The Bush national security legacy, as the outgoing president sees it, can be summed up in four words: “he kept us safe.” There has not been another terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. But was that the result of a combination of “no-brainer” and extraordinary (and possibly illegal) responses to September 11? Or to the fact that Al Qaeda was never really capable of mounting a second catastrophic strike on American soil? To luck? Or to all of the above?
The legions of Bush critics will never give the president credit for even this achievement, though they should.
On the other hand, the president’s dwindling number of defenders should also acknowledge that the president waited until September 4, almost a year into his administration before holding a “principals” meeting of his most senior advisors on counterterrorism. He also demoted Richard Clarke, the civil servant who had been the single most ardent proponent of aggressive action against Al Qaeda.
In other words: September 11 happened on President Bush’s watch, and that, too was no accident. The bi-partisan 9/11 Commission found much wanting in the policies of both the Clinton and Bush administrations when it came to what Washington now calls “connecting the dots,” or in the case of 9/11, failing to do so.
Beyond 9/11, there are a few victories but more defeats in the all-important arena of countering WMD, or “setbacks” and “disappointments,” as Mr. Bush prefers to call them. His intelligence community led him to believe that finding Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenals would be a “slam dunk,” in the CIA director’s immortal phrase. Having farmed out the problem to Europe and the United Nations, Bush failed to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons option by continuing its enrichment program. He belatedly signed the “six party” agreement with North Korea to dismantle that erratic country’s nuclear weapons program and took Pyongyang off the terrorist list, only to have North Korea refuse to submit to verification of its on-again, off-again steps to halt its program. Just recently, North Korean officials told an American scholar that they had “weaponized” enough plutonium for roughly four or five nuclear bombs, The New York Times reported today. Intelligence reports also indicate that North Korea may be operating an undeclared nuclear facility.
On the plus side, Bush’s war on Iraq did help persuade Colonel Muammar Qadaffi to renounce Libya’s WMD programs. And while he dissuaded Israel from striking Iranian nuclear facilities by refusing to let Israeli jets overfly Iraq or supply bunker buster missiles for such a raid, he did not condemn Israel’s demolition of Syria’s undeclared nuclear reactor, and some say, even provided some quiet assistance to that controversial strike on the still unfinished, allegedly North Korean-assisted plant, insiders say.
One of the most bitter ironies for the Bush White House is that much of the president’s “legacy,” or how history will perceive it, will depend on the Obama administration. What Bush started, Obama will finish, or reverse.
For instance, whatever historians ultimately make of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, he belatedly corrected his Pentagon’s faulty strategy in Iraq by approving the “surge” of troops there, the “awakening” strategy to peel minority Sunni tribes away from Al Qaeda, and the other counterinsurgency measures that Gen. David Petraeus was authorized to pursue, often over the protests of many of the president’s top advisors. But continued progress in Iraq will depend to some extent on how quickly President Obama decides to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and how he handles Iraq’s quarrelsome leaders and its even more problematic neighbors. The same is true of Afghanistan.
Having started the global War on Terror in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Bush achieved an early victory there. But triumph turned to stalemate when he decided to shift focus and resources away from Afghanistan to Iraq. Obama says he intends to refocus American attention and resources on that war. What must frustrate the outgoing president is the not just the complaints he expressed at his last press conference about allegedly biased press coverage, but the fact that much of his historical legacy is now in the hands of the politician who rose to power by challenging everything he did for eight years to keep the country safe.
Still, there must be some comfort for him in Barack Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense, hardly a repudiation of Mr. Bush’s defense policies.
He has also nominated as his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whom as Charles Krauthammer noted in a column on Sunday, has been key in guiding the current White House’s financial rescue package. Nor is President Obama likely to dismantle the counter-terrorism infrastructure that has significantly enhanced the priority of the nation’s fight against terror. While candidate and newly elected President-elect Obama vowed to issue an order closing Gitmo on his first day in office, his aides quietly conceded that figuring out what to do with its inmates could take up to a year, which is pretty much what the Bush administration concluded.
On some security policies and in tone, there is likely to be a sharp contrast between the presidents. But there will also be enough pragmatic similarities to make President Obama’s left-wing supporters quietly concerned. And that is not a bad national security legacy for a president with the lowest approval rating of any leader in decades.