Monday, June 15, 2009

A grudging concession to history 

Tom Friedman wrote an arresting paragraph in his most recent column (about the recent elections in Lebanon):

There are a million things to hate about President Bush’s costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the U.N. to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades. “Bush had a simple idea, that the Arabs could be democratic, and at that particular moment simple ideas were what was needed, even if he was disingenuous,” said Michael Young, the opinion editor of The Beirut Daily Star. “It was bolstered by the presence of a U.S. Army in the center of the Middle East. It created a sense that change was possible, that things did not always have to be as they were.”

Leaving aside the accusation that Bush was disingenuous -- I suspect history will reveal that to be substantially untrue, which may have been part of the problem -- the war for Bush's foreign policy legacy will be particularly protracted and contentious. The historiography will not resolve itself, or even stabilize, until two conditions obtain. First, we need to see what happens in the Arab Middle East. If in a generation or two the clown kings and tinpot dictators have given way to more pluralistic governments, even if not Western or secular in form, then it will be possible and perhaps even intellectually honest to draw a line from the earthquakes of the Bush years, including particularly the frankly revolutionary idea that
[f]or 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

There are a lot of people who hate instability, but only occasionally can an autocracy transform itself into a democracy without it, and worse. Instability reveals cracks in the foundation of oppressive regimes and gives heart to the resistance, even at the momentary price of peace, prosperity, and even lives. Bush was the first American president to understand that point and, frankly, respect Arabs enough to apply it to the Middle East; only the future will reveal whether the result was worth the price.

The second requirement for settling the history of the Bush years will, perhaps, take even longer than revolution in the Middle East: We need today's historians to retire and die, and tomorrow's to grow up. The best histories of American presidencies are written by people who were not alive, or at least not politically aware, as the events in question transpired. That will be especially true for George W. Bush, whose presidency was so contentious. It is likely that the first great history of the years just past will be written by one of today's graduating fifth graders.

Finally, there is the possibility that the Bush legacy depends on Barack Obama. It may be that George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama will be, to the Arab world, the all-time bad cop/good cop tag team, and that both of them will have made essential contributions to the final result. Friedman wonders as much:
Finally, along came President Barack Hussein Obama. Arab and Muslim regimes found it very useful to run against George Bush. The Bush team demonized them, and they demonized the Bush team. Autocratic regimes, like Iran’s, drew energy and legitimacy from that confrontation, and it made it very easy for them to discredit anyone associated with America. Mr. Obama’s soft power has defused a lot of that. As result, “pro-American” is not such an insult anymore.

Don Surber has more.


By Blogger TOF, at Mon Jun 15, 09:07:00 AM:

BHO is an incompetent diplomat, as is his screechy SecState. They will not advance Democracy in the Middle East.  

By Anonymous QuakerCat, at Mon Jun 15, 09:56:00 AM:

Bush as disingenous? I think if there is one thing that G.W. was not it was disingenous. If there has ever been a leader who has led with his heart, more than his head (for better or worse) it was G.W. If he was so disingenous he would have pulled everyone out of Iraq long ago because the political downside was way too high.

What is it with Friedman? I have read his book "The World is Flat" and it is a very compelling book with very sound argument's; right up until he gets to anything having to do with George W. Bush. For whatever reason he completely goes off the rails, to a point where all other previous points come in to question. One wonders that if he has so little objectivity in this one area, how can he be objective in others?  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon Jun 15, 10:23:00 AM:

The problem of hoping that the historians of the future will be more accurate than the historians of today, is that they will be taught by todays historians (and Friedmans). Perhaps this is why Presidents have Presidential Libraries, so that an accurate (or at least situationally perceived as accurate) record of a President's record may endure beyond their critics lifespans.  

By Blogger davod, at Mon Jun 15, 05:52:00 PM:

"[f]or 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Sorry. The stabilzers are back in town.

Obama's Cairo speech was all about stability except where we were to change to accomodate Islam.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jun 17, 03:14:00 PM:

Bush made an investment of blood and treasure in Iraq of $1 or $ 2 trillion. The returns so far have been negative --

1) an emboldened Iran,
2) a profligate Bush over his last five years -- as he had to buy support, and
3) Obama -- not Hillary -- in the White House.

What you suggest is that 50 years from now there's a chance we may finally have something positive to put on the ledger.

Link, over  

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