Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Ranjan Sreedharan
Nov. 18, 2008, Cochin, India

It is fair to say that when George Bush leaves the White House in two months time, he will do so not with a feeling of dejection at his colossal failures. Instead, he will carry with him a sense of deep hurt and injured pride that his accomplishments are so seldom acknowledged by his countrymen and the world at large. Indeed, in these the twilight days of his disastrous presidency, it is likely that he subsists entirely on that fond hope of politicians (the unlucky and the incompetent alike) that history will judge them far more kindly than their contemporaries have.

At the moment, it does seem a very tall order. A recent survey of 744 contemporary historians and political scientists in the United States revealed that many rate him to be the worst American president ever. This will not come as an eye-popping surprise to anyone. After all, here is a man who possessed the contra-Midas touch. Everything he touched has turned unfailingly into dust.

He began by breaking up the existing international order and sullying America’s image in the world. He followed it up by wrecking the economy, accumulating massive amounts of national debt and topping it off by bequeathing a banking and financial crisis so acute, it draws comparison with the Great Depression. Finally, and we know it now that the elections are over, the Republican Party is rudderless and almost in tatters, having lost heavily in the Congressional elections as well. George Bush, it may be said, broke the world, broke America and broke his own party.

And yet, all is not lost as yet. Indeed, going by historical precedent, there is still hope that history will take a kinder look at what Bush has wrought.

To begin with, the legacy of an American president (or for that matter, just about any other position) is not just about what he has done or what his achievements and failures are. It is also in large measure, about what his successors do after taking over from him. A weak, inefficient successor tarnishes your legacy, because the failures are allowed to fester without course correction. Equally, a capable successor burnishes your legacy because he builds on your accomplishments and covers up for your failures.

In the case of George Bush, there is no denying that the failures are many and massive. To ensure the kinder, gentler look from history, he badly needs a strong, capable successor who can methodically address the many loose ends he will surely leave behind, and who can be counted on to undo some (if not all) of the damage already done. In Barack Obama, George Bush may have exactly such a person.

Left to his own instincts and judgement, George Bush would have preferred John McCain. But then, if there is an enduring lesson from the Bush presidency, it is that it is possible for one man’s gut feelings to be consistently wrong, even when he holds the highest office in the land.

George Bush hoped that John McCain would succeed him as president. He did not get his wish. I believe he has been fortunate. At a time when what America needs above all is day-to-day competence in its president, John McCain ran on a platform whose primary offering was more of muscular American leadership with no sense of this country’s diminished circumstances. In contrast, Obama appeared to be the more level-headed choice, if only because he had a greater sense of how much the country has fallen.

And here is an irony. Thanks to George Bush not getting his wish, his legacy stands a better chance of that kinder look from history that he so craves.

There is a recent parallel Bush can take heart from. These days, whenever Americans are asked about their great presidents, a name that consistently figures among the top is that of Ronald Reagan. There is a feeling that Reagan won the cold war for America and that his reign marked a period of quiet prosperity. Actually, the truth is a little more complex. When Reagan came to power, America was the largest creditor nation in the world. When he stepped down, America was the largest debtor nation in the world. During his eight years in office, the country’s national debt increased three-fold to US$ 2.9 trillion dollars, with the federal budget running up massive deficits year after year. Reagan was, however, lucky that when he stepped down, the economy was still doing okay. His vice-president the senior George Bush who succeeded him, was not so lucky. By the time he went up for re-election, the economy was in a serious recession and he lost tamely to Bill Clinton (remember the line “It’s the economy, stupid.”)

And yet, if Reagan is remembered kindly today, credit must also go to the Clinton presidency which revised taxes, kept spending in check, presided over the largest peace-time expansion ever in the economy, and methodically turned a chronic budget deficit into (what seems unimaginable now) a surplus. Once this was done, it was so much easier to look kindly at the Reagan presidency.

However, the biggest failure of the Reagan years is something few Americans are even aware of. Under Reagan, America was actively involved in funding and arming the Afghan Mujahedeen who were then fighting the Soviet army. It led to defeat for the Soviet Union and was judged to be a great success. It is also claimed that the cost imposed on the Soviet Union by this action was one of the reasons for the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire.

Whatever be the truth about the Soviet collapse, it is a fact that the Mujahedeen were soon to transform themselves into the Taliban and that one of the less prominent figures in the Mujahedeen who happened to receive substantial American help (routed through the Pakistani military) was Osama bin Laden. What happened next is too well known to require reiteration. Okay, in politics, your enemy’s enemy is very often your friend. But equally, it is also plain good sense (not to mention good policy) to look a little closely at exactly who this enemy’s enemy is, and ask a few hard questions about what he really stands for. It was a remarkable failure of the Reagan presidency that no such foresight was shown. Thanks to this gross negligence, we have an area in New York that today goes by the name “Ground Zero”.

As for George Bush, talk about lack of foresight being likely to create many more problems in the future is premature. His eight reckless years at the helm have given rise to too many burning problems that require immediate attention. Therefore, while it is likely that America will continue to pay a price well into the foreseeable future, chances are (like Reagan before him), Bush will not be blamed for these.

And then, if Barack Obama’s administration turns out to be a competent, capable effort, able to extricate America from Iraq, restore America’s standing in the world and bring stability to the ailing economy, it is conceivable that in 15 to 20 years time, people in America will begin to forget how bad things really were under the Bush presidency.

And then, George Bush will have his wish, with historians and academics looking back on his reign with sympathy for a simple man who boldly set out to do what he thought was right without fear of the consequences. Who knows, one day Iraq may actually become a modern, progressive Democracy. Trust the American right-wing then, to rush to proclaim, “all thanks to Dubya”. Not long afterwards, count on a legend to spring up around Geroge Bush as the American president who brought freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq.

Sounds far fetched? Remember, Reagan is already lionised as the American president who won the cold war for America. Never mind that an economic system where planners and bureaucrats were setting some 24 million different prices would have imploded on its own, sooner than later.