Ottawa Citizen



To judge George W. Bush by what his critics say about him is akin to relying on a man’s character reference written by his former wife.

So when Democrats say strife between Israel and the Palestinia­ns or the recent North Korean nuclear test are failures of American foreign policy, and condemn the U. S. president for past mistakes and present surging violence in Iraq, the first thing a chap thinks is: Nov. 7. Mid- term elections for control of Congress.

They would say that, wouldn’t they? The second thing could be that in the rear- view mirror, it’s not hard to see the ruts in the soft shoulder where you left the road. But how’s the view out the windshield?

Was there ever a perfect road that a wiser man than Bush would have first seen through the fog, then taken? Perhaps. But it’s a bit like that old crack about how the world would be a better place if all the people who really knew what was up, weren’t too busy driving cabs and cutting hair. The closer you get to where the buck stops, the more you find there’s a lot you can’t know for sure. But you have to do something anyway.

It’s not hard to build a case against the Bush administra­tion, of course. The Democrats are willing to use the truth when it serves their purpose, and here are just three things to make Bush defenders squirm.

• Faulty intelligen­ce led Bush to believe that Saddam Hussein was kidding when the Iraqi dictator made nudge- wink denials he had weapons of mass destructio­n, then suspicious­ly kicked out UN inspectors;

• Invading Iraq with no clear idea of what to do next, and with insufficie­nt forces to maintain control, was a recipe for what came next;

• It was a mistake ever to think that if one Palestinia­n leader made a deal with Israel, one more wouldn’t rise up to continue the struggle against the “ Zionist entity.” There’s always another one.

But there are some things beyond the control of anybody, even an American president.

The North Koreans, for instance, have been quietly working away on their nuclear project through at least six presidenti­al terms, regardless of who was in the White House.

Nor should Americans hold Jimmy Carter responsibl­e — except in the most general sense of failing to project U. S. resolve — for the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, or George Bushpère for Saddam’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

Things happen. Often, all that’s left is to react. Then, even if an effective course of action is clear, it is not always the proper one.

Never mind sanctions on North Korea, for instance. They’ll never work. Walk in, knock over their main man, and put an end to it.

But no American president will do that, absent an act of stupefying folly by the North Korean regime. The U. S. is about at its limit of the number of nations it can invade before it becomes what it says it despised in the old U. S. S. R.

There just aren’t always many choices.

Had Al Gore won in 2000 instead of Bush, al- Qaeda would still have attacked the World Trade Center. ( It did before, in 1993, on Bill Clinton’s watch).

And if John Kerry had won instead of Bush, Israel’s road map to peace would have been just as discredite­d, the Lebanese crisis as likely, North Korea would still have tested its atom bomb, and Iran would be no less anxious to establish regional hegemony.

In every case, the options available to a U. S. president would have been the same.

Likewise, the pressures upon him to act in a certain way: Just as public opinion would not have allowed a Republican president to invade Afghanista­n after the 1993 World Trade Centre attack, it would not have tolerated a soft response from Gore after 9/ 11.

Only the invasion of Iraq was optional, and the carnage there is certainly “ dishearten­ing,” as a U. S. spokesman says. In a few weeks Americans will pass their judgment on it, in the mid- terms. The polls suggest the administra­tion will pay a steep price.

Pity. A Republican rout will encourage Iraqi insurgents.

But neither the condemnati­on of Bush’s critics, nor the current violence in Baghdad, are proof that the administra­tion got it wrong. Win or lose in Iraq, Bush understood it was worth trying to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East’s cradles of terror, because the U. S. would be safer in a world of liberal democracie­s.

Keeping the U. S. safe is a president’s first job, after all, and Bush may also take credit that terrorists haven’t struck the U. S. since 9/ 11. Americans should concede it too.

Historians, I suspect, will judge Bush more kindly than his contempora­ries.

So will the next U. S. president, even if he is a Democrat — once he sees the hand the rest of the world deals him.

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