Bush worst US president ever? Think again

Ask anyone in the world about the legacy of United States President George W Bush. Chances are the answer would consist of a fusillade of fiery invective.

"Worst. President. Ever," a political scientist wrote to the National Journal, a US weekly pitched at Washington insiders. The facts on the ground appear to validate that dismissal.

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, perceptions of America across the world have plummeted to historic lows. Likewise, Bush’s domestic approval ratings have fallen to the lowest of any president since 1945.

But the final verdict on Bush is yet to be written. A more careful analysis would suggest that the roots of America’s problems today lie deeper than with him.

At the heart of Bush’s foreign policy failures is the ‘Bush Doctrine’. (Perhaps the doctrine’s aggressive tone stems from Dubya’s wild youth, when the inebriated frat boy once challenged his father to go ‘mano a mano’, or literally, hand-to-hand).

The Bush Doctrine - with its core tenets of preventative war and the spread of democracy (by force of arms if necessary) - was born in the crucible of September 11.

The doctrine itself has deep roots in the American political psyche. By implementing it, however, Bush over-reached and over-reacted. In Second Chance: Three Presidents And A Crisis Of American Superpower, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that September 11 was an epiphany for Bush, pushing him into foreign adventures that eventually led to hubris.

The US found itself mired in Afghanistan, where great powers such as Britain and Russia had floundered before. Superpowers don’t do windows, Bush once said, but guess who is doing relatively mundane peacekeeping and reconstruction there now.

In Iraq, the US has avoided a quagmire with the recent ‘surge’ in its troop levels, but the war has almost emptied Washington’s coffers. According to Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, the war has cost America US$3.3 trillion, much higher than the Bush administration’s estimates of $500 billion. Stiglitz also believes the Iraq war contributed to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, because the Federal Reserve had flooded the system with easy money to stem the financial drain of the war.

The Bush administration has also backtracked from its initial reluctance not to negotiate with ‘axis of evil’ states such as Iran and North Korea. The US has taken North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terror, even before Pyongyang shutters its alleged nuclear programme.

The best example of Bush’s unilateralism was his administration’s tearing- up of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, so as to construct missile defences against enemy missiles.

The rationale for missile defences is solid: In the shadowy world of terrorists and rogue states, one cannot trust the Cold War-era doctrine of mutual assured destruction to keep the peace. But missile defence has already provoked countries such as Russia, which has already started to strike back.

More recently, the global financial crisis has brought America’s economy to its knees. According to some estimates, the $700 billion bailout of financial institutions and proposed fiscal stimuli could push the fiscal deficit to a whopping $1 trillion, or 7 per cent of GDP.

"The question is, on whose watch did this whole mess happen? Where was the financial regulation? Where was the oversight? Where were you?" political historian Terry Madonna from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania told Reuters.

Other analysts suggest a more nuanced evaluation of Bush’s record.

In Asia and the Pacific, he has signed free trade agreements with Singapore and Australia as well as enhanced alliances with Canberra and Tokyo. He has also resolved one of the 1990s’ biggest conundrums: the engagement or containment of China? He chose a mix of both - congagement.

Professor Edward Luttwak, a military strategist and historian, has argued that Bush has rolled back Islamic jihadism and enabled denuclearisation in countries such as Syria, Libya and North Korea.

"While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush," wrote Prof Luttwak.

Arguably, Bush has delivered to incoming president Barack Obama a better Iraq and a diplomatic process rather than deadlock in the Middle East as well as the Korean Peninsula.

"Whatever you may think of Bush’s abilities as a sailor, he has proved pretty good at bailing," National Journal writer Jonathan Rauch argued.

Bush can take comfort from former president Harry S Truman, who presided over the Korean War in the early 1950s. Like Bush, Truman was once labelled a foreign policy catastrophe.

Today, historians credit Truman as a visionary leader who implemented containment of the Soviet Union - a process that ended with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Similarly, Bush’s legacy cannot be assessed authoritatively until perhaps 50 years later - and with more objective historical methods.

"I think it is too early to judge. Clearly, at the time, there are many places we can see Bush did not accomplish his goals and where his policies failed to prevent bad things from happening," professor Julian Zeliezer, who teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University, told The Sunday Times.

"That said, presidential ratings change over time, depending on how things unfold."

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