The Bush Legacy: For a Black and White President, Shades of Gray

By Kathleen Troia "K.T." McFarlandNational Security Expert/Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense

President Bush is currently perceived as one of the worst presidents ever. But when the historians take over from the journalists, it is likely to be a more mixed assessment.

[caption id="attachment_5750" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush walk across the South Lawn as they arrive at the White House, Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009, in Washington. (AP)"][/caption]

Granted, he made colossal mistakes early on in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Granted, his relations with our allies, especially in Europe, have been abysmal. Granted, the reports of American torture have shamed us before the world. But outside of the Middle East and Europe, Bush has been successful, especially in Asia and Africa.

Take China,with one quarter of the world's population. China has gone from poverty to prosperity in a decade, and Bush's free trade policies have been largely responsible.

China's integration into the world economy has been smooth, again thanks largely to the US. When Bush attended the Beijing Olympics last summer he was cheered.

And what about India-- the world's largest democracy? When Prime Minister Singh came to Washington last fall, he told Bush "the people of India deeply love you"! Why? Because Bush's free trade policies have allowed India to focus on information technology and take a quantum leap into the 21stcentury. In so doing, Bush has literally flipped India from the anti-American camp to one of our staunchest allies.

Bush inherited a frosty relationship with Indonesia.But after September 11, he enlisted them in the fight against terrorism. When the massive tsunami hit Aceh in 2004, Bush sent in massive aid, and America's approval rating rocketed up past 80%. Part of the challenge in fighting terrorism is to provide an alterative to Islamic extremism. Indonesia, as the world's fourth largest country, and largest Muslim democracy, is a beacon of moderate Islam.

Finally, Africa. For years, America has given lip service to African disease and poverty. But Bush reversed course, and today millions of Africans receive free medicine for AIDs, TB and Malaria. Half of all African food aid comes from the US. The Millenium Challenge, a very effective program in which rich countries ban together to foster economic development in poor countries, was created by Bush.

If you start adding them up -- China, India, Indonesia, Africa -- you've got well over half the world's population living better lives because of George Bush.

The sad irony of the legacy of George W Bush is that while he dedicated his foreign policy to spreading democracy around the world, he acted like he didn't trust it at home. Bush's two elections were predicated on Karl Rove's assumption that if you got The Base motivated enough they would turn out in record numbers and swing the election. It worked and Bush won by squeakers in 2000 and 2004. But it created major problems when it came to governing.

The majority of Americans see themselves as somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum, without strong party affiliation, and view the hardcore base of either party as extremists. So, while playing to the base allowed Bush to win elections, it didn't sustain him with the favorable opinion ratings needed to advance his agenda.

Second, Bush never grasped that the central tenet of democracy is to keep in touch with the people -- not just the ones who voted for you -- but all of the people. That means a constant effort to listen and talk to the American people. It means convincing them of a policy in the first place and continuing to engage them as that policy develops, and the inevitable hiccups occur. This is important all the time, but crucial during difficult times. He needs the American public to understand what he is doing, and why he thinks it's important. Even if they don't always agree, they will give him the benefit of the doubt -- at least for a while. It's a lesson Roosevelt knew, and Kennedy, and Reagan. Bush never did.

For a president who always saw things in black and white, his legacy will likely be a lot of gray.

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