Like most Americans, I think of George W. Bush as a failed President. Worse than that, I think him not simply as a President who chose unwise policies but as one who assaulted the foundations of American democracy and federalism -- by institutionalizing torture, suspending habeas, violating FISA, corrupting intelligence, and politicizing the Justice Department, the CIA, the EPA and probably every other federal agency.
Nonetheless: our institutions are strong, though weaker when he took office; good people have served during his tenure; and not all of his own impulses and goals were warped. After seven and a half years, the Bush Administration has some accomplishments under its belt. Arrayed together, they look like the pillars of an impressive presidency -- if you discount the incoming missiles of multiple disaster. Here's an equivocal list:
1. Disarmament deal with North Korea - five years and maybe 10 bombs late, but there would seem to be at least a reasonable chance that this rogue will be effectively disarmed. After poking the polecat Kim Jong II and stimulating North Korea's successful weaponization, the Bush Administration has patiently tread a multilateral path that's yielded at least the potential of a good outcome.
2. Bringing Gaddafi in from the cold: a long process with an array of carrots and sticks, but the invasion of Iraq may have concentrated this dictator's mind.
3. Massive increase in AIDS aid: perhaps thanks to Christianist prodding, Bush has showed admirable focus and follow-through on one of the greatest threats to global prosperity.
4. Prescription drug benefit: too expensive, the donut hole is inefficient, private insurers have too great a role, and the drug companies got a giveaway. But seniors do have substantial help in paying their drug bills.
5. No Child Left Behind: the mandate's unfunded and the loopholes in assessment are ridiculous. But we have the halting beginnings of assessing where we're at, state-by-state and district-by-district, in educational achievement.
6. No terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11: no one will ever know all the reasons why, and many of Bush's "antiterror" measures have come at a dreadful price. But preventing another attack was probably Bush's top priority -- quite a heartfelt one. And there has not been another attack -- here -- on his watch.
7. The FISA bill he wanted: Bush has to know that he's gone all out on this front probably to hand expanded capabilities to a Democratic President. He's probably been motivated partly by the need to obtain cover for his own crimes in breaking FISA. But again, he's doubtless convinced that the intelligence agencies need the powers he's obtained for them. And they probably do need most of them.
8. Decent stewardship of the China relationship: China-bashing on the economic front is mostly demagoguery; it's in everyone's interest that China continue on a peaceful path to first-world economic stature and attendant global influence. The Bush crew has maintained trust and cooperation; it's doubtful whether more pressure could have shaped Chinese economic or geopolitical decisions more to our liking.
9. Deposing the Taliban: yes, the caveats outweigh the accomplishment: we let bin Ladin escape, we took our eye off the ball, we allowed al Qaeda to regroup and left a foundling government in a shattered country to its own devices. But who's to say the initial campaign couldn't have been botched? The Taliban went swiftly, with a minimum of blood.
10. Deposing Saddam: again, the price paid and the terms chosen were catastrophic. This was not a job to be undertaken on false pretenses, without winning our chief allies' assent or the world's acceptance; it was the wrong war at the wrong time, and it gave new life to our worst enemies. But Saddam was a threat to stability in the middle east and therefore in the world. Iraqis would have had to cope with his end at some point, and who's to say the transition would have been better without the heavy hand of the hegemon? There is now at least a reasonable hope that a non-monstrous national government will assert control over Iraq. Which suggests another accomplishment:
11. The Surge: if a hedge fund manager loses $700 million out of a $1 billion, do we credit him with decisions that bring the balance back up to a half billion? A poor analogy. Money is easily accounted; lives can't be, and actual historical outcomes can't be compared with might-have-beens. Nonetheless, whatever you think of the decision to go to war or of the first four years of its execution, the surge was an extraordinarily difficult decision that's worked better than basically anyone expected. It was also something of a reversal for Bush, who had lived and died by the Rumsfeld doctrine to that point. I don't think anyone can deny that the opportunity for a decent outcome in Iraq is far greater now than in fall 2006; to deny the surge's centrality in the turnaround is deep denial. Yes, those who designed and executed it got lucky - but they made their own luck. The surge enabled the Sunni Awakening, the Sadr rope-a-dope, and the long-delayed beginnings of legislative progress.
So there you have it. I have not convinced myself that Bush was a good President, or even not a monstrous President -- I consider the institutionalization of torture as established U.S. policy a truly monstrous legacy. So what exactly is the point of this exercise? Perhaps its this: in a long-established democracy, there's almost an institutional inertia toward some constructive action. After a Rumsfeld, institutional pressures and norms will push up a Gates. While stalwart nonpolitical appointees like Richard Clarke may get pushed out, others, like Christopher Hill will remain. Even a bad crew remains accountable to a large degree to voters. As long as people don't vote away their civil liberties or other Constitutional protections, the system self-regulates and self-corrects.