This week I have been writing about President Bush and his management of our country in difficult times. The response has been mixed, from people who agree with me that Bush is one of our best Presidents, to vitriol-laced screeds that he is somehow our worst President. While the latter sort are clearly unbalanced by their hatred – their refusal to recognize the greatness of President Reagan does their credibility quite a bit of damage – it seems to me that it is worthwhile to explore the way we look at Presidents.
There are three methods generally available to consider the merits of a President’s accomplishments; ranking front-to-back, a grade scale such as a teacher would issue, and in-place comparisons. The first method, while an interesting exercise, is often devolved to a simple popularity contest, which really does not address the actual performance of a President. And a grade scale, while useful if applied as objectively as possible, is often the puppet of the grader, and is used to create an image rather than assess the man in total. Also, the difference in each President’s time and place to address the nation’s welfare to varying degrees and with shifting priorities, makes many comparisons unfair. Indeed, many leading historians decline to assess a President who served in their own lifetime, because they realize that personal bias will likely devalue the analysis they apply, as each President is awarded or penalized points simply because the historian personally likes or dislikes the man and his politics.
The third method, in-place comparisons, can also fall prey to personal manipulation, but at least an attempt to correct for bias can be made. I would further note that in-place comparisons should not be used to claim that one President was clearly “better” than another, because of the difference in each man’s environment; it is one thing to say, for example, that no President since Washington would be likely to have done a better job in his place at the start of the nation, yet it might also be valid to say that no President could have done better than Lincoln with the tasks laid to his charge. The purpose here is simply to consider whether President Bush was “up to the job”, as demonstrated by how other Presidents would have handled the same crises. I further note here that I am not including Bush’s non-Presidential contemporaries in a comparison, either as an opportunity to praise them or rebuke them, because we cannot truly know how a “President Gore” or a “President Kerry” would have faced the real events. Only men who have truly served as Presidents can honestly be weighed on the Presidential scale.
Setting the stage for these comparisons, therefore, requires me to consider the sort of actions which could be fairly considered without some personal requisite for success. That is, I do not consider the virtue or fault of President Bush’s judicial appointments, because a Conservative or Republican would see the matter much differently than a Liberal or Democrat. Also, while I personally find Bush’s efforts to reform Social Security and Medicare to be honorable and indicators of his sense of honor and duty to the country’s welfare, the fact that his efforts did not result in effective legislation makes it impossible to properly consider them accomplishments. Also, too complex a comparison would make the task cumbersome and cluttered in its results. Accordingly, I look to five key matters which I contend a responsible President would have addressed, and whose success can be clearly measured. Those matters are these:
 April 1, 2001 – A PRC fighter jet collides with a U.S. Navy Reconnaissance aircraft in International waters. The PRC pilot is killed in the crash, while the U.S. Navy plane is forced to land and its crew taken prisoner by the PRC.
 September 11, 2001 – Terrorists from the international group “Al Qaeda” hijack four US domestic commercial aircraft, and ram two of them into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, and a third airliner into the Pentagon.
 Fall 2001 – The economic recession which began earlier in the year is aggravated by effects, technical and psychological, from the 9/11 attacks. The economy threatens to worsen unless the government acts.
 October 2001 – The terrorist group Al Qaeda is directly linked to the Taliban regime in control of Afghanistan. The Taliban refuse to cooperate with demands to eject Al Qaeda, instead demonstrating a militant desire for war against the West through terrorist attacks.
 February 2003 – The dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq continues to flout its violation of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire terms, to support a large number of international terrorist actions, especially the tactics of suicide bombers against civilian Israeli targets, and the international consensus of the Intelligence Community is that Saddam is seeking the development of WMD, and his behavior strongly suggests he possesses stockpiles of WMD.
The situation in each of these crises is such that no President could have expected to have reliable prior knowledge sufficient to prevent the crisis from occurring, nor was U.S. policy able to anticipate these crises. It is no coincidence that four of the five defining crises of the Bush Administration emerge from international incidents.
With this in mind, the benchmarks established by the present Bush Administration are as follows:
I – The crisis, which could have ended in disaster and at times appeared in doubt, ended with improved U.S.-Sino relations and the safe return of the entire U.S. Navy crew. While often ignored by critics of the Bush Administration, this early crisis is one of his shining successes in Diplomacy, and demonstrated an often-missed subtlety to the Bush method.
