Bush's decision on Iraq may cause him his reputation

But some historians say presidents who make tough decisions will look better as time passes

A man wearing a mask of U.S. President George W. Bush carries a globe during the anit-war protest on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Saturday...

A man wearing a mask of U.S. President George W. Bush carries a globe during the anit-war protest on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Saturday...

U.S. President George W. Bush came to power in 2001 vowing to make his mark on history by overhauling taxes, pensions and schools. Instead, an item not on the original agenda - the war in Iraq - may consign him to the bottom tier of U.S. leaders.
That's the view of a number of historians and presidential scholars, who say that unless Bush's decision to inject some 20,000 more troops succeeds in quelling sectarian violence, he risks joining the ranks of such poorly regarded American leaders as James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding.
"Iraq has done enormous damage" to Bush's standing, says Robert Dallek, the biographer of U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Bush, he says, will rank "somewhere at the bottom." Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin, says Bush's effort to reverse the course of events in the war is "his last chance to avoid the dustbin of history."
In a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll conducted January 13-16, 49 percent of respondents said Bush will be remembered as a poor or below-average president, with 28 percent ranking him as average. Only 22 percent said Bush will be judged a success.
In January 1999, when U.S. President Bill Clinton was being tried in the U.S. Senate after his impeachment, 35 percent said he would be viewed as a poor or below-average leader, with 23 percent rating him average and 37 percent calling Clinton above average.
Premature judgment
Some historians are reluctant to give Bush flunking grades just yet, saying Iraq is just one battlefield in a multi-front war on terrorism and cautioning that it's premature to declare the intervention a failure.
"Were there to be palpable signs of progress by the end of his administration or even if it occurred in the early time of his successor, people will say, 'Wow, he persevered,'" says Marc Landy, a political scientist at Boston College and co-author of the book "Presidential Greatness."
Bush "will not end up among the worst presidents," says John Fortier, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization that favors limited government. "The war on terror will be a longer-term effort where he'll be seen as important."
Presidents who make tough decisions, especially amid wartime, often look better with the passage of time. A prime example is Harry S. Truman, who endured approval ratings as low as 23 percent near the end of his term, and left office with jeers like "to err is Truman" ringing in his ears.
Bush himself has taken an interest in Truman; references to the nation's 33rd president pop up regularly in his speeches. Many people thought Truman's policies were "hopelessly idealistic," he said in a Chicago speech last spring. "But he had faith in certain fundamental truths."
Several scholars, though, say parallels between Bush and Truman may not be apt. Comparisons "don't make sense," says Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor. "Though Truman was unpopular, he had more political support for what he was doing."
Truman, by virtue of the Marshall Plan, aid to Greece and Turkey and his drive to create NATO, built a network of alliances to contain communism's advance. In contrast, Bush has pursued a largely unilateral approach to the war on terror that, critics say, weakened U.S ties with its allies and may hobble future presidents if international support is needed to confront a nuclear Iran or another threat to peace.
Charles Calhoun, a historian at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, says that due to Bush's "Lone Ranger" foreign-policy approach, "trust in the U.S. is at a very low point overseas, and future presidents will be hard- pressed to rebuild those bridges."
Political scientists have debated presidents' historical standing since at least 1948, when historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. undertook the first informal attempt at a ranking. While there's no agreement among scholars on the worst U.S. president, many lists include Buchanan, scorned for failing to preserve the union on the eve of the Civil War, and Harding, whose 1920s administration was rocked by oil-lease bribes in what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal.
Many lists also include Franklin Pierce, another pre-Civil War leader; the unlucky Herbert Hoover, president at the onset of the Great Depression; and Richard M. Nixon, tarred by the Watergate scandal and the only president to resign.
Bush, in a January 14 interview with CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, said he isn't worried about how history will judge him. "I really am not the kind of guy that sits here and says, 'Oh gosh, I'm worried about my legacy."'
If that's true, it makes him the exception rather than the rule among presidents heading into the twilights of their tenures.
Clinton, tarred by a House impeachment vote, intensified peace initiatives in the Mideast and Northern Ireland to burnish his image. Ronald Reagan surprised many in his party by pushing an ambitious second-term agenda of arms control with the Soviet Union and sweeping bipartisan reform of the tax code.
Bush's options
Bush's options are more limited than many of his predecessors', since nothing short of a turnaround in Iraq can rejuvenate his presidency, many analysts say.
"If the Iraq venture fails, so also will he fail in terms of the ranking of his administration," conservative commentator William F. Buckley said in a March interview. "There is nothing conceivable, in my judgment, that could rescue him if we proceed toward disaster in Iraq."
Iraq has already overwhelmed what might otherwise have been Bush's signature moments: rallying the nation after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; three rounds of tax-cutting; a national student-achievement program; and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"He'll be remembered for his eloquent speech in the immediate aftermath of September 11," says Wilentz. "He'll be remembered for rallying the country and the world behind him. He very quickly thereafter blew it."
Erwin Hargrove, a retired political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee says that "historians will see the decision to invade Iraq as a very, very mistaken decision."
Hargrove predicts Bush will probably go down in history as "one of our worst presidents," his reputation dragged down by Iraq in much the same way that Vietnam consumed Lyndon B. Johnson's. But unlike Johnson, who is credited with the Great Society web of social-welfare programs and for advancing civil rights, Bush, Hargrove says, "has nothing to counter-balance Iraq."
While a 2004 poll of 415 presidential scholars conducted by George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, found 81 percent deemed Bush's presidency a failure, several scholars say things might have turned out differently but for Iraq.
Wilentz says the invasion squandered an opportunity to unite the nation behind a concerted anti-terror strategy focusing on the pursuit of al-Qaida. Hargrove says that "if Bush had decided to govern from the center, fight in Afghanistan and not Iraq, and reform Medicare and Social Security, he could have been a highly successful president."
Edwin Meese III, U.S. attorney general under Reagan and now a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington group that backs small government, says such judgments are too harsh. History, he says, "will think well" of Bush "for taking on and leading the country in the global war on terrorists."
Bush "had no choice but to go into Iraq and to topple the dictator Saddam Hussein, since all the intelligence reports, even though erroneously, warned that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Meese says. "It's going to take the perspective of history to really determine what his place is."

Updated : 2021-02-27 18:53 GMT+08:00