The shockingly liberal legacy of George W. Bush
From No Child Left Behind to AIDS relief in Africa, Bush forged a 'consequential' presidency. No doubt.
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE | August 20, 2008 |
Bush's emphasis on education, a preoccupation often viewed as the purview of liberals, may seem surprising to some. But elsewhere on the domestic front, his conservative credentials have been apparent. Perhaps no legacy will be more lasting than his appointment of two judges to the U.S. Supreme Court. John Roberts's and Samuel Alito's presence has not created a majority on the bench — but they tilted the court toward a conservative ideology. The impact of Bush's choices was on display this June when the court issued a landmark decision declaring for the first time that the right to bear arms is protected by the U.S. constitution as an individual right, not a collective right of militias, pulling the rug out from under various gun control laws. That decision struck down a handgun ban in Washington, and has sparked lawsuits and the rewriting of gun control laws around the country.
Bush's second inaugural address, on Jan. 20, 2005, was a remarkable speech. With the Iraq war underway and weapons of mass destruction he claimed Saddam Hussein was hiding nowhere to be found, he articulated a sweeping new justification for the war — a "freedom agenda" dedicated to replacing tyrants with democracies, especially in the Middle East. "We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he said. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."
Bush tied his foreign policy to his faith: "From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of Heaven and earth. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
It was stirring rhetoric, but as policy it was unconvincing. Not only did the administration continue previous U.S. policy of supporting undemocratic regimes out of economic or geopolitical interests, but its own behaviour did not match the lofty ideals. After 9/11, "the gloves came off." Bush became the first U.S. president to officially authorize torture — even though he refused to call it that. When the abuses of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light, and memos appeared detailing official rationales and authorizations of enhanced or aggressive interrogation techniques, the Republican-led Congress responded with legislation to ban torture. Vice-President Dick Cheney personally lobbied lawmakers to at least carve out an exception for the CIA. When they refused, the administration asserted the right to ignore the ban. Bush officially announced that so-called enemy combatants in the war on terror would not be covered by the Geneva Conventions, even though the U.S. had fought for those treaties.
Bush created a detention camp at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, where prisoners were denied due process of law, and had the highest-value detainees held at undisclosed "black sites." Under his command, the U.S. engaged in cases of "extraordinary rendition," where suspects were sent to outside countries for interrogation and sometimes torture, as in the case of Canadian Maher Arar. The resulting damage to the U.S.'s reputation and to its moral authority and ability to lecture other countries on human rights has been great.
But Bush has always defended his most controversial national security measures as necessary to keep his country safe. On that score, some experts say, his record speaks for itself. Since 2001, there have been various attempts to attack America, but none of them have succeeded. "The time since the  attacks now says a lot," says James Carafano, a national security specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "There are at least 19 conspiracies U.S. law enforcement has arrested people for, and other covert ones they don't talk about," he said. Some of those plots may have been mostly wishful thinking, but it remains the case that in seven years, extremists have not been able to pull off U.S. attacks.
Bush oversaw the creation of the enormous and powerful Department of Homeland Security, an idea pushed on him by Democrats in Congress. Another reform brought together all intelligence services under a single director of national intelligence. There were improvements in information-sharing across agencies. The experience of flawed intelligence on Saddam's weapons led to significant reforms within the intelligence services that have resulted in better vetting and more accurate reports to the president.