The Long Goodbye

LOOKING BACK ’07
LOOKING AHEAD ’08

Unpopular Bush has become the quintessential lame-duck president.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush still has 401 days left in the Oval Office. Yet to many, he might as well be out of the door. He is the quintessential lame-duck president in the twilight of his administration.

More so than his predecessors, Mr Bush appears inconsequential now, weighed down by dismal poll numbers because of an unpopular war in Iraq. He is also under siege from a hostile Democrat-controlled Congress, and the nation is distracted by an election campaign to choose his successor.

Scholars have begun looking at the legacy of one of the most controversial and divisive leaders in recent US history. “He’ll take up more textbook space than Bill Clinton or his dad (George H.W. Bush), for better or worse,” Professor Fred Greenstein, a prominent presidential scholar at Princeton University, told The Straits Times.

Clearly, one issue will define the legacy of the 43rd US president: Iraq and his war on terror. It will leave an indelible imprint on American foreign policy long after he leaves office on Jan 20, 2009.

Like everything else about Mr Bush, opinion is deeply divided on his achievement on this front.

His detractors say he has left behind a world far more hostile and dangerous than the one he inherited in 2001, arguing that the invasion of Iraq nearly five years ago has only strengthened the foes in the conflict and made the region even more volatile.

They say it has resulted in the resurgence of Iran and Syria, as well as violent actors Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

At the same time, Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda got a big boost in recruiting terrorists in the Muslim world where American standing has ebbed to its lowest levels.

Fixation with Iraq also came at the expense of dealing with other problems in Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan – two countries that might prove in the long run to be far more important to US national security interests.

The critics lament that other key areas of US foreign policy, especially Asia, were left to flounder, opening the door for China to exercise greater influence.

But supporters of Mr Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption say that his aggressive actions have disabled known terrorist organisations, struck a blow to Islamic extremists and helped persuade countries such as Libya to peacefully give up their nuclear programmes.

“He has presided over the most sweeping redesign of US grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” wrote historian John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University.

Even allowing for the disaster in Iraq, observers believe that elements of the Bush doctrine will survive. Whoever replaces Mr Bush in over a year will have to live with a long-term military presence in Iraq and permanent US bases in Afghanistan.

While future US presidents are unlikely to rush into pre-emptive attempts to turn the Middle East into an oasis of democracy, they will be more sensitive to links between terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction, and continue to engage in a complex struggle with radical Islam.

For them, the challenge will be to moderate Mr Bush’s policy and implement it more competently.

In many ways, President Bush has come full circle.

Coming into office seven years ago by the skin of his teeth, he grew dramatically in stature after the Sept 11 attacks, and then romped home on the back of a landslide for his second term. Derided merely as the scion of a political dynasty, he appeared weak when he took office, put there by justices rather than by voters.

But after the unprecedented attacks in New York and Washington, he turned into a purposeful leader and the most powerful president since Richard Nixon.

Mr Bush’s feared imperial presidency, however, lost its iron grip as he squandered just about every ounce of political capital on a war that has served to undermine it.

There was a time when Mr Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld were regarded as a national security dream team.

All three were perfectly suited for perilous and uncertain times. The President was instinctive and decisive. Mr Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld were tested Washington insiders.

The triumvirate engineered the most dramatic expansion of presidential power in a generation.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were declared with little congressional oversight. They extended the executive branch’s powers of surveillance and prosecution through the Patriot Act. And they insisted that the commander-in-chief had a right to hold “enemy combatants” without due process of law.

But the dream team died and many, including his once loyal neo-conservative allies who championed the invasion, are now blaming it on incompetence.

A myriad of mistakes and false assumptions brought Iraq to its current pass. One was sending in a small invasion force that was not prepared for the occupation. Another was dismantling Saddam Hussein’s Baath army. And the administration refused to publicly acknowledge the growing ground resistance until very late in the game.

Together with the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction – which was the rationale to declare war on Iraq – it seriously undermined the credibility of the White House.

The Bush team failed not just on Iraq.

At home, its track record was also less than stellar. The deficit was ballooning, the US sub-prime mortgage market collapsed and efforts to make social security reform a centrepiece died on the vine.

The President’s sinking relevance in the nation is reflected in his approval ratings.

They have been below the 40 per cent mark since last December – and about to surpass the disgraced Nixon for their duration – in what might well be the highest level of intense repudiation of an American president in decades of polling.

On domestic policy, perhaps, one Bush legacy stands out: transforming the judiciary for a generation. Critics would argue that this is fortuitous because a large number of judges retired.

But by filling the courts with right-leaning judges, Mr Bush offered conservatives their best long-term defence against over-regulation, restrictions on religion and moves towards same-sex marriage. Whoever occupies the White House in 2009 will have to contend with a conservative Supreme Court.

Other than this, Mr Bush is really clutching at straws as he seeks a place in the history books. Like other presidents nearing their end, he ultimately is seeking refuge and redemption in foreign affairs.

Having started his presidency deeply sceptical of getting too heavily engaged in the Middle East peace process, he is now getting involved in the dying days of his administration.

True to form, he remains unrepentant. He told his autobiographer Robert Draper earlier this year that he saw his unpopularity as a natural result of his decision to pursue a strategy he believed.

“I made a decision to lead,” he said. “One, it makes you unpopular; two, it makes people accuse you of unilateral arrogance, and that may be true. But the fundamental question is, is the world better off as a result of your leadership?”

Good question, the answer to which many might say is self-evident. Mr Bush’s would-be successors would do well to ponder it.

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