Bush mission mercifully over but sorry legacy is foreign wars and domestic woes


ANALYSIS:Foreign misadventures and indulgent neglect of the economy dash hopes of a Bush vindication, writes Patrick Smyth

‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” George W Bush’s final press conference last week had something of the delusional quality of those infamous words on the banner on the USS Abraham Lincolnin May 2003. The 43rd president made it clear that he wants history to write him up as a decisive president who followed his convictions about the best way to protect his country, even though often unpopular. There was scarcely any acknowledgment of error, let alone culpability, for the state in which the US finds itself today.

Others see him differently. Patricia Williams, a law professor at Columbia University and Nationcolumnist, argues that the elation surrounding the inauguration tomorrow is as much to do with the Bush departure as with the elevation of Barack Obama: “As important as all that, I think, is a kind of Wizard of Oz-ish fizzy relief about George W Bush’s exit – as in Ding Dong, the Wicked Warlock is melting into a nice little past-tense puddle. There’s a giddily celebratory sweeping out of the indubitably, absolutely, completely, very worst president in our history.” Whatever about his performance, Bush certainly leaves office with disapproval ratings of 72 per cent on the economy and 63 per cent on foreign policy. It’s a far cry from his record 88 per cent approval rating at the high point of his first term in November 2001, two months after the World Trade Centre attacks which would define his presidency.

Charming but inarticulate, the wealthy son of a former president and a once hard-drinking scion of Harvard, George W Bush moved in January 2001 from the governor’s mansion of Texas to the White House courtesy of a lacklustre campaign by Al Gore and a pliable Supreme Court. The latter’s willingness to overturn its own long-standing traditional defence of states’ rights to uphold a dubious election result in Florida is still bitterly resented by many Democrats.

Bush compensated for his perceived lack of experience by surrounding himself with foreign and defence policy heavy hitters from previous administrations, from his vice-president Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld in Defence and the popular former chairman of the joint chiefs Colin Powell in State. But, apart from repudiations of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, continued support for missile defence, and determined opposition to the Kyoto protocol and the International Criminal Court, his main emphasis in the early months of 2001 would be domestic, pledging education reform and the still-awaited reform of the creaking pension system.

That the attacks of 9/11 would have shaken and redefined any presidency is indubitable. But the specific character of the Bush administration and, in particular, its willingness to filter – and discard – intelligence and sober analysis through the prism of hardline neo-conservative ideology, have taken the US on a course since then that few imagine another president would have pursued. In the run-up to 9/11 Bush did not listen to the warnings he did not want to hear, and then conflated the “war on terror” against Afghanistan with the desire of his ministers, expressed within days of the attacks, to complete as they saw it the “unfinished business” of Iraq.

To do so would involve the manufacturing of evidence of weapons of mass destruction and the adoption of the new Bush strategic doctrine of pre-emption. Speaking at West Point on June 1st, 2002, Bush spelled out clearly his rationale for a possible attack on Iraq, but also a doctrine that had far-reaching implications for the international rule of law. “If we wait for threats to fully materialise,” he said, “we will have waited too long . . . security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.” It was a radical shift from the half-century-old policies of deterrence and containment that were built around the notion that an adversary would not attack the US because it would provoke an overwhelming retaliatory strike.

It reinforced the unilateralism that the administration had manifested on issues like global warming and ABM that would see the US dragging reluctant allies behind it into an ill-planned war for which there was no aftermath or exit strategy.

Only in his second term would Bush begin to reverse course, recognising belatedly a role for multilateral action and institutions. By then the tolerance of torture, explicitly sanctioned in the White House, the repudiation of the Geneva Convention, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and extraordinary renditions had sullied the US reputation internationally, although in late 2008 it was beginning to be clear that the US surge in Iraq was having some success.

Domestically the Bush administration would be undermined by allegations of incompetence and wilful myopia over its belated responses to Hurricane Katrina, the calamitous collapses of Enron and, more recently, Lehman Brothers.

Last week Bush forgave himself for his role in the country’s economic meltdown by arguing that he took office during a recession and presided over 52 months of job growth before things went bad – yet he did it by increasing government spending and cutting taxes at the same time, turning a federal surplus into a punishing deficit that will make recovering from today’s woes far harder.

His economic legacy is sorry. The US economic expansion until the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the maelstrom that has followed were driven to a large degree by the interrelated booms in the housing market, consumer spending and financial markets, encouraged by the Bush administration with the idea of an “ownership society”.

From 2002 to 2006, the housing boom generated about 600,000 to 800,000 jobs that otherwise would not have been created – 10 per cent of total job growth. Such data, experts say, suggest the economy was not nearly as fundamentally strong as it seemed. And unshaken, it appeared, by the lessons of the Enron collapse the administration contented itself with only the lightest of regulatory hands on the financial sector.

Employment rose by only about 2 per cent during the Bush years, GDP at the slowest pace for any eight-year period since the Truman administration. In September total public debt held by the American people stood at $5.8 trillion, or 41 per cent of GDP – about what the debt-to-GDP ratio has averaged since 1956. But the Congressional Budget Office projects deficits of $1.9 trillion over the next two years. Add almost $800 billion of stimulus spending, and US debt is set to soar to 60 per cent of GDP by 2010 — the highest level since the early 1950s.

The Bush response was to borrow more to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, pushing deficits yet higher. He argued that the federal surplus he inherited from Bill Clinton should be returned to taxpayers – “the surplus is not the government’s money. The surplus is the people’s money.” The debt is succeeding generations’.

The Bush years are also seen by many as an “imperial presidency” in which the executive presided over an erosion of the separation of function and politicisation of public services, from the attorney general’s department to independent scientists, unparalleled since Richard Nixon.

Mission accomplished? No. Mission over. Yes, mercifully, many would say.