Don’t misunderestimate Bush’s record

Con Coughlin bids farewell to the 43rd President and says that, for all the verbal muddle and ideological fixations, his achievements were substantial

14 January 2009

12:00 AM

14 January 2009

12:00 AM

Oh, the fun we’ve had. Not since the Reverend William Spooner dumbfounded Oxford undergraduates have we been so entertained by the garbled syntax and grammatical infelicities that have been one of the more diverting features of the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush.

‘Tell me, was it you or your brother that was killed in the war?’, a question Spooner asked a former student after the first world war, could just have easily been posed by Dubya to an American soldier fresh back from fighting on one of the many front lines in the war on terror.

The debate over the achievements and failings of the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush will last for many decades, but what is not beyond doubt is the fine legacy of Bushisms that will be bequeathed when the 43rd President of the United States finally takes his leave of the White House next week.

My personal favourite is the President’s remark, made in the summer of 2004 when presenting the annual defence budget, that ‘Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.’ Which, given the damage done to America’s reputation by scandals such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, not to mention the thousands of unnecessary deaths caused by the Bush administration’s handling of post-Saddam Iraq, contains its own pathos.

Indeed, watching Bush’s performance during his final White House press conference, it was hard not to regard the president as a tragic-comic figure desperately seeking to justify a presidency that, at times, has lurched uncomfortably between the implementation of clear, decisive action and a bewildering inability to grasp the fundamental principles upon which a civilised nation should conduct itself in time of war.

Mr Bush might opine that it was ‘a mistake’ to put up a banner declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’ just a few days after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in May 2003. But it was the neoconservative nation-building agenda he allowed to be implemented immediately after the war, combined with the administration’s cavalier mistreatment of enemy combatants, that did so much to undermine a presidency that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was widely admired for its measured and dignified response to the world’s worst peacetime atrocity.


Certainly it will be the September 11 attacks themselves, rather than Iraq or Afghanistan, that will ultimately come to define the Bush presidency. Bush’s response in treating a well-executed and deadly terrorist attack as a declaration of war by Islamist fanatics against Western civilisation became the lodestar of his administration.

Bush’s admiration for Winston Churchill was well-known long before Osama bin Laden’s highly trained murderers struck, prompting Downing Street, soon after Mr Bush took office, to loan the White House a Jacob Epstein bust of Britain’s wartime hero, which the president proudly displayed in the Oval Office.

After September 11, Bush unashamedly copied the wartime rhetoric Churchill had used to inspire the Allies to victory, with his clumsy attempt to characterise the war on terror as an existential struggle against the forces of Islamofascism.

Bush’s mantra that America’s worldwide military offensive against Islamist-inspired terrorism was being waged in defence of freedom became the administration’s campaign slogan, and to some extent it was justified. The people of Afghanistan undoubtedly wanted to be liberated from the dire oppression of the Taleban and their acolytes, and the overwhelming majority of Iraqis were more than happy to see the end of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

Once the US and its allies had liberated these two countries from their respective repressive regimes, all the citizens wanted was to get on with rebuilding their lives, not to be bossed about by interfering Americans. That was particularly true in Iraq, where Bush’s insistence on turning the country into a beacon of democracy clashed with the fiercely nationalistic instincts of the Iraqi people.

Bush’s insistence on placing the attainment of freedom on an equal footing with defeating Islamist terrorism as his principal war aims has at times caused unnecessary complications in what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward exercise, destroying the capability of the rogue states and terror groups that wish to do us harm. But freedom was the sine qua non of Bush’s war on terror, and was used to justify American policy, no matter how unpalatable it might appear to the outside world.

Freedom was a word I heard time and again when I interviewed Bush at the Oval Office back in 2005 about his close alliance with Tony Blair. When I pointed out that many in Britain believed that Blair had been short-changed for supporting the invasion of Iraq, having received precious little in return from the White House, Bush immediately interjected. ‘I believe that embedded in each person’s soul is the desire to be free. There’s something universal about the appeal of liberty. Tony Blair understands that.’

Bush might have had some strange ideas about winning the war on terror, but to his credit he largely got there in the end. The outgoing president was right to highlight his most important achievement as being to prevent America suffering a repeat attack on the scale of 9/11, which, given al-Qa’eda’s well-documented ambition to inflict widespread carnage on the US (detonating a dirty nuclear bomb remains at the top of bin Laden’s agenda) is no small feat.

