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“The Country Paid Heavily For The Risks He Took”: It’s Not Too Soon To Judge George W. Bush’s Presidency On Key Issues

In the six years since he left the White House, President George W. Bush has often claimed that it is too early for historical judgments about his presidency. “It’s too soon to say how many of my decisions will turn out,” he wrote in Decision Points, his presidential memoir.

In this, Bush was indulging in what we will call the Truman Consolation. President Harry S. Truman was deeply unpopular during most of his time in the White House and in the years immediately afterward. Only decades later did historians begin to rate his presidency highly for the actions he took in the early years of the Cold War. At one time or another, when their poll ratings are slumping and their media coverage is biting, most modern American presidents like to believe they will eventually be vindicated, just as Truman was.

But Bush is largely wrong: In some of the most important areas of his presidency, it’s not too soon to draw conclusions. Just by judging against Bush’s own forecasts, some of the most far-reaching and important initiatives of his presidency didn’t work — or turned out poorly.

At the top of the list is the war in Iraq. Bush and his advisors badly misjudged what it would entail. They overestimated the international support the United States would be able to obtain for military action. They asserted before the war that American troops would need to stay in Iraq for no more than a couple of years. The administration’s public estimate before the war was that it would cost less than $100 billion; instead, it cost $2 trillion.

Intended originally as a short-term demonstration of American power and influence, the Iraq war over the longer term brought about the opposite. In its unhappy aftermath, Americans became increasingly cautious, more reluctant to become involved overseas. Overall, the war will go down as a strategic blunder of epic proportions, among the most serious in American history.

A similar fate will befall the second-most far-reaching aspect of Bush’s legacy, his historic tax cuts. Bush argued that they would stimulate the economy and spur economic growth. The short-term benefits proved dubious at best, but the harmful long-term consequences were incalculable, both for the federal government and, more importantly, for American society.

When Bush took office, America was in a brief period of budgetary surplus. There was actually a debate, forgotten and almost unimaginable today, about how to use the surplus: Pay down the debt? Launch new federal initiatives? Bush chose to cut taxes, and then did so in ways (tax cuts on dividends and capital gains) that proved immensely beneficial to the wealthiest Americans.

It’s true that President Barack Obama eventually allowed the Bush cuts on upper-income Americans to expire. But the damage had been done. Over the course of nearly a decade, the federal government became increasingly short of funds, while wealthy Americans built up greater and greater assets. Whenever you use a road, bridge or airport that needs repairs (or read a news story about the Pentagon complaining about budget constraints), you might pause to think about the Bush tax cuts and the role they played in shaping the America we see today.

Bush’s second round of tax cuts, in 2003, were historic in another sense. By then, he had already dispatched American troops to Iraq. In every previous military conflict since the Civil War, American presidents had raised taxes to help defray the costs. Bush bucked this historical trend: He lowered them.

It’s true that in a few other policy areas judgments of Bush’s presidency may improve over the years as events unfold and as more information comes to light.

The primary example could be counter-terrorism. The Senate’s recent report on enhanced interrogation techniques makes current judgments on that dark era even harsher than they would have been otherwise. Torture is torture, and no passage of time will change the moral judgments on that.

On the other hand, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, some Europeans began to ask why the attackers had not been kept under greater surveillance. If such terrorist attacks were to continue over many years, then judgments on the Bush-era surveillance programs might eventually come to be less harsh than they are today. Or they may come to be seen as the true beginning of a new surveillance state. More time needs to pass before historical judgments on this issue can take shape.

Overall, Bush’s presidency is likely to be remembered for his lack of caution and restraint. Once, in the midst of a discussion with his military advisors, Bush made a telling observation: “Someone has got to be risk-averse in this process, and it better be you, because I’m not.”

George W. Bush was certainly not risk-averse. He took gambles both in foreign policy and with the economy. Sometimes they paid off. Yet overall, the country paid heavily for the risks he took. History isn’t likely to revise that judgment.

