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.
LOPEZ: Why does it matter what Hamilton would say about all this?
KNOTT: I think it matters if you take the Founding, and the Constitution, seriously, as all thoughtful Americans should. The Founders had their differences, but one area where there was a remarkable consensus concerned the propriety of giving the executive the tools he needed — the discretionary authority required to deal with threats to the nation. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was violently opposed to many of Hamilton’s initiatives, shared the idea that an energetic executive was essential to the security of the nation. Jefferson wouldn’t have put it that way, but he acted that way, and wrote about it that way in private. In my view, the founding generation was our “greatest generation,” and their thoughts about politics, and their understanding of statesmanship, were light years ahead of what we hear from political figures today.
LOPEZ: Why do you insist on holding historians to a higher standard? They’re just pundits these days, aren’t they?
KNOTT: Unfortunately, many historians have become pundits. That’s not what they are supposed to be, if the label “historian” means anything. Presidential historians are supposed to toil in the archives, gather the facts, conduct oral-history interviews, interview foreign leaders, comb through diaries, and allow the partisan passions of the day to cool, and then perhaps pronounce judgment on a presidency. In the case of George W. Bush, prominent historians such as Sean Wilentz were proclaiming the Bush presidency a failure before President Bush left office (in Wilentz’s case, in 2006). One historian whom I admire, Larry DeWitt (who himself is no admirer of George W. Bush), put it quite well, noting that any presidency deserves, at the very least, a “decent interval” before judgment is pronounced; but Bush’s presidency was condemned almost from the start. There is a reason, DeWitt observed, that “we do not award the Bancroft Prize to Keith Olbermann. The ‘informed opinion’ of the community of historians, in advance of actual historical research, is just a report on the political views of this community, not the findings of history.”
LOPEZ: What is the state of presidential power today?
KNOTT: Considering that President Obama seems determined to guard presidential prerogatives in the national-security arena as vigorously as President Bush did, I would say things are where they were when Bush left office. Arguably, presidential power has expanded since the Bush years, in that President Obama’s actions in Libya in 2011 give even a proponent of robust executive power like me some pause.
LOPEZ: “The harsh rhetoric directed at George W. Bush gave new meaning to the term ‘incivility,’ and in many cases it came from those who claimed to aspire for peace.” Has it only gotten worse since?
KNOTT: I’m not sure it has gotten worse, at least amongst academics, the Hollywood crowd, and the media, because of their sympathies for President Obama. However, the obsession with Obama’s birth certificate struck me as the equivalent of the 9/11 truthers who believed that Bush and Cheney concocted the events of that day so as to have an excuse to invade Iraq. But it’s one thing to find this kind of tinfoil-hat stuff on the Internet, it’s another thing to see the kind of hysterical reaction to signing statements or three cases of waterboarding as the end of constitutional government in the United States. And unfortunately, far too much of that anti-intellectual rhetoric came from supposed intellectuals.
LOPEZ: Why is Anwar al-Awlaki important to understanding the Bush administration?
KNOTT: Well for one thing, if Bush had approved the killing of an American citizen, the clamor for reining in the “imperial presidency” would have been deafening. You can make the case that Bush was more circumspect in his use of drones, although some of that may have been based on the technical limitations of drones at the time. But this is one area that might be worthy of further exploration — did Bush have greater moral qualms about the use of drones than his successor? I’m not sure.
LOPEZ: Why is “war by lawyer” dangerous?
KNOTT: It runs counter to Hamilton’s and most of the Founders’ understanding that fighting a war by committee is a prescription for defeat. Hamilton argued for “unity” in the executive branch so as to ensure an “energetic” presidency — a presidency marked by “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” A review board composed of lawyers runs counter to this vision of executive power. “Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch” were most likely to characterize the actions of one individual as opposed to a committee. The Constitution gives the war power to Congress, and the commander-in-chief power to the president. These two branches sometimes contest each other for control over the war power, but there was never a role intended for the unelected judiciary over these matters. To make matters worse, there’s a growing sense in the law-school community that international law should trump American law in matters of national security. In my view, this may be great for law professors and their progeny, but it is just another step in the creation of an imperial judiciary, a trend that’s been underway for some time. There’s a reason why we celebrate Abraham Lincoln and not Roger Taney, and it’s due in part to the fact that Lincoln “stayed within his lane” while Taney, and later John Paul Stevens, did not. I’m beginning to think that we may be approaching the day when we’ll have to sandblast Mount Rushmore and replace Lincoln and Washington with John Paul Stevens and his law clerks.
LOPEZ: How has there been “a quiet revolution in the way the citizenry thinks about the Constitution”?
