The third argument focused on preventing Saddam from possessing weapons of mass destruction. Most countries agreed that Saddam had defied UN Security Council resolutions for a dozen years. Moreover, Resolution 1441 unanimously put the burden of proof on Saddam.
While Bush was later faulted when inspectors failed to find such weapons, the view that Saddam possessed them was widely shared by other countries. Prudence might have bought more time for the inspectors, but Bush was not alone in this mistake.
Bush has said that history will redeem him, and compares himself to former US president Harry S. Truman, who left office with low poll ratings because of the Korean War, yet is well regarded today. Will history really be so kind to Bush?
Truman biographer David McCullough warns that about 50 years must pass before historians can really appraise a presidency. However, a decade after Truman left office, the Marshall Plan and the NATO alliance were already seen as solid accomplishments. Bush lacks comparable successes to compensate for his mismanagement of Iraq.
History tends to be unkind to the unlucky, but historians also judge leaders in terms of the causes of their luck. Good coaches analyze their game and their opponent’s game, so that they can capitalize on errors and benefit from “good luck.” By contrast, reckless reality-testing and unnecessary risk taking are often part of “bad luck.” Future historians are likely to fault Bush for these shortcomings.
Even if fortuitous events lead to a better Middle East in another ten years, future historians will criticize the way Bush made his decisions and distributed the risks and costs of his actions. It is one thing to guide people up a mountain; it is another to lead them to the edge of a cliff.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and the author of the forthcoming book Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.
Copyright: Project Syndicate