 

By: James Mann, Los Angeles Times (TNS), a fellow in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; The National Memo, February 10, 2015

February 11, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, George W Bush, Iraq War | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Newt Gingrich And The History Channel Have In Common

The Republican candidate Newt Gingrich and the cable channel History have both followed the same formula for success, by elevating fantasy over actual history. The difference, however, is that Newt wants to carry his sensational vision of a bygone age into office.

Newt is the most prominent self-described “historian” in the United States. If he were elected in 2012, he would be only the second president after Woodrow Wilson to hold a PhD. Indeed, according to Newt, his gifts at decoding the past are so illustrious that Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 million, not for lobbying, but for his historical skills. Meanwhile, over on cable, the History Channel is rising in popularity with the mission statement, “History: Made Every Day.” With practitioners and purveyors of the past soaring so high, these might seem like giddy times for the historical profession.

But neither Newt nor History shows much interest in the serious study of human experience. Newt has never published any scholarly history at all. And the lack of real analysis on History has become so absurd it was skewered by “South Park” in the episode, “A History Channel Thanksgiving”.

What motivates these peddlers of yesteryear is not history but fantasy. Newt’s staple is the alternate history or the counterfactual. What if Robert E. Lee had won at Gettysburg in 1863? What if Hitler had not declared war on the United States in 1941? His other books include historical novels, as well as prophetic visions like “Winning the Future,” which opens with the line, “In the twenty-first century, America could be destroyed.”

On cable, History has followed in Newt’s footsteps with a cocktail of conspiracy theories, counterfactuals, religious hokum, and science fiction. Many of its shows are entirely fictional, like “Ancient Aliens” and “The Bible Code,” or summon future possibilities like “Armageddon” and “Life After People.” The channel has a particular fascination with fortune telling, including “Seven Signs of the Apocalypse” and “Nostradamus 2012.”

What History adds to the mix that Newt has resisted, so far at least, is reality television, with hit show like “Pawn Stars” and “Ice Road Truckers.”

For both the candidate and the cable channel, what actually did happen seems less interesting than what might have happened, or what could still happen — with History throwing in some ice trucks for good measure.

Focusing on alternatives to history has proved to be a recipe for success. Newt’s eight counterfactuals and historical novels are bestsellers. By avoiding the actual past, History has become the fifth most popular cable channel.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing, or reading, fantastical stories. And Newt and History could be the gateway drug that lures people into a more substantive engagement with the past. Alternatively, their rise may reflect, and reinforce, a national dumbing down of history.

In any case, the real problem is that Newt is unwilling to keep the fantasy and reality separate. For the candidate, the past is a succession of sensational moments where civilization is at risk, until one man steps forth to hold the barbarians from the gates, whether it’s Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, FDR, Thatcher, Reagan, or Newt himself. “I have an enormous personal ambition”, said Newt back in 1985, “I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.”

The historical parallels that Newt draws are telling. When he failed to collect 10,000 signatures required to qualify for the Republican primary ballot in Virginia, he reached into the grab bag of history and pulled out Pearl Harbor. “Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941,” scribbled campaign director Michael Krull on the Gingrich Facebook page. Here was an alternative universe, where the deaths of 2,400 Americans in a Japanese sneak attack were comparable to routine signature collection in Virginia. As Krull put it: “We have experienced an unexpected set-back, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action.” As a candidate, this kind of fantastical thinking is absurd, but as president it would be hazardous.

Newt and History are on the same page. If the Republican primary doesn’t pan out for Newt, he can always work for the cable channel. One of their upcoming shows is “Full Metal Jousting,” about a bunch of guys on horses smashing into each other. The problem with the show, of course, will be clearing all of the muck from the stables. It’s here that a solutions guy like Newt can think outside of the box — by employing poor kids as janitors.

 

By: Dominic Tierney, The Atlantic, January 3, 2011

January 4, 2012 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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