President Bush has already established a lasting legacy in fighting terrorism by toppling the Taliban regime and breaking up Osama bin Laden's operational network. He also instituted a set of new laws and regulations on detainees, interrogations and surveillance, in an effort to give U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials the tools they need to combat terrorism. Though these steps are likely to be challenged by a Democratically controlled Congress, there is no doubt that in the War on Terror our laws and regulations will need to be refined to balance the needs of security with civil rights.
But victory in the War on Terror means more than these as well. It also means winning the war of ideas associated with this struggle.
We need to have a much better understanding of what motivates ideological fence-sitters on terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere. There are various demographic, national and religious views in the Muslim world that are scarcely understood by American policymakers. It simply will not do to conclude that because many Muslims are ambivalent about some parts of America's War on Terror, not to mention America's values as a society, they have written off our values of freedom and democracy. Islam-both as a religion and as a political movement-is going through a crisis and a revival at the same time. We need to better understand it before we can even think of influencing it. But to influence it, the 2006 National Security Strategy is right: We will need to counter the lies behind the terrorists' ideology by empowering people through political and economic reforms. And we must encourage many more responsible Islamic leaders to denounce the ideology that distorts and exploits Islam for destructive ends.
President Bush understands that it is not enough to denounce radical Islamism. His signature contribution to the ideological struggle in the War on Terrorism has been his forthright assertion that America should actively support the spread of freedom and democracy around the world. That agenda is essentially the ideological component of the war. It is both a long-range strategic goal and a short-term political tactic. It is intended to lay claim to the high moral ground against the terrorists, particularly the radical Islamic variety, but also to provide an alternative of hope to fence-sitters in the Middle East and elsewhere who may otherwise take inspiration from the fanatical haters of freedom and democracy.
This agenda has many critics, some of whom are as guilty of over-simplification as the administration is in its public pronouncements. It is true that sometimes the administration has failed to make a proper distinction between democracy and elections, as was the case in the administration's statements on the Palestinian elections. And it is also true that some of the soaring rhetoric of the administration's speeches have raised expectations that cannot possibly be met in the short run, if ever. . . .
There is only so much America can do to pursue that goal, but while trade-offs and hard choices must always be made, it would be better if America said this forthrightly rather than appear to be embarrassed by or indifferent to its values. . . .
Positive presidential legacies in foreign policy are rare things. Some presidents leave nothing behind. Others bungle things, making the country worse off. Still others make modest accomplishments that are overturned by their successors. The most successful were the ones who grasped the essence of a crisis and rose to the occasion to meet it. That was what Truman and Eisenhower did when they established a containment strategy that lasted for a generation. And that was what Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did when they won the Cold War.
Whether George W. Bush achieves the hallowed historical status of a Truman or Reagan depends on his leaving a lasting legacy of freedom and prosperity. To do that, he must figure out how to marry his obvious strength of fortitude with a newly developed flexibility toward his longstanding goals. All too often in the later years of their terms, presidents confuse tactics and goals, feeling the need more to defend what they've done than to decide what must be done next. President Bush should not make this mistake. He will never run for office again. He should be less concerned about defending his decisions than about getting better results. It is on the latter that his presidency will be judged long after his current critics are dead and gone.
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