Let me advance two reasons why history should judge the presidency of George W Bush to have been a success. The first is that he took the action necessary to prevent another attack on America after 11 September 2001.The second is of special significance to Australia. His foreign policy helped bring a lot of calm stability to the Asia-Pacific region.
The many critics of George Bush, in America and elsewhere, have ignored the singular achievement of his presidency. He successfully dealt with the biggest challenge of his eight years in office. Against all expectations there was no further terrorist attack on the United States in the seven remaining years of his administration which followed 11 September 2001. To say this now is to invite yawns and derision from most commentators, seemingly desperate to deny him any credit for fulfilling the most fundamental of all obligations which can come the way of a national leader: that is, to protect his country when it is under attack. Yet, given the fear which gripped America and the world back in September 2001, it was a huge achievement, deserving of much more acknowledgement than it now receives. How easy it is to forget that no fewer than 19 potential terrorist attacks have been foiled by the United States since that day.
Bush’s challenge in the wake of that attack was the greatest faced by any president since Roosevelt at the time of Pearl Harbour. The collective sense of dread that there would be another, and perhaps even worse, attack, which was so strong in the aftermath of September 2001, dissipated as the years went by. Predictably, and as America’s enemies hoped, the public grew weary of constant talk of a further attack. In time this weariness turned to questioning of, even hostility towards, measures legitimately employed to reduce the likelihood of a further outrage. In the process there was an inexorable discounting of the president’s success in protecting the homeland. Finally, to many, it was simply taken for granted.
The passage of time should not allow us to forget how completely preoccupied America was with the possibility of a repeat of the World Trade Center attack. It framed so many things. The removal of Saddam Hussein, the most debated action of the whole eight years of George Bush’s administration, must be seen in the context of protecting America against another attack. Bush never believed that the Iraqi despot was directly involved in September 2001, but on the strength of his past behaviour the president had good reason to see Saddam as a potential future sponsor of terrorist activity against US interests.
Assessing the work of a prime minister or president requires a sense of proportion. Each must be judged by how they handled the dominant challenges during their time in power. Winston Churchill was measured by how he led Britain in the second world war, not by his policies on, say, local government or education. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency will forever be judged in the context of Vietnam, for the way in which he allowed the conduct of the war to overwhelm him, thereby forfeiting the possibility of a different and better outcome. This crowded out his impressive progress on civil rights.
Stanley Baldwin is rightly marked down for his appeasement policies. The aplomb with which he handled the abdication crisis, a complicated constitutional issue, is of little account now, because it paled into insignificance against his flawed response to the looming threat of the European dictators.
When this yardstick is applied to George Bush, the answer is pretty obvious. He got the really big thing right. This is a point his critics will never concede, apparently happy to have the proportionality principle applied to others but not to him.
By way of further rejoinder, Bush’s critics will inevitably shout ‘the economy’, which is fair enough given that the American financial system went into a tailspin under the Republican administration. Additionally, economic issues dominated the presidential campaign after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and this focus, more than anything else, delivered Obama his victory over McCain. The jury will be out, however, for some time, on the real causes of the subprime meltdown. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the blame must be shouldered by those in the Clinton administration and the Congress of that period who encouraged the provision of housing loans to people who had no capacity to meet their obligations under those loans. Likewise, it was the Democrats who presided over the final dismantling of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which decreed that commercial and investment banks should be separate.
None of this is meant to absolve the former Republican administration from full responsibility for its economic policy mistakes, including in particular running successive budget deficits. However, the Democrats’ presidential campaign mantra that the world’s present financial situation can be blamed on the Bush administration for permitting the financiers of Wall Street to do anything they wished is, to say the least, superficial.
The stability of the Asia-Pacific region is crucial to Australia. More than that, however, it is increasingly the centre of gravity for the world’s middle class. In a short time there will be more middle class people living in this region than anywhere else. This shift is both historic and irreversible. The key power relationship and the one fundamental to the region’s continued calm is that between the US and China. Commencing with its careful response to the April 2001 spy plane incident, the Bush administration handled its China links with great skill.
The temperature over Taiwan was kept well below boiling point. Pragmatic diplomacy, the very virtue that the former president’s critics claimed he always spurned, dominated the American approach to the cross-strait relationship. This helped reduce the likelihood of conflict between China and Taiwan.
The US has not abandoned Taiwan, but has maintained a tight rein on her expectations. Nor has America compromised her own values in dealing with Beijing. Like Australia, the US treats China for what she is — an authoritarian communist state, but a nation which, the global financial plunge notwithstanding, will play an increasingly influential role in regional and world affairs in the years ahead.
Astutely, the Bush White House reached out to other Asian powers to provide a counterweight to the growing authority of China. First, the relationship with Japan, always close but one which had grown a little stale, was revitalised by George Bush. His personal rapport with Junichiro Koizumi was as close as any between an American president and a Japanese prime minister. This mattered a lot. Koizumi was the most reform-minded prime minister of his country in more than a generation.
Even more significantly, Bush lifted American relations with India to a new plane. After years of awkward estrangement, the world’s two largest democracies realised just how much they had in common. I paid an official visit to India, as prime minister, just after President Bush had been there in March 2005. It was obvious from the comments made to me by my Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, that the president’s visit had had a huge impact. It was a turning point in the link between the two countries. Not only had Bush offered Singh the nuclear deal he wanted, but the two leaders had relished the chance to emphasise their mutual attachment to democracy.
This was a common theme in relations between the Bush administration and the long-standing democracies of the region such as Japan and, of course, Australia. It was as if he was saying to the Chinese: yes, your authority and power are respected, but look at what America has in common with certain other nations in the region. It provided balan
ce and reassurance to those nervous about China’s increasing muscle.
Finally, a word on approval ratings as a measure of political achievement. Just about every anti-Bush column I have read recently has referred to his low approval ratings, as if they alone put paid to any contrary viewpoint. Harry Truman’s approval ratings were similar to those of Bush, when the former ended his presidency in 1952. Yet history now judges Truman to have been a very successful president. There are many who argue that he has been the best Democrat occupant of the White House since Roosevelt. The 41st president, George Herbert Walker Bush, had an approval rating of 89 per cent in March 1991. Less than two years later, he lost convincingly to Bill Clinton. Margaret Thatcher, unquestionably Britain’s greatest prime minister since Churchill, had a satisfaction rating of just 20 per cent in March 1990, a few months before she was pushed out by her own colleagues. The list is quite long. The only surprise is that so many commentators should base their assessments on such superficial analyses.