12/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bush Legacy: Haunted By Mistakes

Americans are just finishing up eight years of George W. Bush. Their judgment of him is reflected in Bush's miserable popularity ratings. What remains of the Bush era?

He's the most unpopular president since Harry Truman. Experts and historians constantly give his policies poor grades. The inheritance he leaves his replacement is catastrophic. The name George W. Bush will be forever linked with the terms Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, water boarding and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

During the past eight years, America's reputation sank to an all-time low point. Historians will note that Bush failed to institute a new immigration policy and was unable to reform the healthcare system. But the budget deficit nonetheless managed to rise to dizzying heights on his watch.

That said, Bush's presidency, like Truman's, may someday be seen in a milder light. Why? Because in the last two years of his administration, Bush was able to pull off an inconspicuous, but in many ways fundamental, change of course.

The obvious focus of that change is the situation in Iraq. After the congressional elections in the fall of 2006 in which the Republicans lost their majority, he fired his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, thus making a new Iraq strategy possible. With the appointment of Robert Gates to that post, Pentagon leadership changed from military to political control. Gates was able to analyze the situation there in non-ideological terms. Gates in Washington and General David Petraeus in Baghdad steered a course that was the last possible chance for a turning point in the war. Instead of the quick pull-out advocated by many, Bush, Gates and Petraeus tried just the opposite: with a troop buildup and an offer of cooperation from the insurgents, the downward spiral of violence might be broken long enough to allow sufficient time for new policies to work.

At least the level of violence has declined since then. In Baghdad, barriers are now being demolished rather than constructed; a semblance of normality has since returned to many neighborhoods. But many have to find a new place to live. In the once integrated city, Shi'ites and Sunnis now mainly live far apart, families were torn apart, social bonds cut. Still, residents of the city can now go into public areas without fearing for their lives as they did before. Political successes had little to do with that change because the ruling class in Iraq is still having a tough time finding common ground among people in the country.

The fall of Rumsfeld and the change to a new course didn't happen in a vacuum. Bush also got rid of his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, albeit not without a lot of arm-twisting. His blind loyalty to the White House caused him to overstep boundaries and led to a loss of trust in him, something essential to someone in his position. Bush replaced Gonzales with Michael Mukasey, a federal judge generally respected by both sides.

The appointment of Henry Paulson to be secretary of the treasury was a similar case. The former CEO of Goldman-Sachs proved to be a good choice even prior to the financial crisis. After two lackluster predecessors, Paulson was able to finally give the Treasury Department the right image.

The course corrections in the Bush administration may be best summed up by four points: (1) after years of passive or no action, the administration once again took up the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; (2) in dealings with Iran, the administration toned down its bellicose language; (3) despite the opposition of administration hawks, an agreement on nuclear disarmament was reached with North Korea, and (4) long a point of contention with the Europeans, the administration's rhetoric concerning the environment also changed. Indeed, Bush stuck with his rejection of the Kyoto Protocols, but he did commit the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the year 2050. What had happened to cause such basic changes in the Bush administration? "I think we learned something in the meantime," answered security advisor Stephen Hadley when asked that question by a reporter in June.

Over the past six years, meanwhile, this learning process has been viewed negatively by a whole host of observers regarding style, content and analysis. In his 2007 book, Jimmy Carter's former security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, described George W. Bush's administration as a "disaster" that resulted in a "historic failure." Speaking for many, Brzezinski bases his judgment primarily on the Iraq war. Regardless of the fact that things look somewhat improved in Iraq, grave mistakes were made in assessing the situation preceding the invasion and mistakes were made post-invasion that have never been corrected. The approximately 4,200 American troops killed in action and some 30,000 wounded must be attributed to George W. Bush. A few subsequently successful touch-ups can't change that.

Even Bush's defenders no longer argue that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, or that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda, or that the coalition didn't grossly underestimate the strength of the insurgency. The neo-conservatives who pushed those scenarios and the failed policies resulting from them have since fallen back to a second line of defense: Bush confronted Islamic terrorism, made democratization of the Middle East the focal point of his foreign policy, and kept America free from further terrorist attack after 9/11. Compared to the original justification for going to war in Iraq, however, these pleas appear more meager and diversionary than anything else.

Bush may hope that history will eventually find him right on this or that point. Truman also fought a war (Korea) and developed a doctrine designed to halt the spread of communism throughout the world. But few historians find it easy to imagine that the Iraq war and the attempt to democratize the Middle East will someday be seen as far-sighted.