With one year to go in the Bush presidency it is time for political pundits and reporters to start writing articles assessing his successes and failures. You are guaranteed to see a few articles interviewing presidential historians for their learned view on this question.
The first response from these historians is usually ”œIt’s too soon to tell.” This is the same thing as saying ”œSome day in the future an academic doing a job just as important as mine will tell you how George W. Bush ranks. In the meantime, would you like to read my book on Franklin Pierce?”
When pressed, these historians will provide you with their list of the five greatest and five worst presidents, and see where Bush falls on this spectrum. The trouble with these lists is that the historians tend to give equal standing to all presidents: James Buchanan started out with just as much of a prospect of being a great president as did FDR. But of course this isn’t exactly true either, so the historians will tell you next that to be a great president you have to have been a war president.
This is the first thing that went wrong with the Bush presidency: he listened to these historians even before he got into the Oval Office.
Reporters who knew him in the 1990s have testified to his fascination with being a war president, because otherwise greatness would elude him. One of the major reasons the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and the War on Terror in general is that Bush wanted a war in order to position himself as an FDR or Lincoln. It behooves Bush to describe these wars as defining historical events wherein the entire existence of the United States is at stake.
To figure out the Bush presidency, historians are not the right people to consult anyway. I’ve mentioned in these pages many times that the definitive biography of George W. Bush will be written not by an historian, but by a psychiatrist. The first time I realized this was when I watched Bush do his victory dance on the carrier Abraham Lincoln. This wasn’t a show for you or me ”“ this was a performance for one person only, Poppy Bush. Dubya was establishing his credentials as a true war hero just like his Dad, and an avenger of the Bush family name following the disgraceful failure of his father to finish off Saddam Hussein. The entire Bush presidency can be explained only by understanding the complicated psychological dynamic between father and son. It’s also why the Founding Fathers distrusted monarchy, and why Hillary Clinton has a potential to be a failure as a president.
The right way to gauge the success or failure of the Bush presidency is to ask the question: which president has come into office with any greater advantages? Bush entered the Oval Office with the greatest military machine ever created at his disposal. No other president could claim to be head of a hyperpower, unchallenged across the global politically or militarily. He was titular leader of the Free World, first among equals at any G-8 conference, inheritor of a century of goodwill following two world wars in which the U.S. came to the rescue of victims against the aggressors. These were unprecedented geopolitical advantages never imagined by any previous president.
Morally, the United States still had a reputation as a beacon of freedom, the representative par excellence of democracy in action, the country of immigrants where opportunity awaited the millions who flocked here every year from countries all across the globe. The U.S. economy was the most dynamic and inventive, and Bush was sitting on a sizeable federal budget surplus that no president had enjoyed in at least one hundred years.
It’s not enough to say that Bush squandered all these advantages. His damage to the U.S. goes well beyond that. He and his administration deliberately, obtusely, arrogantly, and with appalling blindness to how the world worked or the consequences of their actions, went about destroying these advantages one by one. Readers of the Agonist already know the laundry list of disasters brought to us by the Bush administration, the low points including the wealth-draining waste of the war in Iraq; the failure to vanquish al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan; the refusal to treat the terrorism problem as one requiring coordinated global police action, rather than military action; the use of torture; the abandonment of fundamental human liberties such as the right to habeas corpus, representation by a lawyer, public trial, confrontation of witness, etc.; the inability to protect a major U.S. city from environmental destruction and the refusal to rebuild this city afterwards; the reversal of a federal budget surplus into a massive budget deficit; the runaway asset inflation in the housing market; the loss of exclusive reserve currency status for the dollar; the destruction of post-war alliances in Europe and Asia; the growth of a current account deficit approaching $1 trillion a year; the collapse of the U.S. military as a realistic threat on the global theater; the expansion of nuclear weapons during his term of office to rogue countries like North Korea; and the growth of dependency on hydrocarbon energy in the U.S.
In every case, the Bush administration created these problems or made them worse. This was done sometimes deliberately, sometimes through neglect, and often through arrogance, deceit, secrecy, illegality, incompetence, cupidity, and crushing ignorance.
No other president has entered office with such advantages, and then proceeded to destroy them all and set the United States on a path of decline that may well last a century. This alone qualifies George W. Bush as incontestably, unarguably the worst president in the history of the U.S.
If you were George W. Bush, and if you have a modicum of self-doubt and self-awareness, this judgment ”“ awful though it is ”“ would be the least of your worries. Bush stands uniquely poised to be the first American to achieve historical infamy. This is infamy on a grand, epic scale, lasting not for millennia but for eternity. It is not the evil infamy of a Hitler, but more the willful blindness of a Nero or Marie Antoinette, the type of infamy that turns into fable as a lesson for all humans.
I refer, of course, to Bush’s legacy on global warming. If the worst predictions on global warming come true, the earth’s climate is inescapably hurtling towards 10,000 years or more of climate change for the worse; in which many species will perish and the human imprint on the planet may shrink drastically. Bush did not cause global warming, so he cannot be tarred with accusation of evil and malice, but he did more than ignore it. His administration went out of its way to denigrate the science explaining global warming, and to deny its existence, challenging the motives of any who worried about it. In the eight years that he had, if he had exercised global leadership for meaningful action on carbon emissions into the atmosphere, perhaps the severity of global warming could have been mitigated.
We won’t know, perhaps even in our lifetime, whether the direst predictions of global warming will come true. But the portents are ominous and highly suggestive that global warming is accelerating beyond even the worst case of many models. Historically the Americans will stand indicted as the greatest polluters of all, at least so far, and George W. Bush will stand as the greatest fool among all Americans when it came to facing the most important challenge ever confronting our species.
Unless, of course, you count all those fools who voted him into office twice.