Redeeming Dubya (III)


While I'm on the subject of Bush's possible rehabilitation, I should link to this Jonathan Rauch piece from October of last year, in which he argued that one way to judge a President is by how long it takes his successors to unwind his mistakes. In the current Administration's case, he suggested that "Bush’s successors will have one useful ally: Bush himself," since on at least some fronts - most notably Iraq - the President has attempted to be a "self-unwinder."

Now obviously a record of unwinding one's own mistakes is rather different from a record of success, and if Bush does succeed - as seems increasingly plausible - in finally delivering a fragile-but-improving situation in Iraq to his successor, that won't be an achievement that vindicates the initial decision to invade. But provisionally, at least, it's worth noting that way that Bush has attempted to unwind himself on Iraq has been more impressive, and provided more grist for a potential rehabilitation, than a simple volte-face would have. If Bush had taken the Baker-Hamilton Commission's advice, for instance, and the security situation had gradually improved thereafter, the obvious historical narrative would have been that Bush led America into a disaster, and then had to turn things over to the grown-ups and let them lead us out. But by instead choosing a course-correction - the Surge - that had very little institutional support within American political circles, Bush assumed ownership of subsequent events in a way that most politicians seeking to undo their blunders don't have the opportunity to do. And should Iraq reach some sort of democratic stability over the long run, it's very easy to see how Bush's decision to double down rather than pulling out could become one of the high points of a larger narrative that paints him as a visionary.

Again, to emphasize, I wouldn't agree with this narrative, not least because I think the standards for success in a war of choice (or a war of pre-emption, or however you want to describe our decision to invade Iraq) have to be considerably more stringent than the standards for success in a war of survival or self-defense - and finally getting to some sort of modest stability in post-Saddam Iraq (which is by no means assured) after four years of carnage and tens of thousands of deaths doesn't pass muster on this count. So when Victor Davis Hanson, for instance, argues that our blunders in this conflict have parallels in previous American wars, I think what's missing from his argument is an acknowledgment that Iraq has to be judged differently from World War II or Korea because our grounds for going to war in this case were considerably weaker.

But based on how American history tends to end up being written, I wouldn't be all that surprised to wake up in 2035 and find that Hanson's point of view, rather than mine, ended up carrying the day.

Photo by the World Economic Forum used under a Creative Commons license.