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.
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.
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.
point: consider Walter Russell Mead's two
about the Bush legacy, the first of which Will Inboden rebutted
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.
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."
two" post Mead mocked Peter Wehner for, well, talking
about Bush openly and honestly.
rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:
(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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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