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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 17, 2009