Grading the President

A 21st century visionary? A failed adventurer abroad? Six scholars suggest how history will judge George W. Bush's first term in office--and compare him with his predecessors

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ROBERT DALLEK

Creating His Own Troubles in Iraq

Historians evaluating George W. Bush's first term will focus on foreign policy and, most of all, 9/11. I think they will criticize him for his early reaction, for not returning at once to Washington, D.C. Although the White House says it was worried about threats to Air Force One, it's worth noting that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill didn't hesitate to enter war zones during World War II. And Lyndon Johnson, who didn't know at first whether a conspiracy might be behind the killing of John F. Kennedy, didn't hesitate to return to the capital. That said, Bush subsequently responded fairly well to 9/11, speaking effectively for the nation and then going into Afghanistan in a measured and sensible way that gave the country some sense of an appropriate response to 9/11.

With Iraq, it's difficult to imagine that historians will give him anything but poor marks. Bush took the country to war on false intelligence. His defenders will say a President has to go with the information he has and the advice he receives. But that's a cop-out. The greatest Presidents have been those who demonstrated astute judgment in times of crisis--often despite the advice they were getting. Bush was told that 140,000 troops would be sufficient for the occupation of Iraq. This turned out to be wrong. As Truman said, the buck stops here. Success in past U.S. conflicts has not been strictly the result of military leadership but rather the judgment of the President in choosing generals and setting broad strategy.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH

Trumanesque, in His Audacity

Having watched his first term, we know this about George W. Bush: he is an important President. We don't know the long-term consequences of his policies, particularly his pre-emptive war in Iraq, but we know that he matters. Truman, in Korea, similarly embraced a military doctrine that was radically unlike what Americans were accustomed to. If you accepted the need to contain communism, then Truman's "police action" in Korea was a critical part of the economic, social and diplomatic war between the West and the Soviet Union. Truman paid a heavy political price: his poll ratings in 1951 were lower than Richard Nixon's at resignation. Yet 50 years later, Truman is widely admired as a President who had the vision to define the realities of the postwar world.

We can't know yet whether Bush's doctrine, born in the rubble of the World Trade Center, is a 21st century version of Truman's containment, a strategic vision that will shape and define not only our politics but also our very way of life for decades to come. We don't know if Iraq is another Korea, or to what other nations Bush's doctrine might yet apply. Likewise, we can only surmise the cost, if any, in terms of alliances weakened by his policies. But we do know that Bush's approach is no less audacious than the one Truman undertook at considerable risk a half-century ago.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS

Bold, Certainly. Wise? We'll See

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