We didn’t get what we expected with President Bush. He campaigned on a platform of “compassionate conservatism” and less engagement in foreign crises. Taking office, his administration began in much the fashion we expected. He quickly passed the centerpieces of his domestic agenda, his education package and tax cuts. He also competently handled his first international crisis, when a US spy plane made an emergency landing in China and its crew was held by the Chinese government.
As we moved into the fall, Democrats had taken control of the Senate by a one vote plurality and a major budget battle was looming. I thought that President Bush had a strong hand in the battle and would probably prevail, but of course we never found out. The morning of September 11, Al Qaeda terrorists attacked our country. Shortly thereafter the anthrax attacks began.
Within days of 9/11, President Bush announced that fighting terrorism was the priority of his administration. His steady hand in the days after 9/11 settled our country and his approval rating soared over 90%.
In the evening of 9/11, Bush formulated the Bush Doctrine (one version of it anyway), declaring that “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” In his address to Congress he added that “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Later that fall, the Bush Doctrine was put into action when we overthrew the Taliban in a short, brilliant campaign of air power, special forces, and local rebels.
Alas, the Bush Doctrine was set aside early in 2002, when the Administration stated that the Bush Doctrine did not apply to Yasser Arafat. In fact, the Bush Doctrine was never clearly invoked again. When President Bush began to gather support for a campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein, he failed to make a clear case of the broad strategic importance of removing Saddam. Instead he focused on only one element, the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.
This was one of three major mistakes of the Bush Administration. As we know, no WMD stockpiles were found in Iraq. The failure to make a broad case for the invasion ultimately undermined support for the campaign. (In contrast, the public support of the Afghanistan campaign has never wavered.)
The second major mistake of the Bush Administration was its inadequate preparation for the aftermath of the war, and, more importantly, its slowness in adapting to deteriorating conditions in Iraq. As the war dragged on, its motivation already undermined, public support for the war faltered, and so did public support for the Administration.
To his credit, Bush did eventually adapt, not in time to save his reputation, but in time to win the war. He changed tactics, increased troop levels, and placed General Petraeus in charge. Today the campaign in Iraq is concluding as a victory for the United States, its allies, and a free Iraqi people.
Still, our mistakes in Iraq have been damaging. With so much force tied up in Iraq and faltering support for the war on terror, it has been impossible to continue the global war on sponsors of terrorism. In particular, it has been impossible to do anything about the serious threat posed by Iran.
On the other hand, President Bush has achieved something that seemed unthinkable the morning of September 12. For the past seven years, there has not been a single terrorist attack on American soil. For that, President Bush deserves our gratitude.
On the domestic side, “compassionate conservatism” has been revealed to have very little in common with conservatism. President Bush’s third major mistake was to allow government spending to balloon out of control. To be sure, Congressional Republicans share the blame, but Bush was the leader of his party and, if all else failed, he could have exercised his veto.
In retrospect, Bush should have reformed the Federal housing policies that pushed banks to make more subprime loans and to securitize those loans. But, virtually no one recognized the danger of those policies at the time. (On the left, virtually no one does even now.) Bush also failed to reform social security, but at least he tried.
Bush did hit a home run with his two Supreme Court appointments, and he made a number of solid appointments to lower courts. Almost certainly, they will be President Bush’s most lasting domestic achievement.