In “Rush to Judgment,” the most prescient evaluation of the presidency of George W. Bush comes from Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University in Canada. Mr. Troy told the author, “One of the biggest challenges in assessing Bush’s presidency is the fact that his greatest achievement may have been a negative one - preventing a repeat of 9/11. How do you prove that? That is an important methodological challenge to historians and politicians, and an important substantive question in evaluating George W. Bush.”
Alas, Mr. Troy’s caution about rushing to a premature judgment has been ignored by what passes for the best and brightest of American historians - a sorry lot, in the main - who spent eight years subjecting Mr. Bush to one of the more virulent campaigns of recrimination ever experienced by a U.S. president.
Stephen F. Knott, a professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College, lays out these critics’ briefs in a provocative book that, while not intended as a defense of the Bush years, argues that these scholars, from the very beginning, “abandoned any pretense of objectivity in their critiques and seemed unwilling to place Bush’s actions in a broader historical context.” He disavows any attempt to defend the entire Bush record, writing that “I was as frustrated as any American with the weapons of mass destruction fiasco and Bush’s failure to respond robustly to the Hurricane Katrina disaster.”
But he makes a strong case that, when compared to the measures of earlier wartime presidents - especially Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt - Mr. Bush followed long-established precedents regarding the use of presidential authority.
Mr. Knott qualifies as an expert on the subject. He has written a splendid analysis of Alexander Hamilton, who was an early proponent of the necessity of strong executive powers. His several book-length works on covert operations during the course of American history - must reads in intelligence schools - buttress his views.
He quotes approvingly John Locke, one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, who wrote in his “Two Treatises of Government” that the executive “has the power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the Law, and sometimes even against it. Many things there are, which the law can by no means provide for and those must necessarily be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power in his hands.”
Mr. Knott singles out for especial scorn Sean Wilentz, who has become an icon of sorts for the leftist claquesthat dominate both academia and the media. In April 2006, a low point in the Bush presidency, when 82 Americans were killed in Iraq, Mr. Wilentz published an essay in Rolling Stone titled “The Worst President in American History?” (An honest editor would have deleted the question mark.) The cover depicted the president looking somewhat like a monkey from the Wizard of Oz, wearing cowboy boots and a dunce cap and sitting in a corner while having a “time out.”
Mr. Wilentz made the sweeping claim, “Until the 20th century, American presidents managed foreign wars well, including those presidents who prosecuted unpopular wars.” Any college sophomore who has taken an American history class would read this statement with raised eyebrows.
As Mr. Knott writes accurately, “This remarkable claim would come as a shock to historians and political scientists who have studied James Madison’s conduct of the War of 1812, which is a textbook case of presidential mismanagement.” (If you are dubious, check out Henry Adams’ magisterial two-volume work on the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison. The latter’s secretary of war convinced Madison that a marauding force of British would not seize Washington because it had “no strategic value.” Perhaps not, but the Brits achieved a significant psychological coup by burning the White House and other government installations. An intelligence failure?
Mr. Knott makes the further important point that unwise and untrustworthy congressional oversight of the intelligence community handcuffed Mr. Bush as it has no prior president. For instance, President Kennedy waged an undeclared war against Fidel Castro for more than three years (including assassination plots galore, with his brother acting as de facto field marshall. Not a word of protest was uttered in Congress.
While still a senator, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who was privy to classified intelligence briefings, boasted that he “twice threatened to go public with covert action plans by the Reagan administration that were harebrained,” causing cancellation of the operations.
The stringent oversight made managers of CIA’s Directorate of Operations (the Clandestine Service) risk-averse. For instance, according to Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar, CIA operatives in Afghanistan shied away from allying with the Northern Alliance because of fears that money given to the NA “might be used for heroin traffic or for the abuse of Taliban prisoners,” congressional no-nos.
Those of us who follow what passes for contemporary American politics would add a footnote to Mr. Knott’s important book. Essentially, the Bush presidency was doomed to leftist academic (and media) scorn by the contested presidential vote in Florida in 2000. To keep its blood flowing hot, the left needs villains. Richard Nixon for decades served that role because of his exposure of Alger Hiss as a handmaiden of Soviet espionage in the 1940s. After his defeat of Al Gore in a “stolen election,” Mr. Bush segued into the new must-be-hated villain.
The justification for many of Mr. Bush’s actions will remain locked away in top-secret government files for decades. Some day, perhaps, objective historians will be able to make an informed judgment on his presidency.
Joseph C. Goulden’s most recent book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover Publications, 2012).