I. At one level, it’s irrelevant at this stage of the game what anyone thinks of Pres. Bush. He’s a politically enfeebled, lameduck president who, for better or worse, blew on his political capital on an unpopular war. On top of that he decided to burn his base on other issues like bloated budgets, open borders, and censorship of political speech.
He’ll be out of a job next year. So, at this point, both he and we are playing out the clock.
But the value of doing a postmortem on the Bush presidency is that how we measure Bush will carry over into the next election and the next administration. Many of the issues are the same issues, at least for the time being, and the yardstick is the same.
I happen to think that Bush was a pretty decent first-term president, and in many respects he might be better off had he remained a one-term president. On the one hand, he made some excellent judicial appointments, pushed through tax cuts, opposed abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem cell research, promoted school choice and faith-based programs, opposed the Kyoto and ABM treaties, and conducted a counterterrorist campaign that has, thus far, forestalled another 9/11.
For some reason, he seemed to lose his nerve after he failed to reform Social Security. It may also be that the war effort and relentless criticism have worn him down. He’s become risk-averse.
But it’s important to remember the good things he did because politicians don’t have much incentive to do right when their good deeds are so quickly forgotten.
II. It’s been fascinating to see the ease with which urban legends about the Bush administration have found fertile soil and become deeply rooted. This is all the stranger because we’re not talking about some poorly documented event from the distant past, but about recent events in our own lifetime, which we’re living through in real time, on live TV, at a time and place where the primary source documentation is only a mouse-click away.
Yet, despite all that, the legends abound. Bush stole the 2000 election. He stole the 2004 reelection. Bush is responsible for global warming. Bush is responsible for Hurricanes. Karl Rove outed a covert, undercover operative. We systematically torture detainees at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Bush “lied” us into war by predicating an “imminent threat.” Bush “lied” us into war by predicating a direct, Iraq-9/11 connection. 9/11 was an inside job. The Neocons staged a coup d’etat. And so on and so forth.
So many of the attacks have been directed, not against Bush the man, but Bush the legend. And in many ways, the legend is far more impressive than the man. Unfortunately, this sort of thing makes it very difficult to sort out rational criticism from irrational criticism.
For example, Popular Mechanics has attempted to debunk some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. Now, I don’t think Popular Mechanics has the same editorial bias as the Weekly Standard or the National Review, yet—to judge by reaction in the combox—you’d suppose its science writers were on the White House payroll.
One has to peel away so many layers of legendary embellishment that there’s not much time left over to level genuine criticisms against the Bush administration.
III. If the tinfoil punditry were confined to the leftwing spectrum, it would be easier to discount, but, unfortunately, some of this is also infecting segments of the rightwing spectrum.
Many conservatives act disillusioned. They act as if Bush betrayed the conservative cause.
But Bush didn’t run as a libertarian or Reaganite. Bush is not an ideologue in the sense that Newt Gingrich or William F. Buckley is an ideologue. He’s not enough of an intellectual to be an ideologue.
We need to hold our candidates to realistic expectations. Otherwise, we become bitter and demoralized when they don’t live up to our ideals.
Some of the attacks on the Bush administration have simply been petty. Bush originally advocated a “humble” foreign policy. He was originally opposed to “nation-building.”
And it’s true that his subsequent policy has been inconsistent with his original, campaign rhetoric. He changed his mind. Why? 9/11.
In light of 9/11, he decided that the status quo was a failure. That kind of reversal is not, of itself, something to attack.
A reasonable man should be free to change his mind in the light of new evidence. Change policy if the old policy failed.
Many policies are shortsighted. As long as the potential threat is only an abstraction, we don’t focus on the threat and consider every logical implication or unforeseen contingency.
This is not to say that the new policy is above criticism. Maybe the new policy is just as impractical, in its own way, as the old policy.
The point, though, is to distinguish rational criticisms from irrational criticism. To attack Bush simply because he changed course in response to an unprecedented national crisis is not, in and of itself, a rational criticism. Do we want a commander-and-chief to be consistent if the policy is unsuccessful?
Let’s take some other examples. We’re told the Iraq war was illegal. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this charge is true.
What are laws for? Are laws a means to an end, or an end in themselves? Do laws exist to protect the innocent from the guilty, or to protect the guilty from the innocent?
If a law keeps us from defending ourselves, then isn’t that a bad law? Isn’t the problem with the law? Don’t we need to change the law?
What kind of counterterrorist legislation should we have? Laws that protect terrorists from us—or laws that protect us from terrorists?
Take the specific question of “torture.” Of course, this way of framing the debate is already prejudicial. Indeed, it’s means to be prejudicial.
But what are we supposed to do with a “high-value” terrorist suspect who may have actionable intel? He’s not going to volunteer the goods. He’s not going to voluntarily tell us about sleeper cells and budding plots.
Are we not allowed to use any methods at all that would force the information out of him? Why does he have the right to keep this information to himself? Why does he have the right to put us all in mortal danger?
Or take the controversy over warrantless wiretaps. What’s the real issue? To obtain a warrant, you have to satisfy a legal burden of proof—probable cause. Now the question is whether we should apply this legal standard to the interception of overseas, enemy communications in time of war? Shouldn’t the question answer itself? Should a foreign jihadist be accorded the rights of an American citizen?
Or take the status of the detainees. They pose a dilemma. On the one hand, we know they’re dangerous. On the other hand, we don’t have enough legal evidence to convict them.
Should we be releasing terrorists, whom we know to be dangerous, because our judicial system is not adapted to deal with unlawful combatants whom we pick up on the battlefield?
Once again, what’s the rule of law for? Do we have a rule of law for the sake of following the rules. Or is it supposed to serve a purpose? If laws are meant to be functional, shouldn’t we change bad laws? Or should we cite the rule of law as a mushroom cloud is forming in the background?
People turn to vigilantism when government doesn’t do its duty. They take the law into their own hand when the state either refuses to enforce good laws or chooses to enforce bad laws.
Or take the doctrine of preemption. There are folks, on both sides of the political spectrum, who oppose the very idea of preemption—under any circumstances.
If the police saw a sniper position himself across from a playground, the war protesters would tell the SWAT team to wait until the sniper got off the first few rounds—with a few dead women and children lying about—before the sharpshooter was allowed to pull the trigger.
Now, there’s no doubt that preemption is risky. Preemption can backfire. There are unforeseen consequences.
But both action and inaction entail unforeseen consequences. So it comes down to a question of risk assessment and risk management.
Some folks are more fearful of a potential evil than they are of an actual evil. They are so haunted by the prospect of a possible abuse that they would rather follow a set of rigid, man-made rules right over the cliff than allow for any element of human discretion.
It’s like those doomsday scenarios in which we design artificially intelligent military computers, and then turn our missiles over to the supercomputer—with no manual override.
Or, to take a final example, what about “racial” profiling? On the one hand, libertarians are concerned with the dragnet approach to counterterrorism, in which everyone is a suspect. And I happen to share that concern.
On the other hand, these are the same critics who take the position that no one has rights unless everyone has rights—the very same rights. Therefore, we should treat jihadis like POWs and American citizens.
But, if that’s your position, then it puts everyone under suspicion. After all, we mustn't “discriminate.”
Speaking for myself, we ought to profile Muslims. So here I happen to think the libertarians are half-right. Unfortunately, where they’re wrong directly negates where they’re right.
The Bush presidency has failed in many respects, but unless we ourselves bring some ideological clarity to the table, even a “dream” candidate like Huckabee would be doomed to fail.