George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney leave Washington today. For eight years they have ably served the nation, keeping us safe.
The media, wrapped up in the deification of Barack H. Obama, has given little time to reflect on the administration of George W. Bush. We get the bumper sticker cliches. But serious reflection has been missing.
President Bush did not set out to be a wartime President. We all forget sometimes that Bush was a pre-9/11 President. He came in to no honeymoon because of the 2000 election. He started off trying to bring both sides together, but quickly realized the Democrats were in no mood to come together. The few compromises he had, like No Child Left Behind, were met skeptically by conservatives and viscerally by Democrats.
9/11 was a turning point. An administration that intended to aggressively focus on domestic policy turned to war and foreign affairs. And in doing so, Bush had to rebuild the entire spectrum of America’s defenses. He inherited a military that was sharp at the point but sorely lacking in depth, a deliberately balkanized and dysfunctional intelligence structure, a hidebound diplomatic corps, smug but flabby and functionally useless alliances, appallingly lax airport security, a web of unreasonable legal restrictions on counterterrorism, and sworn enemies left to fester and scheme unmolested. The President did not get it all right; he and his inner circle made scores of decisions, often under intense time pressure and with less than perfect information. Decisions made on the basis of national security secrets had to be defended, incompletely, against reckless public attacks. Bush surrounded himself with many great people, but he also hired some good people in jobs out of their area or above their pay grade, some who just weren’t on the team, some disastrous holdovers and some utter hacks. As the first term turned to the second, President Bush relied less on movement conservatives (with a few notable exceptions like the late Tony Snow) and more on a mixture of old personal friends and technocratic careerists. The Administration ended poorly. But to the very end, it got the one big thing right.
No one expected that the United States could go seven years after 9/11 without being hit again. But we did stay safe. We did so due to the efforts of many people, but the backbone of their achievement was the unyielding determination of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The left will not give them credit for that, but facts are stubborn things, and history will be compelled to record them.
History will also doubtlessly cast a more favorable eye on the many places in the world where President Bush and his team strengthened America’s alliances and brought desperately needed freedom and relief. Our alliances in India, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and other crucial junctures are stronger than ever (the relationship with India, the world’s largest democracy, will be among Bush’s most lasting attainments), while President Bush is recognized all over Africa as the best friend in the White House that continent ever had.
As the President and Vice President leave Washington, we are left with this thought: the Bush Presidency is a great irony. President Bush believes in freedom. Around the world, millions of people owe their freedom to President Bush. Yet here at home, the agenda of freedom has not been advanced, and will enter the next four years in retreat. On civil liberties, the sacrifices President Bush has asked of us have been the most minimal: a little speed and privacy at airports, a little privacy in speaking to terrorists overseas, and some due process and interrogation protections if we get locked up for being terrorist enemy combatants. This is pretty thin stuff, yet it was too much ‘shared sacrifice’ for the left, which prefers that sacrifices be made only by loyal, hardworking Americans. As a result, a president who so deeply prizes liberty has been cast as if he was the defender of a police state.
We are also less free in our markets. Small sacrifices of civil liberty are understandable and mostly acceptable to keep us safe, but this is wholly inexcusable. For eight years President Bush kept this country safe from those who would harm us, but his legacy must also consider he made us less safe from our own burgeoning government. Government remains a problem, not a solution. But as others have said, George W. Bush did very little to surprise us. Expanded government under the guise of compassionate conservatism was what he promised and it is what he delivered.
There is one right that President Bush never failed to defend at home: the fundamental right to life. Pro-lifers have never had a stronger ally in the Oval Office, not even President Reagan. From judges to stem cell research to partial-birth abortion and more, President Bush has stood time and again for the most important principle of them all.
Through it all, George W. Bush remained an affable, likable, profoundly decent man whose political opponents could not understand him because in a Washington, D.C. where people rarely do as they say, George W. Bush governed as he said he would and tried his best to keep his word.