KNOTT: In that the citizenry seems to accept the idea that the courts should have the “final say” on almost every matter, including matters of war and peace. Bush is really the first president who in times of war was told by the courts, in no uncertain terms, how he must deal with captured enemy combatants. Second, and equally important, is that the congressional-oversight regime that was created in the mid-1970s contributed to the creation of a risk-averse, bureaucratically sclerotic intelligence community that was unable to do the kinds of things that are necessary to penetrate groups such as al-Qaeda. Those “things” tend not to be actions that sit well with congressional overseers or with the media.
LOPEZ: “Suffice it to say, had Condi Rice stolen classified material and hid the purloined goods under a nearby construction trailer, the investigation would still be ongoing.” Why is this an important point for history?
KNOTT: The fact that a former national security adviser to President Clinton was attempting to cleanse the record re the Clinton administration and al-Qaeda is remarkable, and deserving of more attention than it received from either the press or various investigatory bodies. Again, had Condi Rice or Stephen Hadley attempted this, we would still be hearing about it. It is interesting to note that the Bush administration took far more “heat” for its failure to prevent 9/11 than did the Clinton administration, despite the fact that bin Laden and his cronies had been busy at work at least since 1996. I think both President Bush and President Clinton did not properly educate the American public on the threat that al-Qaeda presented in the period prior to 9/11, but Clinton’s attempt to say that the Bush administration dropped the ball and that he had aggressively pursued al-Qaeda just doesn’t stand up. Clinton’s own FBI director, Louis Freeh, dismisses this as nonsense. Supposedly there was a “declaration of war” issued by CIA director George Tenet against al-Qaeda, but many officials in the U.S. government were unaware of this “declaration.” The Clinton administration’s failure to respond to the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 puts all of this in its proper perspective.
LOPEZ: Why do you attribute courage to President Bush in regard to signing statements?
KNOTT: Because these were overt attempts to stop Congress from inserting poison pills and including legislative vetoes (which were declared unconstitutional back in the 1980s) in massive pieces of legislation. These actions infringed on the president’s Article II powers and made a mockery of the notion of the rule of law. President Obama has claimed that any White House statement regarding pending legislation can be interpreted as a de facto signing statement, and this strikes me as both somewhat duplicitous and more threatening to the concept of the rule of law than anything Bush did with his signing statements. The Obama posture is much more open-ended; at least Bush was up front about his objections. By the way, Obama promised not to use signing statements, so in a sense I guess he kept his promise, but I don’t think this is exactly what his supporters had in mind.
LOPEZ: What do you mean by the criminalization of American politics and how was W. a victim of it?
KNOTT: It’s not enough to defeat your opponents — it’s better to put them in jail. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but I do think that during the period when the independent-counsel law was in effect, both parties used this law to go after targets of opportunity and score political points. We can be thankful that that law is dead, but you certainly saw a similar phenomenon at work during the whole Valerie Plame saga, which was a waste of time and resources. If the issue was the revelation of Plame’s identity, then why wasn’t the person who revealed her identity, Richard Armitage, ever prosecuted? Plame and Joseph Wilson were hoping to bring down Karl Rove, who they assumed was the source of Plame’s “outing.” I also think the whole contretemps over the firing of the U.S. attorneys was purely political, again designed to get Karl Rove, and one that generated a costly investigation that led to no criminal prosecutions. Politics is an ugly business, but I would rather have the friction and resultant detritus of politics than a system that attempts to resolve all of its problems by resorting to the judiciary.
LOPEZ: “George W. Bush’s religious views were no more overt or extreme than Jimmy Carter’s, yet somehow they generated far more discomfort than Carter’s.” What do you make of this? Has this, too, only gotten worse? I’m thinking here about the freedom-of-religion debate we’re having at the moment.
KNOTT: It has gotten worse. It’s all part of the attempt to remove any religious elements from the public square. This is part of the quiet constitutional revolution I alluded to earlier — it is assumed in far too many quarters that our public life should be “scrubbed clean” of any tincture of religiosity. Bush wore his faith on his sleeve, and that just did not go down well on both coasts. Carter was equally forward about the importance of his faith, and I just don’t recall it generating the same amount of discomfort. Bush’s answer in one of the 2000 presidential debates that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher confirmed in the eyes of many that this man was not that bright, religion being equated with superstition. It’s sad that many Americans have come to accept such a high wall of separation between religion and the civil life of this country. It’s also remarkably ahistorical as well, in the light of the critical role religion played in the revolutionary period, and in fueling the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the suffragette movement, and the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — not to mention the role it played in the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Woodrow Wilson. So you couple Bush’s religious beliefs with his Texas twang and his propensity to mangle the English language, and the assumption was that this man was intellectually challenged. Nothing could be further from the truth.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.