Nicholas Kristoff points out in the New York Times today that in an "unscientific" poll of 109 professional historians 61 rated George W. Bush as the worst president we've ever had. Well, yes--I'd certainly agree.
What it is, I think, is that he's lessened us in the world. I am old enough to remember when the U.S. was truly a world power. I recall an incident in the 1950s sometime--Dwight Eisenhower was president--when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser announced he was going to nationalize the Suez Canal. Britain, France and Israel sent troops to prevent this. Eisenhower, without revving up a single helicopter, sent them a message--hey, guys, bad idea. Why don't you bring your troops home? All three countries did. That, as we used to say in Chicago, was clout.
It's hard to imagine an American president with that kind of influence today. But we need to hope that the next one--I think it will be Obama, but whoever--can get some of that authority back.
For one thing, we have to care about others' opinions of us; we have to talk to other countries; we have to look for interests we have in common. We shouldn't be in Iraq; we shouldn't be flailing about in a worsening war in Afghanistan with no clear idea of what to do next. We should be talking to Iran because, as Winston Churchill famously said, "Jaw jaw is better than war war."
But specific countries aside, we need to work at being the good guys again. We shouldn't, for example, be debating what kinds of torture might be legal. The United States should be against torture--any kind, any time, anywhere.
Lots of people--not everyone, not all countries, but lots--used to see us as the good guys--relatively disinterested in territorial gain, anxious to help peace and stability where we could. The next president should try to get some of that back. It won't, I fear, be quick or easy.
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