The elections in Iraq at the end of this month will also signal the return of that benighted country to something approaching normality. It has taken six years rather than the three-year time-frame originally envisaged to rebuild post-Saddam Iraq, but Bush leaves office knowing that he has largely succeeded in his mission to transform Iraq from a rogue nation into one that has a good chance of joining the community of nations.

For this, Bush personally deserves much of the credit. He had the courage not to be hidebound by the ideology that had alienated so many Iraqis, and to back the military surge that eventually led to the country’s revival. As he leaves office, his successor is already drawing up plans to implement a similar strategy in Afghanistan, where the Bush administration’s record, after an impressive start, has been less successful.

Afghanistan is just one of many unresolved issues Bush leaves for Barack Obama to sort out following next week’s inauguration. The fact that Iran will this year acquire the capability to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Israeli–Palestinian dispute has led to the bloody carnage currently taking place in Gaza, could also be taken as an indictment of Bush’s foreign policy.

The war that began on September 11 is a war for a generation and, as the president himself might say, it would be wrong to misunderestimate the significance of his presidency’s achievement in helping to make the world a safer place.

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Show comments
  • Chris

    You’re very good at damning with faint praise, Con, and if I ever want someone to tell me how to do something they’re not remotely qualified to do, I’ll turn to you without hesitation.

  • Mick

    I will take Bush any day compared to soon to be President Um Ah Um Ya Know

  • Peter Larkin

    Well said Con Coughlin.

    Telegraph comments of a while ago were saying similar things:

    “Whatever else may be said about Dubya, he can certainly stand up to the flack. He has been comprehensively rubbished by the bien pensant of the Western media for the whole of his two terms. I wonder if history will judge him more fairly. In the same way that Vietnam, though technically lost by the US, ran the guts out of South East Asian communism, I wonder if Muslim fundamentalism will be found to have run itself into the ground in the sands of Arabia. Bush always said he would rather fight these murdering loonies in the deserts of Iraq than on the streets of New York. In the future we will, of course,all end up dead – but Dubya may also end up right!”


    “If W. only laid the ground for Saint Obama to walk in he may well have played his part. Let’s see how Obama does before media history starts making its judgments on the 43rd President.

    Bush may have been duped by the neo-cons who surrounded him – Afghanistan right / Iraq wrong, but some of us feel we’re going to end up at war anyway with the likes of the global Wahabbist Saudis, the Army of the Righteous (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and the Deobandi threats in the UK and elsewhere (Mumbai most recently). Above all in the UK.

    Bush junior may be seen in history as the man who started what Obama had to finish. This problem is not going away without a combined educational and military solution – it will require all our sacrifices if there is anything worth saving in secularised Britain/Europe.

    If we are witnessing the end of the American Empire who or what will take its place? The Chinese? Islamic terrorist groups as our overlords as Dhimmi subjects? The Ruskies? Or, don’t laugh, that well known democracy by deception the EU?

    If Bush hadn’t responded militarily to the 9/11 attacks then the US and the free world would have been a laughing stock. Period. It could not have let that go unpunished – the groups responsible for that strain of thought – the US as Satan rather than Saviour – now cluster in inner City Britain and around all our EU capitals.

    What are we going to do about them? Wrong war? No. Wrong front.

    History well may be kinder to this man than even St. Joan has been here. Go to Coleville-sur-Mer sometime and remember what this great country did to save the whole of Europe from tyranny. Pity the EU is repeating those mistakes in a different guise.

    Lest we forget.

    We have a fight on our hands.”

    F*ck you Obama Bin Hiding – show your cowardly self and we’ll blow you to shreds. There is fight in our European belly and you don’t realise what you have started…

  • pat

    Bush said what he would do, and he did. He did not care about
    polls or Hollywood or UN or EU
    or his own party, for that matter.

    He was the terrible communicator, with the invisible
    VP. He found it easier to presume blame, than to fight the
    critics. To his, and our detriment. He had a wimpy GOP
    Congress that didn’t back him
    up much, see McCain-Hagel-Chafee-Arnold for that.

    All in all, a decent man, who will get more credit for what he
    did right as the years go by….

    Obama – Iraq & national security
    & Homeland security & Defense
    Sec. – pretty much keeping the
    Bush policy in tow. Tax cuts,
    yeah, Bush was right I guess.
    AFghanistan mini-surge in progress, yeah, I’ll do that too.
    He treated enemies at home w/
    class and respect, something they did not give him. He was
    classy w/Kennedy, McCain, Obama,
    Clinton, Pelosi, Boxer, Reid, etc., day after day. Again, something they usually did not
    return in kind.

