Politics & Policy

Better by Juxtaposition

An Obama presidency would rescue the Bush legacy.

Breaking news! The ultimate White House insider plans a tell-all book about the Bush years. Boasting unprecedented access to the president’s thinking, it will run counter to almost everything we’ve been told about Bush’s radical presidency.

Who will be the latest to break the code of silence after former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan? George W. Bush.

At least that’s what went through my mind listening to the president during a meeting with a small group of journalists in the Oval Office on Monday. The session, maddeningly and often foolishly punctuated by long, off-the-record musings and soliloquies, mostly dealt with foreign policy.

That’s hardly surprising. At the end of their run, presidents usually become preoccupied with world affairs – an area in which they have a much freer hand. On Capitol Hill these days, the only way a Bush proposal will see the light of day is if it arrives concealed in a pizza delivery box.

Dressed in a pale blue suit with a crisp blue tie, the president seemed to be in high spirits as he discussed developments in North Korea and other diplomatic initiatives, crushing my hopes for a poignant “Bush in winter” column. “When I write my book,” the president teased, people will understand how much behind-the-scenes diplomacy went on during this administration.

I’m sure he’s right. In fact, if only a fraction of what he had to say was accurate, then the conventional bleats about unilateralism, war lust and cowboyishness will go down in history as the excessive caterwauling of an imaginative and hyper-partisan opposition.

Indeed, President Bush’s reputation is not as solidified as his detractors and fans think.

If Iraq becomes a stable and democratizing nation, his presidency will look much better than it does today. But if Iraq Balkanizes or Lebanon-izes, then Democratic rhetoric about the “worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history” will gain descriptive heft. Only time will tell.

But whether it is ultimately deemed a failure or a success, there is one inconvenient fact of the Bush presidency that should prove dismaying to those who’ve invested so much in demonizing it: It isn’t that special.

Many of its supposedly radical features fit neatly in the mainstream of American presidential history. Extraordinary rendition? That practice (in which we send suspected terrorists to foreign countries to be interrogated under laxer rules) began under President Clinton. Aggressive interrogations, for good or ill, surely predate 2001. Holding prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo without benefit of a trial? As terrorism expert Andrew C. McCarthy notes in National Review, we were doing that under the first President Bush and under Clinton to innocent Haitian refugees, who got even less due process than we give captured enemy combatants.

Even the invasion of Iraq will probably seem to historians, in part, a continuation of trends begun in the Persian Gulf War and extended by Clinton’s (and Britain’s) attacks in 1998.

On the domestic front, Bush broadly expanded federal spending on education, signed campaign finance reform and orchestrated a huge expansion of health-care entitlements with his prescription drug benefit. Whatever the merits of those policies, it’s unlikely historians will see them as a radical, right-wing break from the Clinton years.

The more interesting question is how radical a break from the Bush years the next president will represent.

If John McCain wins the election, the continuity will be more obvious. McCain would inch leftward on most domestic issues, and rightward on a few. He doubtless would continue the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, though his methods might vary.

The larger question is about Barack Obama, who at times promises revolutionary, if not messianic, change. With a potentially huge Democratic majority in Congress, Obama might indeed produce a radical change from the Bush (and Clinton and Bush and Reagan) years on domestic issues.

But what about Iraq? A growing chorus of foreign policy experts, including Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh (co-authors of After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy) and the New Yorker’s George Packer, are starting to argue — much as Obama’s own foreign policy advisors have for a while – that his foreign policy promises will not survive contact with post-election reality.

Already, Obama is changing his tune from his old, irresponsibly heated rhetoric about “immediate” withdrawal to talking about the need for policies that would adapt to the improving conditions in Iraq. Given Obama’s ideological leanings and inexperience, there’s clearly plenty of potential for him to make costly mistakes. But odds are he, too, would come to realize that America needs to win the war on terror and succeed in Iraq.

Hence the greatest irony. A successful Obama presidency would have the unintended consequence of making Bush’s memoir a success story.

– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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