Gideon Rose’s intriguing essay on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy raises a vexing question: When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?
Rose devotes much of his article to rehearsing a litany of the Bush administration’s sins in an effort to persuade readers that Obama inherited a uniquely bad set of cards when he came to the White House—a “mess,” as the president liked to say—and must therefore be judged accordingly. But this is doubtful as a matter of history and past its sell-by date as a form of apology.
Every president inherits a mixed bag when he comes to office, and Obama’s was hardly the worst. Yes, he became president in the midst of a steep economic downdraft. But so did Bush after the bursting of the dot-com bubble (compounded shortly thereafter by the attacks of September 11), as did President Ronald Reagan after the stagflation of the Carter years, as did President Gerald Ford in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. Yes, Obama took over two wars from Bush—just as President Richard Nixon inherited Vietnam from President Lyndon Johnson and President Dwight Eisenhower inherited Korea from President Harry Truman. But at least the war in Iraq was all but won by 2009, thanks largely to the very surge Obama had opposed as a senator. And yes, the United States’ brand had been tarnished by Bush’s “war on terror” policies, much as it had been in a previous generation by the war in Vietnam. But that only helped burnish Obama’s incoming reputation as a redeemer president, earning him immense political capital at home and goodwill abroad right from the start, capped by a Nobel Peace Prize.
Every president inherits a mixed bag when he comes to office, and Obama’s was hardly the worst.
Obama’s supporters also need to acknowledge that they cannot celebrate the president’s supposed successes at one point and then disavow responsibility later when those successes turn to dust. If Obama can take credit for putting the core of al Qaeda “on the path to defeat” and bringing the war on terror effectively to an end—as he did at the National Defense University in May 2013, to much liberal applause—then it becomes difficult for him to evade responsibility for the resurgence of jihadism in the two years since then. If the administration can celebrate the success of its Iraq policy in 2012 (“What is beyond debate,” said Antony Blinken, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, “is that Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous, and the United States more deeply engaged there, than at any time in recent history”), then maybe Bush can be exempted from blame for Iraq’s travails in 2014.