Holding forth in the Oval Office, President George W. Bush is as upbeat and self-confident as ever, even if markedly grayer and — by his own fanatical standards — a little paunchy. Yet a sense of yesterday hangs about him, not just because Barack Obama is already de facto president, but because the war on terror that animated his presidency has faded in the public mind.
To talk to Bush about his presidency is to enter a time warp, a world where the 9/11 attacks loom large, where the transformation of the Middle East is an urgent priority, and where the president’s energy is devoted to managing a very hot war in Iraq.
The most consequential event of Bush’s presidency was a terror attack, and the most consequential decision was an invasion of another country. The world will hold nasty surprises for Obama, but he clearly hopes to focus on the homeland — and not in the sense of “homeland security.” The central indices of his presidency probably won’t be people liberated and terrorists killed, but jobs created and energy-efficient light bulbs installed.
The public has done worse than reject President Bush, it has — despite all the heat still generated by his administration’s controversies — passed him by. As the Arabs say, the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. And Bush feels it.
“Over time,” Bush says, “because we were effective at protecting the homeland, the fear of an attack began to dissipate. People knew that there was an attack in London and that would raise concerns, but there wasn’t this, you know, on-edge awareness anymore. And so the job of the government is in some way self-defeating toward keeping the country alert and aware.”
In defending his decisions, Bush harkens back to that bygone era. “You cannot isolate Iraq without placing it in the post-9/11 environment and what life was like,” he says. He recalls after 9/11 “what was it like to be sitting here and people saying, ‘You have refused to connect the dots, Mr. President.’ But the post-9/11 environment shifted dramatically. So it’s no longer ‘Why aren’t you connecting the dots?’ it’s ‘Why are you connecting the dots?’”
As Condi Rice recently said, “If you were in a position of authority on September 11th, then every day since has been September 12th.” So it was for Bush, with the management of two wars on top of it.
Recalling Iraq’s descent toward full-scale civil war in 2006, Bush says: “This was all-consuming during this period of time. The issue of Iraq in ’06, well, the entire presidency, frankly, has been — I shouldn’t say ‘all-consuming,’ because we’ve got the capacity to do more than one thing at one time — so it was very consuming.”
With the surge, Bush set out to create conditions in Iraq that would make the war sustainable for his successor. He succeeded. The new Iraqi-U.S. security agreement, Bush says, “enshrines a presence and the doctrine of return on success that gives the president, the new president, some latitude.”
John McCain campaigned on the success of the surge and on the same sense of urgency about the war on terror as President Bush. People didn’t reject McCain’s views so much as the very notion of another war presidency. The election was a less dramatic version of Britain’s vote in the immediate aftermath of World War II (with the key difference that we haven’t yet won the war on terror), when Winston Churchill was defeated by a Labour Party that campaigned on domestic concerns.
Bush has been diminished by events and his own failures, but there’s a largeness to his character — in his sincerity and courage — that will only be appreciated long from now. “I’m fully aware that it is impossible to have an objective history of this administration written at this point in time,” Bush says. He’s confident “conservatives will rebound,” with “new ideas” and “new blood.” A first step is adjusting to a world where a war presidency seems passé.