It was a somewhat chastened George W. Bush who gave his farewell address last night. He spoke of "setbacks" and "challenges to our prosperity." While he didn't lose the rhetorical insistence on the battle between good and evil abroad, there was little talk of going abroad to slay more monsters.
As his speech demonstrated, it's becoming increasingly clear that Bush's presidency will likely be divided into two parts. The first part is the Bush who strolled into Iraq, dissed American allies and relied almost exclusively on Vice President Dick Cheney. The second Bush is the one who realized that Iraq was spiraling out of control, canned Donald Rumsfeld, made nice with Europe, tried to negotiate with North Korea, and threw his free-market principles overboard to try and rescue the faltering American economy. Bush I was a disaster. Bush II was someone it would have been possible to tolerate.
It's a good bet that Barack Obama will in some respects continue on the path of Bush II. This prospect already has commentators such as Charles Krauthammer proclaiming that Obama will become the "chief revisionist" of the Bush presidency. The Democrats, Krauthammer says, "own Iraq." They also "own the war on al-Qaeda. And they own the panoply of anti-terror measures with which the Bush administration kept us safe these past seven years."
Those are some sweeping claims, but they aren't completely persuasive. Obama doesn't "own" Iraq as much as he's trying to divest the United States of it. Pretty soon, Enterprise Iraq, which Bush rather optimistically dubbed an "Arab democracy" in the heart of the Middle East, is going to be something that the Iraqis themselves have to maintain rather than relying on American troops to prevent the country from plunging into civil war. As for the war on al-Qaeda, the Bush administration sensibly decided to focus on al-Qaeda in the past year, which it pretty much failed to do previously. The number of Predator strikes on al-Qaeda figures lurking in Pakistan is way up. Figure on Obama to maintain the pressure. And whether those fabled "anti-terror" measures-wiretapping and torture-really added up to that much is another question. Apart from sullying the nation's reputation abroad, it seems rather dubious that the flagrant torture techniques employed by Bush extracted any useful information.
The big question mark for Obama will be Afghanistan. According to Bush last night,
"Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school." If the scenario were that rosy, then Obama wouldn't be signing off on sending a further thirty-thousand troops to Afghanistan. The United States faces the same conundrum it faced in Vietnam: how to deal with a corrupt, venal central government. In addition, local Afghanis resent the foreign troops. Finally, as British Defense Secretary John Hutton recently observed, NATO members are "freeloading" on the United States in Afghanistan. It would be unfair to blame all of this on Bush. But the fundamental fact remains that had he not diverted America's attention to the suppositious threat posed by Iraq, Bush would have enjoyed a much better chance of transforming Afghanistan into a stable ally rather than a hapless ward of the United States.
Ultimately, however, Bush's chiliastic view of foreign affairs meant that he was susceptible from the outset to the idea of a grand crusade on behalf of democracy. He truly believed that he was a new Churchill and Harry Truman rolled into one, staring down the domestic appeasers who were blind to the threat posed by terrorism abroad. As a result, he lumped disparate terrorist corpuscles into a single, diabolical organism, intent on destroying the American way of life. Bush's most revealing statement, then, was this:
The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder. The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace.
Note how closely it echoes Truman's 1947 speech warning America about the Soviet threat:
One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
It devalues the cold war to compare it, as Bush does, to the battle against terrorism. Sorry, but al-Qaeda is not the Soviet Union.
After years of Bush's hypertrophied rhetoric, Obama's job will be to calm America's jangled nerves. Perhaps the economic crisis will provide him with the opportunity to normalize American foreign policy and to push through, as he's now promising, real reform on massive entitlement spending programs. It's easy enough for Bush to say goodbye to all that, but no else can to the mess he's left behind.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.