The Paradox of Bush - and Obama

The Paradox of Bush - and Obama

By Cathy Young - January 20, 2009

One of the ironies of the presidency of George W. Bush is that the man who campaigned as "a uniter, not a divider" became an extremely polarizing president - until, by the end of his tenure, he succeeded in very nearly uniting the country against him. He leaves office with a 29 percent approval rating, legions of detractors, and some passionate defenders who look to history to vindicate him.

Partly, the divisiveness of the Bush presidency was due to a factor beyond Bush's control: he came to the White House after what most Democrats saw as a stolen election. While the September 11 tragedy briefly gave him a tremendous reserve of popular goodwill, it also fortified his tendency to see the issues in clear-cut terms of good-versus-evil - inevitably driving polarization. Not that Bush was wrong to call the evil of terrorism by its name: moral clarity is a virtue. Yet, taken to an extreme, it can turn into black-and-white thinking that treats policy differences as moral deficiencies and jettisons democratic discourse for diktat rooted in moral certitude.

Seeing oneself as a crusader against evil also creates a strong temptation to decide that the end justifies the means. Clearly, many of Bush's anti-terror tactics damaged not only to America's image in the world but our sense of who we are.

Bush and his supporters argue that those tactics, including "coerced interrogation" and curbs on the rights of detainees, have protected us from further terror attacks on U.S. soil. This argument cannot be dismissed outright; but whether the Bush strategy will be further condemned or partly absolved in the future depends largely on what we are going to learn about the inner workings of this war.

Civil libertarians - among whom I count myself - should remember that another September 11 would have probably created a climate in which, like it or not, most Americans might well have supported de facto martial law. Keeping us safe was essential to keeping us free.

Yet there are troubling questions about when "enhanced interrogation" becomes an Orwellian euphemism for torture and when detention policies pose an unacceptable risk to wrongly suspected innocents. Even aside from that, the administration's anti-terror effort was marked by an arrogance that recalls the biblical adage: pride goes before a fall. In his 2007 book, "The Terror Presidency," former Justice Department legal counsel Jack Goldsmith argues that the legitimacy of this effort would have been vastly enhanced had the White House worked with Congress instead of opting for an executive power grab.

The warrantless wiretap program is a good example. A special court has upheld the 2007 law passed by Congress allowing intercepts of international phone calls and emails. However, contrary to claims by some Bush defenders, the ruling did not exonerate the administration's launch of such a program in 2001 without congressional sanction. This high-handed approach is unlikely to find vindication.

Besides the War on Terror, promotion of freedom worldwide became Bush's other great cause. It was, I believe, a sincere credo - despite being used as retroactive justification for the war in Iraq, after no weapons of mass destruction were found - and a noble one, if sometimes naïve. (This flaw is shared by Bush's freedom promotion bible, The Case for Democracy by ex-Soviet dissident/Israeli politician Nathan Sharansky, whose stirring vision of freedom as a universal aspiration is marred by disregard for historical and cultural factors that may complicate democracy-building.) Unfortunately, in some ways, Bush's actions likely hurt this very cause: by undercutting America's moral standing to criticize human rights abuses, by seeming to endorse a "might makes right" philosophy, and by making it easy to equate democracy promotion with American invasion.

Bush can be legitimately accused of these and other sins. But he has also been battered with charges of which he can be acquitted now, without waiting for history's judgment.

First: For all the cries of jackbooted fascism, Bush never tried to gut American democracy. Yes, some curbs on the rights of terror suspects posed the risk of an innocent person facing a harrowing ordeal - which is bad enough. But there is not a shred of evidence that security-related measures expanding government powers have been used to suppress or punish dissent. (A couple of years ago, left-wing blogs leaped at claims that a Princeton law professor ended up on a no-fly list because of his public criticisms of the Bush administration - but the story was quickly debunked.) Nor were there any attempts to hobble political activity, despite dire warnings that the GOP cabal would stop at nothing to maintain its hold on power.

Second: However misguided the war in Iraq may have been (and this, I believe, is one area where the final verdict still depends on the events of the next decade), it was not a genocidal crime against the Iraqi people. Of course the death toll in Iraq - almost entirely at the hands of insurgents, not U.S. soldiers, though due partly to the mismanagement of the war - is horrific. But the invasion also toppled a horrific regime. In a large poll in the spring of 2005, 61 percent of Iraqis said that despite the hardships, ousting Saddam Hussein had been worth it; 28 percent disagreed. In 2007, only a quarter preferred life under Hussein.

As the Bush era ends, America embarks on another presidency that promises to be rich in paradox - one hopes, of a more positive sort. After a divisive campaign in which Obama was blasted as a radical, he is starting out as a centrist, his worst reviews coming from disgruntled leftists. His decisions suggest that he will continue the war on terrorism, with a tough but flexible approach that could rally both Americans and others to the anti-terror effort. He also seems seriously committed to national reconciliation, at the risk of angering those of his supporters who want Bush-era wrongdoing punished (and who sometimes exhibit the same absolutist good-versus-evil mentality that fueled the Bush administration excesses).

Finally, Obama's victory as a "post-racial" leader has heartened not only liberals but conservative champions of colorblind policies such as Ward Connerly, the African-American businessman who has fought to ban racial preferences.

Obama is no savior or knight in shining armor, and he is bound to disappoint many expectations. But, if his luck holds, he may fulfill the promise Bush once made: to govern as a uniter.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at

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