Whether the subject is tax policy, Republican recriminations and prospects, or war, George W. Bush remains in the news. Much of the conventional wisdom going in and out of the final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney focused on Romney’s perceived need to distance himself from the presidency of George W. Bush. A recent book, Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, by Stephen F. Knott, a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, defends the Bush foreign-policy record as nothing to be ashamed of. Professor Knott talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the Bush record.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Two thousand Americans dead in Afghanistan. Do you really mean to defend the “War on Terror”?
STEPHEN E. KNOTT: I certainly defend the constitutionality of Bush’s actions in the War on Terror, which I believe were justified in face of a threat from a terrorist organization determined to destroy “the Great Satan.” And at the policy level, I absolutely believe the invasion of Afghanistan was justified in light of the refusal of the Taliban government after 9/11 to shut down al-Qaeda’s training camps and hand over Osama bin Laden and his cohort. My only criticism of President Bush would be that he should have asked Congress for a declaration of war against Afghanistan. Nonetheless, as Steven Simon, a senior official involved with counterterrorism issues during the Clinton years, put it, “We had other source reporting that indicated he [bin Laden] was thinking in terms of a quote, unquote, ‘Hiroshima’ for the United States. . . . This was a guy whose idea of violence was stupendous.” In light of this, one can understand the resort to waterboarding and warrantless wiretapping. What president, what American, wouldn’t have said the same thing President Bush said to Attorney General John Ashcroft on September 12, 2001 — “Don’t ever let this happen again”? So yes, I defend the War on Terror, and by the way I think that is a far more appropriate name for it than “overseas contingency operations.”
LOPEZ: Why do you care if George W. Bush has been treated unfairly?
KNOTT: I care because, as someone who has studied the American presidency for most of his adult life, I have a certain bias in favor of the office, and also, as someone who has spent the bulk of his adult life in the academic world, I am appalled at the lack of professionalism exhibited by many of my peers in the fields of history, law, and political science. The overheated rhetoric and fearmongering emanating from prominent academics regarding the “Bush regime” was disturbing, considering the positions of responsibility these figures hold. These academics were not fringe elements of the scholarly community, such as Ward Churchill, but historians, law professors, and political scientists from many of the nation’s most prestigious universities. In their rush to judgment against President Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of professorial malpractice, by failing to do what all historians are trained to do — which is to take a breath, bide their time, and offer perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day have cooled. It is my contention that George W. Bush’s low standing among historians, law professors, and political scientists is partly a reflection of the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology, as a political weapon, which of course means the corruption of history as history.
LOPEZ: What does it mean to have a “bias in favor of the presidency”?
KNOTT: Although I share many of the concerns expressed by conservatives regarding the size of the American government and the negative impact this overreaching government has on the character of the citizenry and on the economic vitality of the nation, I believe, with the historian Forrest McDonald, that the American presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in history. That’s my bias.
LOPEZ: But didn’t he get us into a war over a lie?
KNOTT: No. “Bush Lied and People Died” is one of many slurs directed against the 43rd president. He was ill-served by his intelligence community, no doubt, but there was no effort on the part of President Bush to deceive the American people. If Bush lied, then so did Bill Clinton and many of his fellow Democrats, and so did the United Nations, and so did, believe it or not, the French, who claimed that Saddam possessed “significant stocks of anthrax and botulism toxin” and the possibility of a production capability for these weapons. Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Robert Byrd, Jay Rockefeller, Nancy Pelosi, and Madeleine Albright all believed that Saddam possessed WMD. Saddam had many failings, but his ability to deceive was second to none. Saddam’s own generals believed he had these weapons. Some of them still believe it.
LOPEZ: “As the presidency of Barack Obama has demonstrated, dealing with the nation’s foreign policy and security challenges is a remarkably challenging job, and the simple solutions of the campaign trail usually do not survive the transition from candidacy to residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” What do you mean here, and how do you review this just-past election in regard to these issues? Shouldn’t foreign policy have been a bigger issue?
KNOTT: Candidate Barack Obama, along with many other Democrats and their allies in the academy and in the media, were quick to condemn George W. Bush’s actions in the War on Terror. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, has for all practical purposes continued the policies of George W. Bush. To steal a line from David Frum, this is “continuity we can believe in.” Obama retained Robert Gates, renewed the Patriot Act, kept Gitmo open, continued the practice of using signing statements to rebuff congressional inroads on executive power, expanded prosecutions of those violating various state-secrets provisions, expanded the drone war to include the targeting of an American citizen, and conducted hostilities in Libya during the summer of 2011 without any congressional authorization. While I support a number of these policies, I can’t help but be struck by the remarkable silence on these issues from some of George W. Bush’s harshest critics, many of whom argued that the Bush-Cheney “regime” was intent on overturning the “rule of law” and shredding the Bill of Rights. Where is the criticism of the Obama administration on these issues from the academic community? In some cases, some of Bush’s harshest critics have become Obama’s enablers, especially State Department legal counsel Harold Koh and former solicitor general Neal Katyal. Koh, you may remember, referred to the United States during the Bush years as part of an “axis of disobedience” including North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq.
I believe foreign policy should have been a bigger issue in the election than it was, particularly in those final weeks regarding Libya. It is beyond my understanding how we could not have been prepared, knowing al-Qaeda’s penchant for attacking on significant dates, for an attack on an American ambassador stationed in North Africa on September 11. It’s really hard to fathom after all we’ve been through since 2001.