II – The Bush Administration undertook a comprehensive review and overhaul of the National Defense paradigm. While controversial in places and not always well-explained, the actions taken under President Bush’s authority have prevented another significant terrorist attack on U.S. soil, while keeping Civil Liberties intact.
III – The Bush Administration pursued and accomplished an aggressive set of tax cuts and system reforms, which were largely responsible for the early recovery from the recession, in addition to improving collection of federal revenues. The plan was controversial for its effect on long-term debt, but Bush’s deft use of monetary tools provided critical assistance for small businesses and drove confidence for the U.S. Economy in general.
IV – The Bush Administration, despite heckling from the Left that they were inviting disaster and ignoring History, supported a bold plan which assisted Afghan partisans in overthrowing the Taliban and establishing a freely-elected government, which allowed the first-ever votes by women in that country. Terrorist camps based in Afghanistan were obliterated and their networks devastated.
V – The Bush Administration created an international coalition even larger than the one which repulsed Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, obtained both a United Nations Security Council sanction against Iraq and an authorization for the use of force from both houses of Congress, before carrying out the invasion of Iraq in alignment with the 1998 United States policy of regime change in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, Saddam along with the overwhelming majority of his minions was captured and many others killed, and a democratic republic began to develop in the Mid-East nation. Despite claims which pretended the war was solely about WMD, and lies that no WMD were found in Iraq, the major objectives of invading Iraq were justified and accomplished, although the emphasis by some figureheads on nuclear material led to embarrassment when assurances by numerous intelligence agencies proved wrong on that count. Fear of a democratic republic in an Arab nation led a number of surrounding regimes to support incursions of terrorist groups, and fascist Islamic groups also fueled an insurgency which has been difficult to defeat, in some part because political enemies of the Bush Administration have played games with the issue rather than maintain an united front, which has been played by the Islamofascists for media propaganda. It should also be noted that the U.S.-led action led to collateral reforms, such as the promise by Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi to renounce WMD, and the rise of self-determination demands by Lebanese citizens against Syrian occupation. The Iraq issue remains the largest effort by the Bush Administration which success remains in any doubt.
With these benchmarks in place, I now consider how other Presidents since World War 2 would have fared, given their known job performance.
I – The key qualities necessary to resolve the China crisis would appear to be an understanding of world power relationships, along with a long fuse. Accordingly, Presidents Clinton, Bush I, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Franklin Roosevelt would all have enjoyed success in resolving this crisis without loss of life or an escalation in tension. President Carter often “gave away the farm” in negotiations, and so would have given the PRC more than necessary, such as granting an extension of PRC airspace demands, and so I count his effort as less successful. Presidents Johnson and Truman were known for provocative and confrontational statements, especially with regard to Asia, and so I conclude that in their cases an escalation would be more likely.
II – 9/11 is a seminal historic event, and so it is difficult to precisely name how any individual would react, but the style of crisis management reveals clues. The Clinton Administration, for example, repeatedly failed to respond to Al Qaeda attacks, including the 1993 attempt to bomb the WTC, treating it instead as a matter for criminal investigation. Also, when a threat was perceived as serious, the Clinton Administration typically over-reacted with a heavy hand, as the Elian Gonzalez raid, the Waco raid, and the attack on Ruby Ridge demonstrate. The temptation for immediate retaliation was a mistake both Bush Administrations resisted successfully, but the behavior of the Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Truman, and FDR Administrations indicate that they would have immediately struck at a target of opportunity, and in the 9/11 context such action would have played to the advantage of Al Qaeda, which hoped to enflame the region in a general war. On the other hand, the Reagan, Bush I, Carter, and Kennedy Administrations would – on the basis of their reaction to provocations in their own time – have refrained from spontaneous action and paid attention to their defenses instead.
