Buh Bye

We’re into the final days of Bush’s presidency. I’m excited for the transition, if only to finally get some relief from Bush Derangement Syndrome. Bush wasn’t a good president, but I’m not sure what “a good president” would look like. I know a lot of people think that a good president is one who promises to steal a bunch of stuff from your neighbors and give it to you, but I don’t agree.

Personally, I’d like a president who did what he could to trim the excess of Federal government, exercised his veto frequently and with great gusto, and conducted a sane, deliberate foreign policy designed to increase American peace and prosperity.

Alas, not many people agree with me. We’ve suffered through eight years of massive spending increases and increased federal intrusion into our lives. Domestic policy has been a disaster and foreign policy, while surprisingly principled, has been marred by largely woeful execution.

Much of the commentary I’ve seen on Bush’s exit has been disappointing; either mere adolescent sniggering on one hand or petulant partisan hagiography on the other. I’ll exeprt some of the better, more level-headed comments below.

Richard Perle at The National Interest focuses largely on the Iraq War,

In any case, the salient issue was not whether Saddam had stockpiles of WMD but whether he could produce them and place them in the hands of terrorists. The administration’s appalling inability to explain that this is what it was thinking and doing allowed the unearthing of stockpiles to become the test of whether it had correctly assessed the risk that Saddam might provide WMD to terrorists. When none were found, the administration appeared to have failed the test even though considerable evidence of Saddam’s capability to produce WMD was found in postwar inspections by the Iraq Survey Group chaired by Charles Duelfer.

I am not alone in having been asked, “If you knew that Saddam did not have WMD, would you still have supported invading Iraq?” But what appears to some to be a “gotcha” question actually misses the point. The decision to remove Saddam stands or falls on one’s judgment at the time the decision was made, and with the information then available, about how to manage the risk that he would facilitate a catastrophic attack on the United States. To say the decision to remove him was mistaken because stockpiles of WMD were never found is akin to saying that it was a mistake to buy fire insurance last year because your house didn’t burn down or health insurance because you didn’t become ill. No one would take seriously the question, “Would you have bought Enron stock if you had known it would go down?” and no one should take seriously the facile conclusion that invading Iraq was mistaken because we now know Saddam did not possess stockpiles of WMD. …

Of course, responsibility for an ill-advised occupation and an inadequate regional strategy ultimately lies with President Bush himself. He failed to oversee the post-Saddam strategy, intervening only sporadically when things had deteriorated to the point where confidence in cabinet-level management could no longer be sustained. He did finally assert presidential authority when he rejected the defeatist advice of the Baker-Hamilton commission and Condi Rice’s State Department, ordering instead the “surge,” a decision that he surely hopes will eclipse the dismal period from 2004 to January 2007. But that is but one victory for the White House among many failures at Langley, at the Pentagon and in Foggy Bottom. …

I believe Bush ultimately failed to grasp the demands of the American presidency. He saw himself (MBA that he was) as a chief executive whose job was to give broad direction that would then be automatically translated into specific policies and faithfully implemented by the departments of the executive branch. I doubt that such an approach could be made to work. But without a team that shared his ideas and a determination to see them realized, there was no chance he could succeed. His carefully drafted, often eloquent speeches, intended as marching orders, were seldom developed into concrete policies. And when his ideas ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the executive departments, as they often did, debilitating compromise was the result: the president spoke the words and the departments pronounced the policies.

Timothy Sandefur addresses the one thing that Bush got right,

George W. Bush was a failure as a president, but there has already been plenty—and will of course be much more—piling on about the failures. After watching his farewell address, I am struck by the thought of the one thing Bush got right.

Whatever his failures, George W. Bush is an honest man—often foolish, usually deeply misguided—but a sincere man who genuinely loves his country and its people…. Of all the attacks on him in the past eight years, probably none is more tragically misplaced than the immature and ludicrous claim that he “lied to get us into war.” …

Bush fell short in many, many ways—his continued embrace of Saudi Arabia and Russia, for instance, his keeping of an almost openly insubordinate Secretary of State, a domestic policy so riddled with stupidity and error that time will not permit even a brief itemization. But when he says this, he gets it exactly right, and he has always got this point right:

As we address these challenges—and others we cannot foresee tonight—America must maintain our moral clarity. I’ve often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense—and to advance the cause of peace.

And Adam Cohen nails the essence of Bush’s domestic policy,

To the extent that W. fostered and reinforced the impression that his failed interventionist policies reflect capitalism-in-action, he has dicombobulated the popular understanding of capitalism. This tragic accomplishment will reverberate not merely in his presidential legacy. It will be felt in public policy debates to come, when honest advocates of private property rights, voluntary trading based on mutual consent, and the profit-and-loss system of competition are challenged to defend their proposals in light of the failures of the capitalistic 43rd president. Of course, such accusations will not stand up to serious scrutiny, but the popular perception that free markets failed under W. has set the stage for politicians who will make hay promising a tsunami of new-fangled old-school government interventionism.

As for me, I won’t miss Bush 43. He was a flawed man with flawed principles in a flawed job who tried to do too much. The same can be said of any our presidents, with the possible exception of Washington. Our next president will be much the same. Hope™ and Change™ aside, the office is remarkably constrained. We have always tended to credit our presidents with far more power (either for good or evil) than they actually possess.