Bob Woodward offers ten lessons to be drawn from the Bush Administration; none, as you might expect, are terribly flattering to our soon-to-be ex-President. Watching Bush's farewell address last night, what struck me above all was how long it's been since he felt like the President. Bush never had the gift of persuasion, the ability to give a State of the Union address or a press conference that left his enemies disarmed, but there was a time when he at least seemed like a leader - like someone consequential, active, and important, whatever one thought of his actions and their consequences. But that air of authority and leadership dissipated somewhere between the failure of Social Security reform and the 2006 midterms, and for the last two years Bush has projected the air of a bystander to history, as though events, and his presidency, were largely out of his hands.
You could imagine a different President passing through the same set of crises - Hurricane Katrina, Iraq's descent into chaos and the post-surge struggle back to some kind of stability, and finally this year's financial crisis - and coming out of them with a reputation as a battler, a man in the arena, a struggler and a doer who put his stamp on his time, even if the time was difficult and his decisions often went awry. But where the events of his second term were concerned, Bush seemed like a supporting player in his own presidency, standing in the wings while other figures - Mike Brown and Michael Chertoff; Donald Rumsfeld and then David Petraeus; Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke - took center stage, striving and erring, claiming opprobrium and credit, and generally overshadowing the man in the West Wing.
It was appropriate, in a sense, that his farewall remarks echoed his expansive Second Inaugural, with its simple (and simplistic) vision of a world divided between freedom and tyranny, and a crusading America advancing the one and defeating the other. He was at home in that rhetoric; he's never seemed at home since. And as Chris Brose suggests, while Bush's vision may have been appropriate to the post-9/11 moment, when the United States needed to be rallied against our foes, it wasn't the right sort of rhetoric for the broader era of terrorism, counterinsurgency, and counter-proliferation in which we find ourselves - and it's been consistently at odds with the gritty challenges of Bush's second term, from the post-invasion struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan to the "uncrackable" problems of Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.
And the fact that Bush never found an idiom with which to address those challenges is one of the bigger reasons why it's hard to imagine his Presidency being redeemed by history, even if the invasion of Iraq is deemed a better choice from the vantage point of 2025 than it's deemed my most today. Maybe - maybe - the gutsy decision to "surge" forces into Iraq in 2007, rather than abandon that country as lost, will make an enormous difference to the future of the Middle East. But even in making that decision, Bush never really claimed ownership of it: He had lost too much credibility, and lacked the capacity to be an advocate for the strategy he'd chosen. The surge was Bush's choice, but the policy belonged to Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, to John McCain and Robert Gates - because the presidency that's just ended seemed like it ended long ago.
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