III – It is a cliché to say that Presidents get far too much praise for a good economy, and too much blame for a bad one. However, there are instances where specific and timely action – or the duty to act missed – can have tremendous effect on the Economy. The lessons of Fiscal and Monetary Policy were developed from such understanding. In my opinion, only the Bush I, Reagan, and Kennedy Administrations would have properly understood and applied the Monetary action of broad tax cuts to reignite the Economy. The Clinton, Nixon, Johnson, and FDR Administrations would have tried Fiscal tools, which would have made the deficit worse than the Bush actions did, but without similar success in improving Employment and Consumer Confidence. The Ford, Eisenhower, and Truman Administrations would have tried to ride out the recession, which in the short term at least would have weakened the Economy and destroyed confidence and job creation. The Carter Administration, with its sometimes-myopic focus on the deficit, would never have consented to deficit spending or tax cuts, and so would have done the worst of all in that circumstance.
IV – The overthrow of the Taliban was a gutsy call, the kind of thing that no poll-driven President would have attempted. Only Reagan, Nixon, FDR and Truman would have understood the need for such an action, and only FDR and Truman would have had the nerve to take on the task the way George W. Bush did. While the other Presidents would have felt obliged to respond in force, bombings and a few raids would have been the end of it, by the lights of Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, and Eisenhower.
V – The most controversial decision of George W. Bush’s Presidency would have been tough on any President. For instance, most modern commentators have forgotten the harsh criticism Reagan took for liberating Grenada, an action far smaller and quicker, to say nothing of the blame smeared on him for the Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983. We commonly see defenders of the former dictator Saddam Hussein parade on television, as if his monstrous crimes were irrelevant to the issue, and we also hear the claim – never supported by evidence – that Iraq would have been better off if we had not invaded. Certainly by that logic, 1948 Berlin was not nearly the happy-go-lucky place it was in 1944, nor could Tokyo in 1947 be said to be the happenin’ place it was in 1942. And since so many in the media like to interview people with agenda in the Middle East, perhaps we should weigh the victory in the Cold War by the opinion of former KGB agents and zampolits now left unemployed with the demise of their oligarchy? In any case, only Franklin Roosevelt could be said to possess the vision and the courage to have engaged in a similar course, especially as his vision for the reformation of Germany after World War 2 is significantly similar to the Bush plan for the re-emergence of Iraq as a stable, central democratic republic in the Middle East. A gamble yes, but a worthy one. The other Presidents, honorable though their intentions are, would none of them been bold and resolute enough to decimate Al Qaeda the way the Bush plan has done, to establish a free republic in the middle of the most contentious region in the modern world. Some, like Clinton and Nixon, would have anticipated the political maneuvering by their opponents which would have made the task harder, and so they would have demurred to meet the challenge. Others, like Carter and Eisenhower, would have found the stakes too challenging and abandoned the game rather than think too deeply about the need for a long-term American commitment. And sadly, some might have been frightened by the madmen in Iran just one border away, and fled from the challenge even if their cowardice cost the country in its long-term welfare. To be courteous, I will not name those timid souls, except to observe their presence in this matter.
Those who chose to pursue the matter would have fared the same as Bush has; it is too often ignored that the enemies of America are not idle in their campaigns against us, no matter who sits in the Oval Office. Those who would have declined to invade Iraq would doubtless have avoided the present specter of constant military action, yet they would not have emerged unscathed. Saddam had already shown a willingness, indeed an eagerness, to support and sponsor terrorist organizations, especially those most active against the United States, and connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were known even prior to the 2003 invasion. Consequently, failure to remove Saddam Hussein through a military invasion would not only have allowed the region to continue its devolution into chaos, feeding the ambitions of Syria and Iran along the way (why is it that anti-Bush minions never mention those ambitions, which would surely have filled the vacuum with their own armies if the Coalition had not come in?), but would also have emboldened Al Qaeda and assured it of a stable base from which to launch new and ambitious attacks on America.
Overall, I find it impossible to find any President in history who would have done as well in meeting these challenges as President George W. Bush has done, and it is inconceivable that any man could have done better. The sole question is how long this fact will be evident before Dubya receives the respect and appreciation he is so clearly overdue. That, and how long before the first howling jackal posts a comment which does nothing to establish his case, but rather spews hate and venom in their ceaseless attempt to defame the President.
PS - Chuck Simmins has an excellent non-partisan way to compare the State of the Union at this point in three Presidencies. (ht Glenn Reynolds)