    I will give him credit for the
    tax cuts, education reform, being pro-life, pro-2nd amendment, pro-traditional marriage, pro-strong military,
    toppled the Taliban, toppled
    Saddam, freed about – what 65
    million people, did tons to
    assist the fight against AIDS
    & promote health vaccinations in
    Africa, promoted new Eastern
    European free nations, and did
    not (unlike his father) raise

    For most of his term, we had
    a low unemployment rate, very low. We still have low interest & inflation rates. Even gasoline is low again. We had
    more growth than decline. We
    had a hell of an awful 2008,no
    one can argue that. But, it’s not 1929, despite our whining.

    The govt. programs over 25 years
    helped create the housing and mortgage mess. So, in our intelligence, we put Rahm Emmanuel (Freddie Mac), Gorelick,Raines, Johnson, Rubin
    (Freddie & Fannie directors),
    who helped make those firms crumble, into power! Along w/
    Blago-Rezko-Wright buddy Barry
    Obama. We showed us didn’t we?

    I wish Barack Hussein Obama well. I’m glad we can use his
    middle name now, w/o being called a racist or hater, like
    during the campaign.

    I live here, and I wish the best
    for our nation. Unlike those
    who didn’t vote for or like Bush, I won’t wish bad things
    on Barry or the country. I presume the best will be ahead,
    not due to Barry. But, due to our citizens, hard work, and
    prayers. WE, the people, create
    what we get, not the govt.

  • hugh brennan

    After 9-11 some Arabs, somewhere had to die. The Iraqi regime volunteered. Afghanistan was the unfortunate victim of its status as a failed state, but Saddam had multiple exits any of which he could have taken. Rather than a “rush to war” Bush was extremely deliberate. The notion that he lied our way to war is itself a “big lie”.
    The writer seems unaware of the centuries long American notion that given the equality of man, free people, freely self-governing will always live in peace with their free, self governing neighbors. Although the wise heads of Europe may regard this as a delusion it has been a mainspring of American international policy. Its antipode is the notion that our Republic is defiled by too close involvement with you damnable, fractious foreigners, and we’d be best served by avoiding “foreign entanglements” and keeping our powder dry.
    Personally, I think the British success in drawing us into the First War set the stage for so many of our current troubles- but that’s another and very long story.
    Viva Bush.

  • Nancy Reyes

    you forgot about the million Africans who probably are alive because of Bush’s backing of HIV/Malaria/TB treatment…

  • Al Frick

    May God bless our president for his 8 years of service to our country.

    It’s going to be a rough 4 or 8 years. With the mainstream media suckling at his teet, there will be no criticism about any mistakes and bad decisions he makes in that time.

  • Buckle

    Well No!
    The Afghan matter was perhaps not so badly handled but the Iraq business was and is a disaster. Mr. Couglin clearly doesn’t read – but then, short sighted neo-conservatives don’t really need to think, much less provide references in support of their opinions. The information is available. Go to http://www.carlisle.army.mil/ssi/pdffiles/00175.pdf for the paper published in February before the invasion. Read Bob Woodward’s ‘Bush at War’, and ‘Plan of Attack’, and you will come to understand the superficiality of the Bush administration. And read in the second how Blair betrayed the confidence of the people of Britain – his insistence to Bush that He, Blair would be with Him in the Iraq business and this before the debate in the commons; and Bush understanding that the Security Council Debate was necessary for Blair, to help him to mislead the British people! The world will live for many decades with the problems created by Bush, and it will never be the same. The USA may be militarily the most powerful for a little while, but today it is economically the weakest. And we are all poorer for this. Don’t be deluded. Obama must succeed, otherwise we are all consigned to the xxxx.

  • James Canning

    Does Con still think Iraq had an ability to harm the US? The Bush administration had ample evidence months before the invasion, that Iraq had no WMD and no ability to harm the US.

  • David Short


    I know the meaning of ‘misunderstand’ and of ‘underestimate’, but this word truly boggles the mind.

    I am sure CC, as a distinguished journalist, would not have used it.

    Is ‘misunderestimate’ the opposite of ‘underestimate’?

    Do let us know what it means, new Spectator.

