Where Did Bush Go Wrong?

A depressing look back on eight years of arrogance, power lust, and incompetence


President Bush recently hit the lowest job approval rating of his term, barely higher than Richard Nixon's during Watergate, and 28 percent of Americans think he's the worst ever. But his poor performance review has yet to inspire a frenzy of self-scrutiny.

He brings to mind Russia's Czar Nicholas II, who when told he needed to regain the confidence of his people, suggested that the people needed to regain his. In 2004, asked to name his biggest mistake, Bush couldn't come up with one. Watching his final news conference Monday, you might conclude that he has not spent the intervening years pondering the question.

Asked again where he had gone wrong, the president did offer a few minor regrets: that "Mission Accomplished" banner, pushing Social Security reform in 2005, and flying over New Orleans instead of landing there after Hurricane Katrina. Abu Ghraib and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he confessed, were a "disappointment."

But really, Bush undervalues his negative achievements—even leaving out the current recession, which in all fairness is due largely to factors beyond his control. As he contemplates his memoirs, he might make use of the following cheat sheet to keep track of his biggest and most inexcusable failures:

Iraq. Bush insisted on fighting a war that didn't need to be fought, on the assumption it would be easy, for purposes that could have been achieved without getting more than 4,200 Americans killed and 30,000 wounded, not to mention squandering upward of a trillion dollars.

The problem is not that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction (as UN weapons inspectors in Iraq were on their way to confirming before the war began). It's that even if he did, they would have been militarily worthless, because using them would have guaranteed his immediate annihilation—which explains why Hussein didn't use chemical weapons in the first Gulf War. WMD or not, he was a danger we could easily contain.

Afghanistan. The president was right to go after the Taliban. But the Iraq invasion meant shortchanging the war we had to fight. "We're simply in a world of limited resources, and those resources are in Iraq," a senior administration official attests in David Sanger's new book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power—acknowledging an obvious truth the administration has always denied.

Results: Last year was our bloodiest yet in Afghanistan; Hamid Karzai's government controls only a third of the country; we are being forced to increase our troop presence; and al-Qaida is thriving just over the Pakistan border. Oh, one more thing: Osama bin Laden has yet to be taken, dead or alive.

The Budget. Bush represented the alleged party of small government, yet under him, federal outlays exploded. During his presidency, spending was up by 70 percent, more than double the increase under Bill Clinton. When Bush arrived, the federal government was running surpluses. Since then—not counting the horrendously expensive financial bailout—the national debt has nearly doubled. You can't blame Congress for all this: Bush was the first president in 176 years to go an entire term without vetoing a single piece of legislation.

Executive power. Conservatives are supposed to believe in strict limits on government power, but Bush pushed incessantly to expand the prerogatives of the president. He asserted the right to ignore laws banning torture and restricting wiretapping. The Supreme Court found that his imprisonment of captives at Guantanamo Bay violated the Constitution by denying them the right to challenge their detention in court.

Jack Goldsmith, a conservative legal scholar who held high positions in Bush's Justice and Defense departments, has faulted Bush for "his administration's strange and unattractive views of presidential power." What is needed, he wrote in The Terror Presidency, are leaders "with a commitment to the consent of the governed, who have checks and balances stitched into their breasts." Which Bush was not.

All these blunders were not accidental. They were the product of this administration's peculiar combination of arrogance, power lust, and incompetence.

Those qualities have not abated. Bush leaves us with the rule of law in shreds, the budget out of control, two interminable wars, and the public yearning for change. But to him, it's all good.