George W. Bush's Legacy: Moral Vision

The Wall Street Journal's latest poll reports a 27 percent approval rating for President George W. Bush in his last week in office. According to the article, this is "the lowest for any departing chief executive except Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign amid the Watergate scandal." Gallup's final survey on Bush's public backing is just slightly better, with 34 percent of Americans approving of "the overall job George W. Bush is doing as president."

It's an iron law of politics that these end-of-term numbers will provide confirmation for those bloggers, pundits, and scholars determined to condemn the Bush administration as the worst in American history.

For average Americans, it's most likely that folks are simply tired of long and costly wars, fearful of economic uncertainty, and hopeful for vigorous leadership in the new Democratic era. Yet for partisans of the hardline left -- those implacably opposed to the GOP administration and its ideology -- the reasons for joy in the final poll numbers are many: the alleged "stolen" election of 2000; the post-9/11 terrorist "fearmongering" and the "shredding" of constitutional guarantees on civil liberties; the "illegal" war in Iraq, based on "false pretenses" of Iraqi WMD, and evil "neocon" designs for neo-imperial domination of the Middle East; and the "reign of torture" that has allegedly destroyed America's moral standing around the world.

Amid all of this, it's naturally difficult to discern a triumphant legacy for the Bush administration, especially with the immediacy and euphoria surrounding the Democratic transition in Washington. But the truth is that the George W. Bush presidency will likely be seen in time as one of the greatest in American history, on par with the what historians call the "near-great" category of presidencies such as Theodore Roosevelt's or Harry Truman's.

President Bush is a leader of uncommon moral vision and clarity of national purpose.

On September 20th, 2001, speaking before a Joint Session of Congress, the president articulated his vision of America's purpose in combating the evil of Islamist fanaticism: "The advance of human freedom -- the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time -- now depends on us." It has been this unflinching belief in America's mission of defending universal right and justice in the world that has animated the Bush administration's agenda in the post-9/11 world.

In his 2002 commencement speech to the United States Military Academy at West Point, Bush declared that "Our nation's cause has always been larger than our nation's defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace -- a peace that favors human liberty." In his second inaugural address, Bush announced: "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. ... We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul."

And in his farewell address to the nation, delivered January 15, 2009, President Bush made his valedictory exhortation on liberty and America's responsibility: "In the 21st century, security and prosperity at home depend on the expansion of liberty abroad. If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led. ... America must maintain our moral clarity. ... Good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise."

President Bush's farewell speech vigorously encapsulates the essence of greatness that marks this administration and that will shape its historical legacy. Here we see -- in a forceful statement of presidential culmination -- an unabashed, unparalleled declaration of good versus evil in the world. It is this vision -- perhaps more than any other thing -- that drives the president's political enemies wild. Today's postmodern, progressive culture abhors moral righteousness and thrives in the multicultural equivalences of radical secular humanism.

To announce, without fear or trembling, American exceptionalism is to hold forth universal right as the pinnacle of our purpose as Americans, as the core of national identity. Few presidents do it as well. In this, President Bush evokes the rhetorical sweep and moral right of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg and President Ronald Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

Perhaps it is not particularly breathtaking or novel to reiterate this president's vision of moral greatness. Conservatives will be the first to recite President Bush's rock of righteousness, even those on the right who see this administration as growing the government at the expense of limited government principles.

Yet, there's an element of faith in goodness here that is routinely brushed away by the administration's hostile detractors as "Christianist hegemony" or "neofascist hero worshipping." Bush's critics on the left -- including historians in the academy nurtured in the pedagogical brew of "multi-culti" postmodernism -- will never be convinced of this administration's greatness, and Bush will long be excoriated as an "incompetent" president whose policies "failed" miserably.

The war in Iraq, arguably the central element in any evaluation of this administration, is routinely repudiated as a "debacle" or "ideological folly." It is Iraq, however, where we find the most important signature of the Bush's leadership. Iraq signifies, above all, the administration's granite-like qualities of moral firmness, perseverance, and resolve amid seemingly insurmountable problems.

There is a body of literature on public opinion and foreign policy that holds that the public will not support military deployments if the human costs, measured in combat fatalities, grow large and unremitting. That is, public opinion recoils against wars marked by mounting casualties and the limited prospects for success -- a phenomenon known as "casualty sensitivity." The strong version of the hypothesis suggests that as casualties mount public backing for military operations declines, and the country is forced to withdraw troops from hostilities, leading to a defeat in the conflict. President Bill Clinton in Somalia is a case in point.

Political scientist John Mueller, writing in the November/December 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, announced an "Iraq Syndrome" in American foreign policy:

American troops have been sent into harm's way many times since 1945, but in only three cases -- Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq -- have they been drawn into sustained ground combat and suffered more than 300 deaths in action. ... The most striking thing about the comparison among the three wars is how much more quickly support has eroded in the case of Iraq.

Mueller was writing at a stage in the Iraq war in which no one saw light at the end of the tunnel. The war was going badly. Public opinion had indeed turned sharply against the deployment, the Democratic Party leadership had long repudiated their initial backing, and the forces of global terror had repositioned Iraq as the center of the battle against the West. Mueller's article predicted a continuing decline in public opinion amid increasing casualties. He describes the war as a "debacle" and his conclusion suggested that America's mission in Iraq would go the way of Vietnam -- to an ignoble defeat that would consequently hamstring American world leadership and military power for a generation.

Well, something happened on the way to the "Iraq syndrome." President Bush refused to capitulate to the terrorists. He did what all great presidents do in times of crisis: exercise decisive leadership. Bush learned from early mistakes. He made changes at the highest levels of his administration, and, most importantly, he changed commanders on the ground and adapted a new war-fighting doctrine of counter-insurgency.

The result is objectively manifest. The Bush administration's defeat of the worst brutality of the Iraq insurgency amounts to one of the greatest military turnarounds in the history of America's wars. But it's not just that. This president refused to abandon the Iraqi people to the forces of global barbarity, and he repudiated the calls on the partisan left for a precipitous withdrawal that would have demoralized America's fighting men and women by sending them the message that their sacrifices had been in vain.

President George W. Bush now leaves an emerging democratic and secure Iraq to his successor. But even more importantly, he leaves to history the reaffirmation of American good over evil in the world. The job is not done, and will never be done until the ideology of fanaticism in the hearts of men is extinguished. But in leaving office, this president can always be recalled for standing tall in the face of historic crises not unlike those faced by chief executives before him.

Bush's legacy, there should be little doubt, will be great, despite what now is suggested by the final public approval ratings and the current euphoria of the Democratic transition.