-general, recently said that suspicion of the United States has grown to the point where “many otherwise quite moderate countries” are inclined to oppose anything we favor.

An extralegal terrorism war. If the country seriously intends to prevent terrorism, then spying at home, detaining terror suspects, and conducting tough interrogations are practices that the government will need to engage in for many years to come. Instead of making proper legal provisions for those practices, Bush has run the war against jihadism out of his back pocket, as a permanent state of emergency. He engages in legal ad-hockery and trickery, treats Congress as a nuisance rather than a partner, and circumvents outmoded laws and treaties when he should be creating new ones. Of all Bush’s failings, his refusal to build durable underpinnings for what promises to be a long struggle is the most surprising, the most gratuitous, and potentially the most damaging, both to the sustainability of the antiterrorism effort and to the constitutional order.

How long will unwinding Bush take? Because of demographic headwinds, balancing the budget looks like a long-term project, requiring a decade if things go well, two or three decades (or forever) if not. Some of today’s anti-Americanism, by contrast, may be anti-Bushism that will prove quick to dissipate. The Iraq situation could tip one way or the other, but Bush himself has acknowledged that the disposition of U.S. forces in Iraq “will be decided by future presidents” (note the plural). In principle, a domestic legal framework for the war on jihadism could be constructed in several years by a determined president and Congress (new treaty arrangements, such as a much-needed update of the Geneva Conventions, would take longer); or, much less desirably, the courts might wind up piecing together a ramshackle framework over a decade or more.

All in all, a reasonable guess is that unwinding Bush will take more than a decade but less than two, meaning the job will be harder than unwinding Carter but easier than unwinding Nixon. In doing it, however, Bush’s successors will have one useful ally: Bush himself. Albeit grudgingly, he has begun working with Congress on terrorism-war legislation; in the realm of foreign policy, as former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke noted recently in Foreign Affairs, “George W. Bush’s second administration has made a serious, and partially successful, effort to undo some of the damage the first Bush team caused.” (Carter also tried to be a self-unwinder, changing course on détente and fiscal policy, but he ran out of time. Part of FDR’s genius was that he unwound himself at least twice.)

Bush has two years left to unwind himself; and if he’s lucky, he’ll have a Democratic House or Senate to help. He has been cursed with a Republican Congress that has indulged his worst tendencies—but that problem, at least, the voters might soon unwind.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jonathan Rauch is a correspondent at The Atlantic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.
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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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