This month, Texas Monthly magazine is running a cover story on George W. Bush and his legacy. The magazine asked various people, including Robert Caro and historian H.W. Brands, for their assessments of Bush. Here’s mine: he will go down as the worst president in U.S. history. He has inflicted serious damage on multiple levels. The three most obvious examples: America’s moral, financial, and military standing.
Moral. The late John Boyd, America’s greatest military theoretician, said there are three levels of warfare: the moral, the mental, and the physical. Of those, the moral level is the strongest and the most important. And that is where Bush has caused the greatest damage. Whether it’s the torture at Abu Ghraib, the official approval of waterboarding and other torture methods, the alleged slaughter of innocents at Haditha by U.S. Marines, the kidnapping (or as the CIA politely calls it, “rendition”) of suspected terrorists from locations throughout the world, or the indefinite incarceration of suspected terrorists without charge at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Bush’s regime has casually discarded the rule of law. And in doing so, it has squandered America’s moral standing in the world. By losing the moral high ground, Bush has degraded our ability to confront Islamic extremists and advance America’s long-term interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Immediately after September 11, 2001, the U.S. had the sympathy of nearly every country on the planet. But by declaring an elective war, by using faulty evidence to justify that war, and by using a myriad of suspect legal claims to justify his actions, Bush lost the chance to expand America’s soft power and increase the country’s moral authority at a time when terrorists, thugs, and thieves are proliferating.
Financial. According to Comptroller General David Walker, the U.S. is facing a “fiscal challenge unprecedented in American history.” In an October speech, Walker said that the country’s “fiscal burden has soared from about $20 trillion in 2000 to about $46 trillion in 2005. This burden is growing at the rate of at least $2 trillion to $3 trillion each year.” While Bush can attempt to blame America’s deficit spending on the war on terror, the truth is that he’s done nothing to counter the fiscal recklessness of six years of a Republican-led Congress. America’s unrestrained borrowing means that the interest accruing on that debt is soaring. In 2005 alone, the interest costs on that debt totaled $327 billion. The result of this mismanagement: future political leaders will be hamstrung when it comes to funding other urgent needs, including infrastructure, health care, and retirement benefits. Meanwhile, Bush’s futile war on terror continues at a cost of $9.5 billion per month.
Military. Colin Powell said it best when he declared that America’s military is “almost broken.” I agree, except I’d omit the word “almost.” The Second Iraq War has exposed the U.S. military’s weaknesses, and those vulnerabilities are on display for every crackpot mullah and tinpot dictator to see. The U.S. should be worried about what’s happening in Latin America as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales continue their populist campaigns. There’s no telling what may happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro finally dies. None of this is to imply that the U.S. should mount a military assault on Chávez. But imagine if a major hurricane hit Cuba, or perhaps Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands? Given the U.S. military’s commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq and the overstretched National Guard system, it’s doubtful that the U.S. could respond in any meaningful way to a major disaster in Latin America. And that would mean yet another replay of the impotence and criminal incompetence that came to the fore after Hurricane Katrina.
Bush has completely failed to rein in an out-of-control military acquisition system in which the Pentagon continues buying outrageously expensive, scandalously complicated weapons that have little or no value in fighting the insurgent foes who are now slowly degrading American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In short, the verdict on Bush’s legacy has been delivered and it is one of total, unmitigated failure. He most closely resembles another Texas president, Lyndon Johnson. Like Johnson, Bush elected to fight an elective war. Johnson’s great sin was Vietnam. But his great redemption came from forcing Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act. In doing so, Johnson achieved the most important political, and human rights, victories of the last century in America.
There will be no redemption for George the Second.
ROBERT BRYCE lives in Austin, Texas and managing editor of Energy Tribune. He is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate. He can be reached at: email@example.com