Phi Beta Cons

George W. Bush and Civic Education

A friend who was no fan of George W. Bush read his memoir and was impressed. I asked him if Bush addressed in the book the many puzzling questions left by both his actions and his rhetoric regarding the promotion of freedom and democracy around the globe, especially in the Mideast. Did he show himself thoughtful about all that? I asked. My friend said yes, but only to a point.

The recent opening of the Bush Library in Dallas sparked numerous articles on the ex-president and his legacy. Many of his supporters insisted, as they have before, that while Bush may not be generally favorably viewed by the American people at present, he will eventually be vindicated by history. But instead of encouraging Bush to rest on the vindication of history, which would seem to feed his natural tendency to intellectual complacency, why not encourage him to vindicate himself now, rethinking and reexamining the ideas he promoted as president and answering the questions that remain about his actions?

For example, how might the chaos in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq have been avoided; why was the looting of government offices allowed to take place with the American Army looking on; is the idea of freedom burning in every human heart really sufficient for the formation of  liberal self government everywhere right now, or must civic and cultural institutions precede it; is it possible that the universal vision he promoted made it impossible for him clearly to name the enemy we were fighting in the two wars we spent so much blood and treasure to wage; why was he so enthusiastic about the possibilities for democracy everywhere in the world when many of  our wisest leaders have tended more to caution in that regard? Ronald Reagan, for example, spoke of freedom as “fragile and rare” and as never more than one generation away from being lost.

Revisiting these questions, together with the debate they would undoubtedly arouse, would constitute a tremendous civic education for the American people about the nature of their government and of the values their country upholds.

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