September 2, 2004; Page A12
Journalists like to complain, usually with cause, that politicians are slaves to the polls and rarely take a risk. So it is no small irony that the President who takes the stage tonight in New York City stands accused of taking too many risks.
Mr. Bush is assailed for pursuing tax cuts, amid recession and war, that have brought back the deficit. He is blamed for invading Iraq instead of concentrating on al Qaeda. He has also – pick your favorite sin of recklessness – upset our venerable global alliances, dumped the sainted ABM Treaty and Kyoto Protocol, opened Medicare to market competition, demanded too much from public schools, and loosened restraints on the Justice Department and FBI.
Merely to cite this list is to show how tumultuous the past four years have been. Mr. Bush has run neither the “in-box Presidency” of his father, nor pursued the mini-me agenda of Dick Morris and Bill Clinton. Whatever political capital he has won or been offered by events, he has turned around and spent it to pursue his goals. Agree with his priorities or not, no one can claim that he lacks what the Federalist Papers hailed as “energy in the executive.”
Part of the political peril in this is that four years is often too short a time to see how these decisions turn out. That is especially true on national security, where in the wake of 9/11 Mr. Bush has set an entirely new strategy to combat terrorism and “transform” the Middle East. These are long-run bets, much as the “containment” strategy begun by Harry Truman took 40 years to prevail against Communism.
But already the ledger shows more assets than liabilities. Two regimes that were threats to America have been toppled. A third, Libya, turned state’s evidence against its own nuclear program amid Saddam’s fall. Some want us to believe that Moammar Ghadafi saw this light on his own, but his timing says otherwise. Pakistan, which once protected the Taliban, is now a key ally and its A.Q. Khan nuclear network has been rolled up.
Yes, Mr. Bush underestimated the Iraq insurgency, among other post-invasion mistakes. It’s worth recalling, however, that those who opposed the war warned instead of disasters that did not happen – a refugee exodus, uprisings in the Arab street, environmental catastrophe, civil war. While civil war is still possible, the single most important change in Iraq is that all but the bitter-end Baathists now support free elections and representative government. If this nation-building succeeds, the U.S. will have an ally in the heart of the Mideast and the Arab Muslim world.
Surely the easier political choice for Mr. Bush was to stop after toppling the Taliban, delaying any Iraq decision until safely re-elected. But assessing the risks and concluding that they can’t wait is what we pay Presidents to do. The far greater temptation – and in a world of WMD, the far greater risk – is to find some excuse never to act. This was the Clinton pattern, and John Kerry’s record suggests it would also be his.
The other popular criticisms of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy seem to us wildly overdrawn. Kyoto was fatally flawed and didn’t include the developing world (China). The declining Franco-German half of Europe would be reluctant to help the U.S. no matter who was President. Far from being a “unilateral cowboy,” Mr. Bush ended the archaic ABM Treaty with the full agreement of Russia. If anything, on Iran and North Korea he has deferred too much to allies and their diplomatic imperatives. A second term would require greater resolve.
On the domestic side, we wrote yesterday about the economic success of his tax cutting. But we’d add that this required him to take the additional political risk of shaking up his economic team and firing his disloyal and ineffective Treasury Secretary. This is something his father was never willing to do, but it was clearly the right call and has helped him avoid an even deeper post-9/11 recession.
If only Mr. Bush had been as forceful in settling disputes among his national security team. A blood feud – the CIA and State versus the Pentagon – meant that many vital decisions on Iraq were split down the middle or left to fester. Among other things, these fights hindered the prewar recruitment of Iraqi allies and lengthened the postwar occupation. We hope Mr. Bush has learned from the mistake of appointing a Secretary of State who can’t be fired no matter how much his diplomats undermine White House policy.
In other areas, too, we wish Mr. Bush had been bolder. His failure to veto a single bill has only encouraged Congressional spendthrifts. On Medicare, he settled too easily for too little reform, saddling taxpayers with untold billions in future liabilities. Even here, however, Mr. Bush has planted the seeds of a revolution in consumer-driven health care by introducing health savings accounts. The rub is that he will need a second term to ensure their survival and growth, because Mr. Kerry would kill them in the cradle. He will also need a second term to fulfill his 2000 promise to reform Social Security, as we hear he will again pledge to do this evening.
One thing that hasn’t surprised us is the charge that Mr. Bush is “polarizing.” We doubt this has much to do with his Texas style. The truth is that every President who tries to do large things is controversial. And Mr. Bush represents a GOP vanguard that has displaced liberal Democrats who had dominated Washington for generations; no wonder his opponents are bitter. They understand that a second Bush term could well alter the country’s political landscape for a generation.