Washington - During the final days of his presidency, George W. Bush could definitely sign on to the famous statement by retired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
"You can condemn me as much as you wish. It does not matter, history will absolve me."
The problem is that even while he awaits the judgment of history, Bush seems to be making every possible mistake. For example, instead of sitting and waiting for the world to sober up, the president of the United States is embarking on a lightning trip to the Middle East whose results are leading to the conclusion that a lame duck is apparently better off staying at home.
When one chooses to rely on history, there is no need for last-minute attempts to repair one's image. The combination of the drama of the hero whose own generation did not know how to appreciate his activity and the desire to reap the unripe fruits of the campaign in Iraq has given rise to a farce. And an embarrassing illustration has been added to the Bush chronicles, in the guise of the president who was forced to avoid a shoe that was thrown at him in Baghdad.
The situation in Iraq may be improving, but one does not serve a half-baked pie to history, and certainly not to a frustrated nation that does not measure its standard of living according to the Pentagon's graphs. Jon Alterman, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said he believed that Bush wanted to sum up his presidency and to remind people how committed and principled he was, and how he had outlined the correct path, even if not everything succeeded as he had wished. But in the final analysis, sums up Alterman, Bush demonstrated his inability to dictate a new agenda.
Several presidents who governed during particularly challenging years emerged as icons, a standard that many others tried to reach. These include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
For several others, history provided moments that caused their shortcomings to be forgotten: the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall for Ronald Reagan, "Operation Desert Storm" for George Bush Sr. or the budget surplus left by Bill Clinton. Although Bush Jr. sometimes receives thanks for years without terrorist attacks and sex scandals in the White House, that is rare compared to mentions of his premature "mission accomplished" speech in May 2003. And now the shoe.
Winston Churchill, who also used to speculate about his place in history, once said, "History is written by the victors." Any way you look at it, Bush does not emerge a winner in the two wars that have become the legacy of his administration. At best, if president-elect Barack Obama is able to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq successfully, and without that country deteriorating into a civil war, to catch Osama bin Laden and succeed in the thankless task of stabilizing Afghanistan, which suffers from chronic problems of poverty, corruption and intertribal rifts, Bush is likely to get the rest of the pie of success.
In the worst-case scenario, he will still look good if Obama fails the test of some unexpected catastrophe. In light of the stagnation and the past failures, and primarily the inability to construct scenarios in case something goes wrong, the correct approach now should have been a lowering of expectations, rather than a declaration that Iraq and Afghanistan are on a sure path to democracy and a glorious future. There is an abyss between the great vision and the faltering implementation, and the impression has been created that there is no connection between them.
Another problem in the relations being formed between Bush and history is that even when the outgoing president tries to provide explanations for his decision, he doesn't sound all that convincing. That is especially true if we compare his words to those of his vice president, Dick Cheney, who is not terribly popular either. Cheney says without batting an eye that the war in Iraq was not a mistake, and that the intelligence failures regarding the weapons of mass destruction do not change the fact that Saddam Hussein had the desire and the ability to produce them.
Bush, on the other hand, sounds in his farewell interviews like a good guy who found himself in a very tough situation against his will, and what counts in the final analysis is adhering to values and principles ("What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy," he said in an interview with Fox News). That is not the way to enter history. That is the way to be thrown into it from the wrong side.
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