On much of the world stage, President Bush has been widely reviled as one of the worst U.S. leaders of modern times, and it is hard to think of an American president who has received a worse press since Richard Nixon.
To his critics, who are legion on both sides of the Atlantic, the war in Iraq has been a monumental disaster, at a cost of more than 4,000 American lives and at least $500 billion. They see the war on terror, with the notorious Guantanamo prison camp as its symbol, as a catalyst for radicalizing tens of millions of Muslims that has made the United States a pariah in the Middle East.
The war in Afghanistan, they argue, is going badly in the face of a resurgent Taliban, the cost of Washington pouring most of its resources into Iraq. Bush, the theory goes, failed to keep his eye on the ball, weakening the fight against al-Qaeda through his supposed obsession with Iraq. He is also accused of undermining America's standing in the world, adopting a unilateralist foreign policy and refusing to work with its Allies.
Some of the criticism of Bush's foreign policy is fair. The early stages of the occupation of Iraq were poorly handled and there was a distinct lack of post-war planning. America's public diplomacy efforts have been poor or even non-existent, with little serious attempt to combat the stunning rise of anti-Americanism. More recently, Washington's failure to stand up more aggressively to Moscow after its invasion of Georgia projected weakness and indecision.
Much of the condemnation of his policies though is driven by a venomous hatred of Bush's personality and leadership style, rather than an objective assessment of his achievements. Ten or twenty years from now, historians will view Bush's actions on the world stage in a more favourable light. America's 43rd president did after all directly liberate more people (over 60 million) from tyranny than any leader since Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Widely seen as his biggest foreign policy error, the decision to invade Iraq could ultimately prove to have been a masterstroke. Today the world is witnessing the birth of the first truly democratic state in the Middle East outside of Israel. Over eight million voted in Iraq's parliamentary elections in 2005, and the region's first free Muslim society may become a reality. Iraq might not be Turkey, but it is a powerful demonstration that freedom can flourish in the embers of the most brutal and barbaric of dictatorships.
The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda. The stunning defeat of the insurgency was a major blow both militarily and psychologically for the terror network. The West's most feared enemy suffered thousands of losses in Iraq, including many of their most senior commanders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Qaswarah. It was the most successful counter-insurgency operation anywhere in the world since the British victory in Malaya in 1960.
The broader war against Islamist terrorism has also been a success. There has not been a single terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, and for all the global condemnation of pre-emptive strikes, Guantanamo and the use of rendition against terror suspects, the fact remains that Bush's aggressive strategy actually worked.
Significantly, there have been no successful terrorist attacks in Europe since the July 2005 London bombings, in large part due to the cooperation between U.S., British and other Western intelligence agencies. American intelligence has proved vital in helping prevent an array of planned terror attacks in the UK, a striking demonstration of the value to Britain of its close ties to Washington.
President Bush, in contrast to both his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton before him, had a crystal clear, instinctive understanding of the importance of the Anglo-American Special Relationship. Tony Blair may well have been labeled Bush's "poodle" over his support for the war in Iraq, but his partnership with George W. Bush marked the high point of the Anglo-American alliance since the heady days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
The decision by Bush, with Blair's support, to sweep the Taliban out of Afghanistan was a brilliant move, one that not all U.S. presidents would have taken. A weaker leader would have gone to the United Nations Security Council and sought a negotiated settlement with Kabul. It was a risky gambit that was vindicated by a stunning military victory in the space of a month, with a small number of U.S. ground forces involved.
Bush also made a firm commitment to defending the fledgling Afghan government, and succeeded in building a 41-nation NATO-led coalition. The notion that the resurgence of the Taliban is America's failure is nonsense. The U.S. has more than 30,000 troops in the country under U.S. or NATO command, making up over half of all Allied forces there. Continental European allies have simply failed to step up to the plate with more troops, with almost the entire war-fighting burden placed on the U.S., UK and other English-speaking countries. Afghanistan is not a failure of American leadership, it is a damning indictment of an increasingly pacifist Europe that simply will not fight.
President Bush also recognized the importance of re-shaping the NATO alliance for the 21st Century, backing an ambitious program of NATO expansion, culminating in the addition of seven new members in 2004. He also had the foresight to support the development of a missile defence system in Europe, successfully negotiating deals with both Poland and the Czech Republic. Bush was right to back the eventual inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO, and both would be well on their way to membership today were it not for the feckless decision of France and Germany to side with Russia in blocking their path to entry.
Bush began his presidency primarily as a domestic leader. He ends it as a war leader who has left a huge imprint internationally. His greatest legacy, the global war against Islamist terror, has left the world a safer place, and his decision to project global power and military might against America's enemies has made it harder for Islamist terrorists to strike against London, Paris or Berlin.
Bush's decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power will make it less likely that rogue regimes, Iran and North Korea included, will seek to militarily challenge American power. The memory of the invasion of Iraq and the unequivocal message that sent is by far the most effective deterrent to Tehran developing a nuclear weapon.
If superpowers do not demonstrate an ability and a willingness to wield power (as Britain did on numerous occasions at the height of the Empire) their hegemony will be increasingly challenged. President Bush exercised U.S. military power to stunning effect in both Iraq and Afghanistan, an important reminder that America was still a force to be reckoned with after the 1990s humiliation of Somalia and the half-hearted missile strikes against Bin Laden in Sudan. In an age of growing threats and challenges, the projection of hard power matters, and America's next president would be wise to take heed.
Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
First appeared in the Daily Telegraph (UK)