History will judge Bush 43 favorably

2013-04-26T00:00:00Z History will judge Bush 43 favorablyCharles Krauthammer Washington Post Writers Group Arizona Daily Star

WASHINGTON

Clare Boothe Luce liked to say that "a great man is one sentence." Presidents, in particular. The most common "one sentence" for George W. Bush (whose legacy is being reassessed as his presidential library opens) is: "He kept us safe."

Not quite right. He did not just keep us safe. He created the entire anti-terror infrastructure that continues to keep us safe.

That homage was paid, wordlessly, by Barack Obama, who vilified Bush's anti-terror policies as a candidate, then continued them as president: indefinite detention, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, special forces and drone warfare and, most notoriously, Guantanamo, which Obama so ostentatiously denounced - until he found it indispensable.

Quite a list. Which is why there was not one successful terror bombing on U.S. soil from 9/11 until last week. The Boston Marathon attack was an obvious failure, but there is a difference between 3,000 dead and three. And on the other side of the ledger are the innumerable plots broken up since 9/11.

Moreover, Bush's achievement was not just infrastructure. It was war. The Afghan campaign overthrew the Taliban, decimated al-Qaida and expelled it from its haven. Yet that success is today derogated with the cheap and lazy catchphrase - "He got us into two wars" - intended to spread to Afghanistan the opprobrium associated with Iraq.

The dilemma in Afghanistan was what to do after the brilliant, nine-week victory? There was no good answer. Even with the benefit of seven years' grinding experience under his predecessor, Obama got it wrong. His Afghan "surge" cost hundreds of American lives without having changed the country's prospects.

It turned out to be a land too primitive to democratize, too fractured to unify. The final withdrawal will come after Obama's own six years of futility.

Iraq was, of course, far more problematic. Critics conveniently forget that the invasion had broad support from the public and Congress, including from those who became the highest foreign-policy figures in the Obama administration - Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and Biden.

Was the war worth it? Inconclusive wars never yield a good answer. Was Korea worth it? It ended with a restoration of the status quo ante. Now 60 years later, we face nuclear threats from the same regime that was not defeated in a war that cost 10 times as many American lives as Iraq.

The Iraq War had three parts. The initial toppling of the regime was a remarkable success - like Afghanistan, rapid and with relatively few U.S. casualties.

The occupation was a disaster, rooted in the fundamental contradiction between means and ends, between the "light footprint" chosen by Gen. George Casey and the grand reformation attempted by Paul Bremer, who tried to change everything down to the coinage.

Finally, the surge, a courageous Bush decision taken against near-universal opposition, that produced the greatest U.S. military turnaround since the Inchon landing. And inflicted the single most significant defeat for al-Qaida (save Afghanistan) - a humiliating rout at the hands of Iraqi Sunnis fighting side by side with the American infidel.

As with Lincoln, it took Bush years of agonizing bloody stalemate before he finally found his general and his strategy. Yet, for all the terrible cost, Bush bequeathed to Obama a strategically won war. Obama had one task: Conclude a status-of-forces agreement and thus secure Iraq as a major regional ally. He failed utterly. Iraq today is more fragile, sectarian and Iranian-influenced than it was when Bush left office - and than it had to be.

I suspect history will similarly see Bush as the man who, by trial and error but also with prescience and principle, established the structures that will take us through another long twilight struggle, and enable us to prevail.

Email Charles Krauthammer at letters@charleskrauthammer.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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