Shadow Government

How to debate the Bush legacy

This week, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. It will be a fun reunion of people who served in the Bush administration -- those who helped advise, make, and implement the president's policies in a time of great consequence for American history. 

The opening of the presidential library has coincided with dramatic events at home and abroad that have eerie echoes to the Bush-era -- a Boston terror attack that reminds people of the post-9/11 jitters, ricin-laced letters to politicians that remind people of similar anthrax attacks, and an unraveling sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East, complete with intelligence reports of WMD use, that reminds people of the bitter experience in Iraq. 

All of these have occasioned a great deal of talk about the Bush era and renewed debate about the Bush legacy. The talk and debate is welcome, but sometimes it takes a curious turn.

Case in point: consider Walter Russell Mead's two posts about the Bush legacy, the first of which Will Inboden rebutted last week. 

Let me begin by emphasizing that I have a lot of respect for Mead. I assign some of his books to my students, I find his blog posts to be usually thoughtful, and I appreciate that he is not a predictable Johnny-one-note on foreign policy.

Yet, on balance, his contribution to the current wave of commentary on the Bush legacy seems to be more an example of what not to do than of what to do. He opened with a provocative post entitled "The GOP Needs to Talk About Bush: Part One," in which he claimed that Republicans need to, well, talk about Bush "openly and honestly."

In his follow-up "part two" post Mead mocked Peter Wehner for, well, talking about Bush openly and honestly. 

Mead's rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:

First: claiming (falsely) that Wehner's argument was premised on the belief that Bush had done nothing wrong and that all bad things that happened on Bush's watch should be entirely blamed on others. But Wehner explicitly acknowledged important mistakes and he explicitly called for shared responsibility. Apparently, Mead saw no middle ground -- no via media, if you will -- between a claim on the one hand that all critiques of the Bush presidency are true and a reductio ad absurdum claim on the other that the Bush presidency was a "triumph, a sterling example of greatness, of competent benevolence mixed with wisdom almost divine..." Instead of productively exploring the middle ground, Mead derisively dismisses a caricatured version of Wehner, one entirely of Mead's fabrication. 

Second: passionately arguing that any attempt to answer critiques of the Bush era plays into the hands of the Bush-haters and is backward-looking. Never mind that this Pillar directly and obviously contradicts Mead's first post, which, as you will recall, encouraged everyone to talk "openly and honestly" about the Bush era (i.e. to look backward with clear eyes so as to move forward). The only possible way to reconcile them is to believe that what Mead meant in his first post is something like this: "Republicans should embrace every criticism of Bush, no matter how wrong or illogical because to answer such criticisms is to play in the hands of the Bush-haters." Why would accepting bogus critiques of the past prepare us well to face the future?

What is curiously missing in Mead's response is any factual or logical engagement of Wehner's (or Inboden's, for that matter) actual argument. Perhaps Wehner or Inboden have over-claimed or misread the history. If so, I would like to see the facts and logic that make up that case. 

I wonder if there are two Walter Russell Meads (that would explain why the Via Media refers to itself with the first person plural). There is the Mead who has written important books that are must-reads for any student of American foreign policy and who has offered thoughtful commentary on an impressively wide range of topics. That same Mead, in his "Part One," acknowledged that many Bush-haters distort the past in their critique. And then there is a second Mead, the one who trashed Wehner for engaging in the historical conversation Mead #1 claimed to want. If so, I hope Mead #1 will start debating Mead #2.

Of course, the problem is not really Mead, who, I would argue, will eventually be part of the solution. Compared to other pundits back in the day, he had something of a balanced view of the Bush administration as it unfolded. In fact, I would turn the frame upside down: if reasoned, fact-based discussions of the Bush Legacy cannot produce balanced and nuanced assessments from generally fair-minded observers like Mead, then I would despair of ever seeing it at all. 

Happily, the truth is that, over time, we can see such appraisals emerging. Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq. 

None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.

Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.

Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap. 

A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that. 

Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

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