As George W. Bush fades from the world stage, many of his detractors are belatedly coming to appreciate that, for all his shortcomings, he has at least "kept us safe." And rightly so.
In the aftermath of that terrible September morning in 2001, few believed that the U.S. would go another seven years without an attack. And in ensuring that 9/11 was al-Qaida's last successful strike on the U.S. homeland, Mr. Bush fulfilled the first duty of any commander in chief.
But in so fulfilling his duty, he has unwittingly become one of the most consequential leaders in world history. For the path from 9/11 led him to Afghanistan and then Iraq, a journey that saw the liberation of some 50 million souls from the grip of tyranny.
What is remarkable about this is, A) how little it is commented upon, and B) when it is commented upon, how many caveats are apt to be attached to it. Some of these caveats are valid: In Iraq, the mayhem that immediately followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime was no better - and for many Iraqis, much worse - than the regime itself. In Afghanistan, our early gains and successes are increasingly in jeopardy from a resurgent Taliban succored by opium dollars and Pakistani havens.
This much is true. But this is also true: The people of Afghanistan and Iraq, because of George W. Bush, have for the first time a real choice. The way to democracy and modernity has been opened for them, if they want it. Now, that is not everything. But it is not nothing.
To be sure, a choice is not a guarantee. Others who have had similar opportunities have chosen to backslide into autocracy or terror (see: Russia, Gaza). But for now, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their first tentative steps toward joining the modern world.
In Kandahar, the Mirwais School for Girls is open, and young women by droves are braving ridicule and attack to attend. In Northern Iraq, Kurds whose villages were not long ago being gassed by Saddam Hussein's mad sons are now sending representatives to a national parliament in Baghdad. These are profound developments.
It is easy, I suppose, for wealthy, liberal Americans, their own daughters safely ensconced in private schools, to belittle these achievements. But for the young girl learning to read near the top of the world, for the Shiite woman boldly proclaiming a proud purple finger in Basra, these are real and revolutionary improvements.
And what about all that he has done for Africa? Has any president - has anyone at all - done more for the poorest continent than George W. Bush? His efforts against AIDS and malaria have spared millions from the ravages of disease and death, a blessed campaign that is shockingly underreported.
I was not an early supporter of Mr. Bush. In fact, he was my last choice for Republican nominee in 2000. In the intervening eight years, he infuriated me on immigration, baffled me with Harriet E. Miers, disappointed me during Katrina. His rhetorical deficiencies have been a source of both amusement and embarrassment.
But as someone whose family resides on the Eastern Seaboard, I will be eternally grateful to him for taking the fight to al-Qaida overseas, which it would be foolish to argue has had no impact on the subsequent tranquillity of American cities. And as a lover of liberty and a believer that all people everywhere deserve to be free, I see him as the great liberator of our time - and one of the great leaders of all time.
Whatever happens in President Barack Obama's administration - and I wish him all the best - our new president has some enormous shoes to fill. I only hope that Mr. Obama is wise enough to see that.
Matt Patterson is the author of "Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge Story." He lives in Montgomery County. His e-mail is