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The Difficult Matter of Praising George W Bush

5 December 2011

10:44 PM

5 December 2011

10:44 PM

Will Inboden is frustrated that Barack Obama so rarely has anything nice to say about President George W Bush even when his administration has benefitted from US policies Obama inherited from his predecessor or when he has found it convenient to adopt and sometimes even take further Bush-era views on a given subject (such as a wide swathe of civil liberties issues or medical marijuana). In part this frustration reflects a Beltway preference for civility (or, rather, the appearance of civility) and the time-honoured pleasures of bipartisanship. There remain plenty of people who regret the increasingly parliamentary style of Washington politics and many more who have yet to grasp its implications.

This is not a new phenomenon and Bush-era Republicans were in the vanguard of breaking with a good deal of the old-style Washington consensus on how things should be done and the game should be played. (All this, mind you, is another reminder of how, in terms of its political culture, Washington is a different place: you rarely hear David Cameron praise Gordon Brown either and few people find that very strange even if, from time to time, a Prime Minister can make himself seem a bigger man by praising his predecessor.)


Nevertheless, Inboden is right to note that Obama broke with this tendency last week.

Let me also thank President Bush for joining us from Tanzania and for his bold leadership on this issue. I believe that history will record the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as one of his greatest legacies. And that program — more ambitious than even the leading advocates thought was possible at the time — has saved thousands and thousands and thousands of lives, and spurred international action, and laid the foundation for a comprehensive global plan that will impact the lives of millions. And we are proud that we have the opportunity to carry that work forward.

All true and it’s little exagerration that PEPFAR might well be President Bush’s greatest, most positive, legacy. That there’s less competition for that bauble than one would wish is a different matter. Nevertheless, Bush’s commitment to AIDS alleviation was an act of proper leadership for which he deserves proper praise. Granted, recognising this doesn’t make Obama seem especially generous or big-hearted since AIDS prevention is not the most controversial cause in all the world. (Though one also recalls how Bush’s commitment to it was questioned and, often, mocked too.)

The rest of Bush’s foreign policy legacy is, well, a little mixed, trapped between the logic of its rhetoric and stubborn reality. The world proved a tough thing to remake; idealism and ambition gave way to modesty and a greater "realism". Only in Africa, perhaps, did the American promise hold good. That’s not a tiny thing even though it’s also not enough to rescue a Presidency.


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