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GEORGE W. BUSH understands how history works. While the victors may write the history, sometimes history undoes the victors, and their victory is shown to be more shallow than at first glance. Looking at the Bush's poll numbers in his waning days of office, one might be tempted to conclude he was a "failure," as just about everyone has triumphantly proclaimed. But this president's success or failure will not be determined by what Americans—and certainly not by what Europeans—think of the man and his policies today, but whether those policies produce the intended results tomorrow.
I believe that they will. And Obama's choices for his national security team suggest that he has a newfound respect for Bush and his choices, a respect that many who know him up close have had for a long time.
My perspective on the President and his presidency developed over my nearly 6 years as a Bush political appointee, the bulk of which was spent at the Department of Homeland Security. Most of the Bush administration’s successes won't be known for some time, because they are locked away in highly classified materials. Had they been divulged when the successes occurred—successes that almost certainly saved hundreds of thousands of American lives—valuable intelligence assets would have been put at risk. And so Americans are able to go on with their concerns about the economy and health care, without realizing that their lives (and way of life) have been protected by the very President they scoff at in the polls.
But appreciation for a job well done was not this President’s goal. The most overlooked fact of this presidency is that there has not been an attack on American soil since 9/11. Sure, people realize it, but they don’t understand just how remarkable that is. I can’t blame them for not having access to classified intelligence, but those who did know how close we really came to a number of devastating disasters. Specific attacks that our methods foiled—methods including waterboarding and wiretapping—would have made 9/11 look petty. Having seen our enemies’ secret plans for further attacks, I know the reasons those plans failed. It wasn’t typically because they were executed with incompetence or lack of resolve. It was because the President directed his administration to do everything within the rule of law to protect our country from such an attack. His leadership didn’t just lead to the avoidance of attacks—it stopped them cold and prevented future ones, and that’s not something that can be said in any other part of the world.
Barack Obama seems to understand this more now than he did in the Senate. That Obama is holding over Robert Gates, Bush’s Secretary of Defense, as his own first SECDEF is his most remarkable concession that he has been wrong on Iraq—that the most foolish thing to do right now would be to change the course. I suspect that when Obama began receiving the Presidential Daily Brief and full military briefings, he saw that the world was much more complex and required much more difficult decisions than he realized as a man who had been a U.S. Senator for less than two years.
But history may never correct some of the misconceptions of this presidency. Having been right in the middle of the bureaucratic mess of Katrina, I know where failures really happened, and I know where the blame fell on the wrong man. (That blame rightfully goes straight to infighting between a governor and mayor who hated each other, and a FEMA bureaucracy whose competence wasn’t known because it had never been truly tested.) The current economic crisis at the end of his term, brought on primarily by consumer and corporate greed and bureaucratic missteps under the Clinton Administration, prevented him from focusing on long-term peace between the Palestinians and Israelis that he’d hoped would be part of his legacy. And his colloquial Texas style may always mask the deep intellectual curiosity and love for reading that only we who saw him up close fully understand.
But he is forever etched in my mind as a man who saw the world as it really was, and who knew his job was to justly combat evildoers bent with a religiously zealotry on dominating the entire globe—evildoers who then and now cannot not be appeased or reasoned with. George W. Bush stopped al Qaeda from achieving the global success it intended, deposed a brutal dictator who had killed upwards of a million of his own people, disarmed a once sworn enemy state of the United States (Libya), prevented nuclear disaster in North Korea, brought the focus of the entire world on Iran, and has restored the intelligence-collection capabilities of the U.S. that his predecessor jettisoned, which will allow success against the new and renewed enemies that will inevitably arise.
George W. Bush will always be one of the great Presidents of history to me, and I suspect that history may one day agree.
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