Comment June 2008

Redeeming Dubya

The national memory often confuses hubris with greatness. That’s good news for George W. Bush.
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Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

The idea that history might rehabilitate George W. Bush seems too ludicrous to be seriously entertained. His approval ratings have been so low for so long, it’s hard to remember that he was ever popular. The Iraq War, his signal endeavor, has lasted for more years than America’s involvement in the Second World War and seems likely to last longer; a fragile truce in a wrecked, misgoverned country is the best the next president can hope for.

Even many of the president’s ideological allies consider him a failure—either a false conservative who betrayed the Reagan legacy, or a blunderer who got the big decisions right but couldn’t follow through. His liberal foes, whose bill of indictments has swollen to the size of Gravity’s Rainbow, while away the hours until January 2009 by arguing over just how terrible a president he’s been. The worst since Nixon? Since Hoover? Since James Buchanan?

If Bush himself were confronted with this discouraging analysis, though, it’s easy to imagine his retort—delivered, no doubt, with a flash of that famous smirk: So you’re saying I’ve got nowhere to go but up.

Before you laugh, consider that nearly every presidential reputation, however tarnished, eventually finds someone willing to defend it. At the very least, some right-wing writers and historians will rise to defend Bush’s legacy. But something more than partisan apologetics will be needed for his presidency to be remembered as something other than a failure. Ronald Reagan’s status became secure only after left-of-center historians began to praise him; likewise, Harry Truman’s reputation has risen from the Bush-esque depths of his disastrous second term in part because Republicans as well as Democrats have come to claim him as a hero.

Which means that to earn the sort of vindication he seems to blithely expect, George W. Bush will have to win over not only centrists but at least some liberals.

Again, stifle that laugh. Bush won over a certain sort of liberal once before, the crusading, hawkish sort that felt the tug of Bush’s moral certainty after 9/11 and was moved—at least until Iraq turned sour—by his confidence in America’s ability to remake the world.

Imagining that these liberals, and others, might be won over again requires two big assumptions. First, assume that the years immediately after Bush leaves office pass without domestic calamity. If the current economic downturn becomes another Great Depression, for instance, his reputation will be buried as deep as Hoover’s or Buchanan’s. If America continues to muddle through, however, Bush’s domestic record—which is lackluster without being nearly as bad as his critics, left and right, often claim it’s been—will probably vanish down the memory hole that has swallowed the domestic record of nearly every president not named Roosevelt or Johnson.

This is the easy part of the equation. The harder assumption involves what will remain after “compassionate conservatism” has faded into the same oblivion that claimed Nixon’s “New Federalism” and Bill Clinton’s “New Covenant.” Foreign policy, that is, where for history’s judgment to turn favorable, America’s intervention in Iraq eventually needs to come out looking like a success story rather than a folly.

This seems improbable, to put it mildly. But the crucial word here is eventually. The Bush administration has often seemed bent on vindicating, in the short run and by force of arms, Francis Fukuyama’s famous long-term prediction that liberal democracy will ultimately triumph. Now Bush’s hopes for vindication depend on the Middle East’s following a gradual, Fukuyaman track toward free markets, democratic government, and the “end of history.” And just as crucially, they depend on American troops’ staying in Iraq for as long as it takes for that to happen. If these events come to pass—if the Iraq of 2038 or so is stable, democratic, and at peace with its neighbors, and if American troops have maintained a constant presence in the country—no one should be surprised to hear hawkish liberals as well as conservatives taking up the idea that George W. Bush deserves a great deal of the credit.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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