In his farewell address yesterday, George W. Bush pointed out that America has gone seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil. That is an important fact, but future historians will have to judge the extent to which Bush caused it, and whether it could have been achieved by less costly means. They must also weigh it against the other facts that he leaves two unfinished wars, an economic crisis, and global polls showing a loss of American soft power. Will the enduring icons of the 43rd presidency be Iraq, Guantanamo and Katrina? Or will they be 9/11 and his "freedom agenda?"
As I wrote in The Powers to Lead, Bush had faith and perseverance in pursuing a Wilsonian vision that history is moving toward democracy. But even if we take him at his word that he followed his conscience in pursuit of his vision, unfortunately, he lacked the intellectual curiosity and contextual intelligence necessary to implement it. David McCullough suggests that it takes about 50 years to allow the dust to settle in judging a presidency, and Bush likes to compare himself to Truman who left office with a low rating half a century ago. But Truman had institutional accomplishments like the Marshall Plan and NATO under his belt by the end of his term, and Bush has nothing comparable. Whether his lofty vision led us up the mountain or over a cliff remains to be judged in the long run, but at this point, the odds that future historians will give Bush a good grade do not look favorable.
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