  • Tarot Reader

    The Freedom/Democracy agenda in Iraq is unseparable from its invasion/liberation. Iraq needed and to some large extent will still need the ‘american interventionism’ in order not to collapse back in either tyrany or pure chaos. If only the EU had given a strong backing to the ‘invasion’, even the insurgency would have been a lesser thing. These guys watch the news and every sad comment by any of our journalists, students and who-knows-what gets a covering, a repercussion in any arab/islamic coubtry far beyond the mere sense of debate. That indeed has been a moral seal of approval given to any insurgency/terrorism…They just know that everybody is with them somehow. The same is happening with Hamas/Hezbollah. That ultimately make the war on terror much more difficult. President Bush deserve credit precisely for being ideologicaly driven. As for his aledged clumsiness, it shows that the man is not a trained lawyer like his so called ‘articulate’ succesor (whom election is an utter mystery to me given the coldness of heart, the small time credentials and egomania of the creature).

  • davod

    “The Bush administration had ample evidence months before the invasion, that Iraq had no WMD and no ability to harm the US”

    Silly Billy.

    Why then did the rest of the world’s intelligence services agree that Sadaam had WMD. We must not forget the duplicity of the likes of France and Russia whos reticence was because they were stealing the Iraqi’s blind from the Oil for Food program.

  • Edward

    “Misunderestimate” is simply a play on words. The author is keying in to Bush’s common liberties with the English language.

  • FM

    No matter how it’s dressed up, George Bush attacked the wrong country after 9/11. 9/11 came from Afghanistan; he attacked Iraq. The original justification was WMD; now we’re expected to praise him for regime change. All the while, Osama Bin Laden is still at large and Afghanistan is reverting to the Taliban. No, George Bush was not underestimated. No, he was not misunderstood. And no, history will not come to see his hidden virtues.

  • Carl Pham

    Blech, when will we ever be free of the copperhead Realpolitik armchair-polishers? Coughlin, you could be transported to 1862 unchanged. Freedom and equality for black people? Tut, how naive. That haysee from Illinois, what a simpleton, what a “divider.”

  • A. MacAulay

    Mr Bush is still and remains a figure one hardly understands. Everything, from his election right up ’till his climbing aboard a helicopter yesterday seems to be a chain of misadventures and it seems hard to imagine that this can be the responsibility of one individual. Yet, when one adds it all up, one can only conclude that he was in every way inadequate for the task. No pardon.

  • Rhett O. Millsaps, Sr

    It won’t take as long as people think to come to the reality that President Bush will be seen in history as a great president. No man in history has ever gone through the ‘hate trail’ like him and his grace through all of it will be noted. Even as the power was changing, President Bush wasn’t and that alone should be seen as great. No matter what the media said and did, grace is how this man handled them. I am so proud of President Bush and all he tired to do for Americans who are so spoiled and controlled by party politics, now they will have to blame the weather on one of their own, let’s see how this works itself out. Make no mistake, George W. Bush will be greatly missed and we will see that sooner rather than later. God bless our new president and I pray he doesn’t have the same treatment, enough is enough and there are many Americans that went simply too far. But I suppose the president saw this for what it was and the angels that surrounded him for 8 years took care of the rest. Thank you President Bush, may God grant you many years of peace, I know you didn’t have much thrown at you…..

  • Paul Giles

    Who decides which comments are included? Mine was (reasonably) polite, written in sentances, and yet didn’t appear. Tell me how to get it right next time.

  • Robert. B. Ferguson

    The carnage in Gaza can hardly be seen as an indictment of any President’s foriegn policy as it has been happenning for ever. Thank you Mr. Bush for keeping the country safe for these seven years and good luck to you. Good luck to you too President Obama you will need it. I certainly hope you enjoy at least as much succes as President Bush had. After all protecting America is now you number one job. I sincerely hope you are up to the task.

  • fsilber

    I would say that the single biggest failure of the Bush administration was his administration’s tolerance of fraud and swindling by mortgage brokers and the banks behind them. The only weak excuse I can offer is his (in retrospect) short-sighted concern that the economy not implode after 9/11.

    One great success that is rarely mentioned was his success in deflating the “Militia Movement” — an army of rural, working tax-payers with families convinced by the behavior of Bush’s predecessor Clinton that they might well soon have to go to war against their own government. The Clinton administration had tried to force the people to submit to all sorts of indignities and outrages at the hand of muggers, rapists and carjackers. When people cited crime as their biggest concern, the Clinton administration maliciously misinterpreted this cry as a being a complaint about the high death rate among teenage violent criminals in their gang wars — and proposed gun-control and midnight basketball leagues as a solution! Under Bush and his Party, the people were freed to refuse the demands of robbers and to turn the robbers’ violent coercive threats back against them. That alones justifies my votes for Bush in 2000 and 2004.

  • Joe Long

    Reply to David Short: Are you not aware that George Bush publicly used the term “misunderestimate” twice? Are you not aware that the article is making a joke about that? You must really be Embarrassed now!