Judging Bush

Bush leaves office seen as one of the worst presidents in history. But how much of that legacy is due to circumstance and how much to incompetence?

How should one assess the legacy of George W. Bush? Is he the worst president in history, or a man who did the right but unpopular thing? These are the questions that have been bandied about the blogosphere since his farewell address last Thursday. Even if we narrow this question to foreign affairs, the answers are difficult to come by.

It should be cut and dried. When Bush became president, the United States was the unparalleled hegemon in a world that was steadily embracing free-market democracy. Those that did not like the United States at least respected the nation's strength. What a difference eight years make. One could go through the litany of specific policy mistakes-Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Iraq, Katrina, the global economy, etc. Simply put, at the end of 2008 the United States generated less respect, less influence, less goodwill, less standing, and less relative power in world politics than it did at any time during the post-cold-war era.

This is all Bush's fault right? Not so fast. A big problem with making this assessment is that we run into fundamental attribution error. Simply put, when we like someone, we attribute their positive actions to their personality and their negative actions to circumstance. When we don't like someone, we do the reverse. It's pretty clear that Bush is not well-liked at the moment. Could it be that some of his more unfortunate decisions were the product of circumstances rather than his own disposition?

Some of the power shifts that we are currently witnessing go beyond George W. Bush. The dot-com bubble, for example, was inevitably going to pop. The September 11th attacks would have transpired regardless of who was president. The rise of the BRIC economies is an inexorable process-America's relative power was going to decline at some point. Indeed, one of the few strengths of the Bush presidency has been his management of great-power relations. Arguably, U.S. relations with both China and India have never been better.

That said, the strategic indictment of George W. Bush is still damning. On major policy dimensions relevant to American foreign policy-the assertion of presidential power, democracy promotion, nuclear nonproliferation-the administration pursued policies that in the end undermined their stated goals. As New York Times-reporter David Sanger makes clear in his new book The Inheritance, the opportunity costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom to American foreign policy have been staggering. And Iraq, remember, was a war of choice.

Indeed, Bush's strategic blunders have been so massive that they explain his greatest tactical success-the management of great-power relations. From a Chinese perspective, George W. Bush was an unparalleled strategic gift. He was a leader of a rival power who accelerated his country's relative decline, easing the way for a larger Chinese role in the Asia-Pacific region. Of course Beijing would be friendly with a regime like that. The cruelest irony of the Bush administration is that those who will miss him the most will be the other great powers.

Daniel W. Drezner is a senior editor at The National Interest.