THE BLOG
07/03/2010 08:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Fourth of July Quiz: Was George Bush Really the Fifth-Worst President in History?

Was George W. Bush the fifth worst President in American history, as a group of historians just concluded? Or, as one of my conservative friends contends, are they just another cadre of leftist intellectuals wearing their ideological blinders?

Yes, it's been less than 18 months since Cheney and his protege left. But as a moderate Republican who for 30 years has brought together political enemies - ideologues from various sides - to actually accomplish something together, I am convinced: What GWB did on 9/12 and thereafter was tragically misguided.

I see it all the time: true-believers from the left and right mobilize their followers by seeking to be "tough" on their enemies. Predictably, GWB sought to look like he was undercutting the terrorists beginning on 9/12, when he was in fact their most effective recruiter. Here's how.

The most effective way for a tiny band of inept guerrilla warriors to take down a powerful enemy is to attack, then run into a crowd, and hope the powerful victim is gullible enough to mount a counterattack against the crowd. What GWB did after 9/11 was to demonize the Islamic extremists - all of them - rather than to marginalize and isolate the terrorists themselves.

Now, as Barry Goldwater said, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." And similarly, many Muslims, who interpret the words differently than GWB did, feel so aligned with their brethren and beliefs that they would proudly say they are "extremists" - as in, extremely devoted to God. So, by focusing on Islamic extremists, GWB helped make this seem to be a war against one billion devout Muslims.

Suddenly, instead of having a handful of idiot followers, Bin Laden had fooled us into handing him one billion potential sympathizers from which he could recruit. Instead of marginalizing him, as we could have done on 9/12, we painted him as a sophisticated and powerful monster with a wide following.

We created our own reality. Suddenly, every flailing liberation movement in the Islamic world formed its own local "Al Qaeda" branch. Of course, it was in name only - there was no formal relation, and the causes were a hodge-podge. But if you are a young angry rebel, it became cool to associate yourself with this guy whose image the US had magnified into monstrous proportions.

The smarter approach would have been:

1. Belittle Bin Laden and his followers as a tiny ruthless band of fools - acknowledge that it is easy to destroy, and hard to create - their capacity to crash planes into buildings does not show great sophistication, only ruthless evil.

2. Drive a divide between the terrorists and the Muslim religion, by never associating the two - and by recruiting peaceful Muslim religious and political leaders to condemn violence and champion peace. GWB fell into a well-known trap (read Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals") - and did exactly as Bin Laden wanted: we made him a living martyr and a champion of his religion.

3. Bring one wise Muslim academic leader into a prominent position in the administration - such as an assistant Secretary of State or an Ambassador-at-Large - to be a voice to reach out to the world's Muslims and demonstrate that Bin Laden is their enemy, and that we are proud to live up to our creed of respecting all the world's religions. That person could also demonstrate to non-Muslims that it is possible to be peace-loving and Islamic.

As for the Iraq war, I understand the neo-conservative theory of why it is a game-changer. And I was not extreme in my opposition to the war, though I thought it ill-considered and unwise. What I most objected to is the inept and sloppy military strategy that turned it into a disaster.

If you are going to take out a dictator - not something to rush into - you have to:

(1) Embrace the Powell doctrine - use overwhelming force. Don't buy the Rumsfeld fantasy, and try to do it lean and cheap. You'll pay the price.

(2) Recognize that, when a strongman like Hussein is in power, there is usually a reason. Often there are powerful contending forces that are being kept in check by brutality. If you take out the strong man, you may unleash the pent-up brutality of those kept in check.

(3) Even without a strongman to replace, recognize that the peace is much harder to achieve than the initial military victory. We were obviously completely unprepared for the fact that we were not welcomed as liberators by parades throughout Baghdad. This is a consequence of having ideologues like Cheney in charge of the war - they're so devoted to the reality they want that they don't see the reality that IS. And he was apparently too old to learn, and Bush too naive to second-guess him.

(3) To maintain order and avoid chaos, you need to keep the bureaucracy in power during the transition - even those who are part of the "evil" party you displaced. Notice the difference between Bush and a great leader like Nelson Mandela, who kept the white bureaucrats in their jobs after he took charge in South Africa, against the wishes of his followers. That's leadership - inspiring, and smart.

So Iraq is a game-changer - but instead of embedding an island of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, as the neocons theorized, it has thoroughly discredited the US and opened the door to more extremism.

To those conservatives who are dedicated to freedom: I respect you and the libertarian perspective. Understanding the dynamics of freedom has been a powerful source of solutions for me. But while libertarianism may be closer to "the truth" than the ideologies of central control, the world does not conform to the simple theories that even sophisticated libertarians propose. I have a sense that you believe the world is as simple as you set forth in your blog posts. The idea that Iraq is a positive game-changer suggests to me that you are swallowing the neocon theory because it is in line with your ideological preferences - not because it actually squares with reality.

Now, the other side: One of my conservative friends calls me "foolish" for thinking that we should engage the Muslim world - and that I am particularly naïve for contending that Obama is smart to do so. My goodness. I guess my 30 years of experience bringing haters together just sounds other-wordly to those who have not experienced the power of engagement. Who could possibly believe it is to our disadvantage to engage with a billion people?

Those who oppose engagement think that doing so is capitulating to, or even rewarding, the enemy. It is not. Our enemy hopes we will not engage. They fear it. They want those billion people to see them as their heroes. The Iranian leaders and Bin Laden and Islamic terrorists want Americans to fear the Islamic religion, because doing so recruits the Muslim world into their arms.

What is the effect when Americans see an angry crowd of Muslims shouting "death to America"? Conversely, what is the effect when Muslims hear self-described Tea Partiers in the US demonizing the entire Islamic world? Each is expressing genuine anger, but they cast the enemy as much larger in number than it actually is - and in doing so, they help it increase in size.

Unfortunately, building fear and hatred of the Islamic religion also serves the political interests of Republican politicians, because most of us respond to fear. If you paint a giant "them" out there that is our enemy, we stand behind our "leaders" who claim to be protecting us. And we re-elect inept failures like GWB and Cheney - Bin Laden's heroes - because they appear to be "tough," when in fact they are the real fools.

So yes, I am relieved to have Obama, especially because as one of his first efforts, he reached out to the Muslim world - in person and over the airwaves. He accomplished more in those two days to undermine the terrorists than all of GWB's rhetoric over seven years.

No, he's hardly a perfect President. Nor are we a perfect citizenry. And in retrospect, Hillary might have been a better leader for this moment, with her mix of masculine and feminine political qualities - the ability to be tough and reach out with understanding and magnanimity to the Muslim world.

On the other hand, Obama truly inherited a disaster - economic, military, and as we see now in the Gulf, environmental. Conservatives may want to blame him now for all that is wrong - and belittle those who "still blame Bush." But Andrew Sullivan and others paint a fairly convincing picture of Obama as a man who has accomplished much after just 18 months in office.

Yes, I'd lay heavy odds on GWB going down in history as one of the worst, and unfortunately, when the final history of the US is written, it would not surprise me to find that our star began to fall with his administration, and that we were never able to recover. I will gladly spend my life trying to make sure that doesn't happen, as will you, but we need many more to join us, and to look at our challenge as it is, not as our ideology says it should be.