When I asked President Bush during an interview Monday to reflect on this oddity, he cast himself back to early 2001, recalling what he expected his presidency would be about: education reform, tax cuts and military transformation from a Cold War structure to a more mobile force adapted to smaller-scale 21st-century conflict.
But a wartime president he became. And that is how history will both remember and judge him.
Getting a jump on history, many books have already judged him. The latest by Bob Woodward describes the commander in chief as unusually aloof and detached. A more favorably inclined biographer might have called it equanimity.
In the hour I spent with the president (devoted mostly to foreign policy), that equanimity was everywhere in evidence -- not the resignation of a man in the twilight of his presidency but a sense of calm and confidence in eventual historical vindication.
So he's good at fooling himself, Chuckles.
Wouldn't it have been helpful of him to share this equanimity with the rest of us over the past several years? Instead, he's used the fear card over and over again to attain his political ends.
In doing so, he was not only an amoral political manipulator - he was Osama bin Laden's #1 ally.
The goal of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize. And Bush, by keeping the American people wound up about the terrorist threat for years, worked bin Laden's will.
By contrast, the Clinton Administration's concern about terrorism is clear in retrospect. But they fought their war behind the scenes. Their track record in fighting terrorism can be debated, but the American people weren't terrorized during Clinton's Presidency.
If the 1990s seemed like a "holiday from history" to you, Chuckles, it's because Clinton was doing his job.
It is precisely that quality that allowed him to order the surge in Iraq in the face of intense opposition from the political establishment (of both parties), the foreign policy establishment (led by the feckless Iraq Study Group), the military establishment (as chronicled by Woodward) and public opinion itself.
Or it might have just been that Bush himself had nothing to lose by rolling the dice one more time. Bush wasn't going to pay the price, in blood and treasure, of the escalation of the war. For him, it was a risk-free gamble: if the surge worked, he'd gain some vindication. If it didn't, he'd look little worse in the eyes of history than he otherwise would have.
And the argument over the surge still comes down to this: the Iraq War has been a freakin' disaster, for both America and Iraq. Mitigating somewhat the disaster you went out of your way to bring about (speaking of playing the fear card) isn't exactly something to brag about. It's saying to Iraq: we cut your arm off, but we finally managed to keep you from bleeding to death.
The surge then effected the most dramatic change in the fortunes of an American war since the summer of 1864.
So much for Normandy and Midway.
Besides, the reduction in violence in Iraq was mostly due to two things: (1) the Anbar Awakening, the fortunes of which are discussed on the DoD website as early as September 2006 - four months before Bush announced that the surge was coming; and (2) al-Sadr's cease-fire of August 2007, which, according to various news articles, owed its success to black-arts techniques (intelligence and special forces operations) that would have worked with or without the surge.
Besides, unlike Normandy and Midway, the surge has yet to accomplish its ultimate objective of political reconciliation. Even after two years of good behavior by the Anbar Awakening groups, Maliki still refuses to incorporate them into Iraq's security forces, and refuses to give the Sunnis any share of power in his government. Similarly, Maliki regards the Sadrists as military opponents to be crushed, rather than political adversaries to be negotiated with.
Absent a political reconciliation, Iraq's in trouble as soon as we pull out - so we've got to stay there indefinitely to prop up Maliki's tinhorn dictatorship.
The Union victories of the summer of 1864 led almost inevitably to the defeat of the Confederacy. Nothing like that can be said about the surge.