George W. Bush gave his farewell address to the nation last night. I thank him for his service. And in some important ways I will miss him.
Yes, there is plenty for conservatives to lament about his presidency. He presided over an unprecedented expansion of government pork and failed at every turn to rein in the profligate spenders in Congress. From 2001 to 2006 he presided over a unified government where the opportunities for driving home small-government conservatism were everywhere. But, alas, George W. Bush proved himself to be a big government conservative instead – failing to veto a single bill spending until 2006 (after the Democrats took control) and allowing a vast expansion of Medicare entitlements under his watch. Clearly, George Bush is no Ronald Reagan.
But it is equally clear to me that after 9/11, George Bush made a deal with himself and the nation: he would work tirelessly to keep us safe, even if he had to make compromises with Congress on spending and the economy. For as painful as the recent economic meltdown is, it is not fatal. 9/11 put this presidency on a wartime footing and in war you sometime make deals with the devil. FDR, the president the left likes to prominently stand up as the ideal Democrat, interned thousands of Japanese Americans in the name of national security.
War isn’t pretty. It requires lots of compromises in both policy and practice, and sometimes you have to do things that you don't want to do. One guesses that Barack Obama will soon see how tough this is.
So, George Bush decided that to keep Congress in line on fighting Al Qaeda and taking out Saddam Hussein, he would allow all sorts of domestic shenanigans. And this included looking the other way as the risks associated with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac escalated, fueling the sub-prime mortgage mess that exploded late in the 2008 campaign. Yes, there were warning signs galore – the collapse of Bear Stearns, the puncturing of the housing bubble, the government’s own internal audits.
But it hardly mattered to this war president: By 2006, with Iraq in disarray and verging on catastrophic failure, the president was focused exclusively outward. The slow fires burning at home were nagging problems that could hardly compare to the challenges of war in the Mid East. Bush – nor anyone else – could have predicted the massive crisis that has ensnared the world economy.
This, of course, doesn’t give the President a pass. Hardly. His failure to create and sustain a clear philosophy on economic matters helped to ensure that the storm that hit the financial markets would be stronger and more sustained than it ordinarily might have been. He was derelict in his leadership, of that there is no question – and history will judge him so.
But I give the man ample credit for trying to change the balance of power in the Middle East and in keeping the homeland safe from attack. No one on 9/12/2001 would have bet that Al Qaeda would not attack again and soon. His strength and unwavering discipline to do “what is necessary” to keep America safe is something that he will be lauded for in years to come. And his courage to take out Saddam and create a democracy in Iraq has the chance to remake the Arabian peninsula for years to come. And while he has failed to confront Iran with sufficient force, the opportunity to make Iraq into an ally in the region should provide a useful base from which to both oppose Iran and support Israel. Iraq -- if successful and intelligently utilized -- can provide a critical "balance shifter" in the fight against Shia extremism.
Time will tell if the Obama administration will risk or reward this grand effort.
In the end, my guess is that George W. Bush will be kindly remembered by historians, though like Truman, it may take a generation or two for it to happen. The long-term impact of Iraq and the overall war on terror will not quickly be clear. But when it is, he will get much credit for seeing evil and trying to defeat it.
We can only hope that his successor has such clarity.