Bush legacy wound up in Iraq


It's Iraq, stupid!

Just as James Carville famously taped the phrase "It's the economy, stupid" above his desk while directing Bill Clinton's successful campaign for the presidency in 1992, so George Bush might have the Iraq version taped to the wall of the Oval Office.

That was his message in last week's State of the Union address. Though foreign and domestic matters got close to equal time in the talk, it was the first half, focusing on Iraq, that got most of the rhetorical flourishes and impassioned emotion.

Unlike Clinton in 1992, Bush is not running for office. But he is doing what second term presidents always do - running for his place in history. And that place is not going be determined by Social Security, private investments, health saving accounts, tax cuts or even the Patriot Act.

It's going to be determined by what happens in Iraq.

"I think he has to win in Iraq," says Ted Widmer, a historian of presidents who heads the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown. "His reputation will be closely tied to the final outcome there."

In his speech, Bush first painted the struggle with a broad brush, tying it to the many the United States has fought against tyranny, setting up a dichotomy between the course he has chosen and isolationism.

When he got specifically to Iraq, he projected a confidence that is lacking in much of his audience.

"I am confident in our plan for victory," Bush said. "I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people. I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military.

"Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning," he said.

Keith Olson, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park, says the public's view of the Iraq war is following a familiar path.

"Korea, there was a lot of support for our involvement, but as time goes by it diminishes," he says. "The same pattern in Vietnam.

"And the same pattern now. There was lots of support in the beginning, but as time goes by it is lost," Olson says. "In 1952, when Truman was leaving office, he had one of the lowest popularity ratings of any president, because of Korea.

"Johnson in 1968 couldn't run for re-election, primarily because of Vietnam. Bush could easily fall into that pattern," he says.

Presidents who get involved in foreign adventures tend to be judged on how well those come out - no matter what else they do while in office.

"That was definitely true of Lyndon Johnson," Widmer says. "He had immense accomplishments domestically, but they are generally not remembered, or if they are remembered it is only alongside the more serious errors that were made in Vietnam.

"I think Iraq will really be the defining legacy of this presidency," he says. "I don't know for a fact that it will be a bad legacy, but I am somewhat skeptical."

Judging presidents by their success in foreign wars goes back at least to the 1840s and James K. Polk and the Mexican War.

"Polk had the wisdom to win the war he started," Widmer says. "If you are going to start a war, at least win it."

One notable exception is Bush's father. George H.W. Bush started and won the first war in Iraq in 1991, liberating Kuwait from occupation. But he lost the next election to Clinton.

One problem with that war's effect on the legacy of Bush the elder is that it might have been won too easily. It was more like a minor skirmish than a real war to most who were watching on television.

Thus, it didn't make a deep enough impact to help Bush in the election 18 months later, when, as Carville reminded himself and others, the issue was a faltering economy.

This war is different. The casualty toll is small compared with other American wars, but it keeps adding up. And the duration means that the war remains a part of how the public views Bush.

"I don't think Bush can have a bad outcome in Iraq and have a good legacy - or, vice versa, have a good outcome in Iraq and have a bad legacy," Widmer says.

It's easy to tell the junior Bush that he has to do something about Iraq. The tough part is figuring out what that should be.

"At least we need to get to the point where we can withdraw with some sense of respectability," Olson says. "I guess we have to get a government in there who will thank us, then ask us to leave.

"But then, when we do leave, the Iraqi government would be shaky at best," he says. "We may leave behind a government that's had some elections, but that doesn't mean it's a democracy. Don't confuse the menu with the meal. So it's hard to think of things ending up positively in Iraq."

Still, even if Bush leaves behind a passel of troubles in Iraq, Truman provides the cautionary tale about judging his legacy too quickly.

Korea eventually became emblematic of containment, a policy of keeping the Communist doctrine from spreading beyond counties it already controlled.

"It was not appeasement and it was not war," Olson says of what evolved into the essential strategy of the Cold War, with Truman getting credit for drawing up its blueprint. "It was something in between. It was a policy that proved successful over the long haul."

Once that policy was judged successful, Truman became a winner too. Widmer says it will be difficult for Bush to get a similar turnaround, in part because he is not as appealing a character as the homespun Truman.

"The verdict on Bush is still up in the air, but it's not looking good," he says. "It will all pivot on Iraq. And one has to be highly credulous to believe that there will be a satisfying outcome there."

But even if Iraq is a mess when Bush leaves office, if democracy does end up spreading across the Middle East, and the invasion of Iraq gets credit for starting that spread, then opinions of Bush's legacy are likely to improve. Widmer says both Bush's detractors and supporters should be prepared to accept the judgment of history.

"If democracy sweeps the Middle East and peace ensues, then Bush's critics should admit they were wrong and give him credit," he says. "But if we have begun years of deep turmoil in the region, then Bush's defenders should admit they were wrong and accept that this presidency was a disaster for U.S. foreign policy."


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