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Bush's Legacy? It Could've Been Worse

by Matthew Continetti
Jan 6, 2009

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Matthew Continetti

Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to attempt the impossible. For my next trick, I will defend the Bush administration.

This is no easy task. Trust me, I've tried before. Still, the task is worthwhile.

George W. Bush will be remembered for many failures. But he will also be remembered for more than a few achievements. Wait until 50, or even 30, years from now. You will be surprised at what folks are saying about him then.

What makes Bush's record complicated is that many of his achievements were partisan in nature. Only about half of the population supported them. Such achievements include Bush's two tax cuts; No Child Left Behind; Medicare Part D; and appointing John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Your partisan identification, more often than not, determines whether or not you think these calls were the right ones.

Did Bush have any national achievements? Did he do anything that the whole country can get behind? I think so. The problem is that these achievements were essentially negative. They are things Bush prevented from happening. They aren't tangible. Hence, it is difficult to explain why they are important. But that does not mean they are not important.

Throughout the 1990s, Islamist terrorist groups struck American civilians and American interests throughout the globe, culminating in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. We should never forget the deep trauma those attacks inflicted on our country and the widespread — and completely justified — belief that 9/11 was just the beginning. Consequently, Bush implemented some highly controversial national security policies in order to prevent subsequent attacks.

And guess what? His policies have worked. There have been no attacks on America since 2001. Not only that: Last summer, Bush critic Fareed Zakaria observed that Islamist attacks worldwide have declined substantially since a high in 2004.

Some commentators have diminished this achievement by pointing out that there were no jihadist attacks in the mainland United States for the 7 1/2 years prior to 9/11. Therefore, they argue, the fact that there hasn't been an attack in the 7 1/2 years subsequent to 9/11 is no biggie. But that argument is sophistry. It neglects the overall picture leading up to 9/11: attacks on American interests around the globe, a barely foiled attack on Los Angeles during the millennium celebrations, and an open-air terrorist education center in Afghanistan. It ignores the many plots that have been foiled in the years since. The simple truth is that the United States is winning the war on terrorism. It may be winning ugly. But it is winning.

The second thing Bush prevented from happening is an American defeat in Iraq. No matter how you feel about the decision to go to war in Iraq — and remember, most people, and most members of Congress, supported the war initially — once America was there, it had to leave somehow. It was therefore incumbent on us to leave Iraq in better shape than we found it, and in a manner that sustained American credibility and regional stability. We were certainly not achieving those goals for the first several years. Historians will record that Bush needlessly prolonged the conflict by sticking with a strategy that used too few to troops and failed to provide Iraqis with with the most basic human need: order.

By the end of 2006 America was on the verge of defeat in Iraq. But, to his credit, Bush changed course. He replaced his generals and implemented a new strategy that sent more troops to provide security to the Iraqi people. The results are nothing short of astonishing. U.S. troop deaths declined by two-thirds from 2007 to 2008. They are now at their lowest level of the war. And Iraqi civilian deaths declined by 60 percent during that same time span.

Bush is in an unusual position. Global crises bookend his presidency. Did Bush help generate the current economic calamity? Sure he did. But so did Congress, the Federal Reserve, mortgage lenders, Wall Street, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — and, indeed, anyone who spent more than they had in the bank. It's too soon to tell whether Bush's policies, as implemented by his Treasury secretary and Federal Reserve chairman, will help the global economy in the long run. What we do know is that, for the moment, we seem to have forestalled a global banking collapse and the onset of a second Great Depression.

Once again, then, George W. Bush prevented the worst from happening. That might not be the legacy he sought when he entered the White House eight years ago. But it's a legacy nonetheless.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at The Weekly Standard and author of The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine (Doubleday).

Stay tuned for another perspective on NPR's opinion page in the next few days.

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