Obama opposed the war. But the war is all but over. What remains is an Iraq turned from aggressive, hostile power in the heart of the Middle East to an emerging democracy openly allied with the United States. No president would want to be responsible for undoing that success.In March 2003, at the beginning of the war, when I was still a ministry intern, I preached a sermon at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Tustin, California in which I said that Bush would be judged on the basis of whether, 20 years after the war had ended, we were closer to peace in a fractious region. While not exactly bloodcurdlingly pro-war, it definitely wasn't antiwar, and many of my brothers and sisters were disappointed.
In Iraq, Bush rightly took criticism for all that went wrong -- the WMD fiasco, Abu Ghraib, the descent into bloody chaos in 2005-06. Then Bush goes to Baghdad to ratify the ultimate post-surge success of that troubled campaign -- the signing of a strategic partnership between the U.S. and Iraq -- and ends up dodging two size-10 shoes for his pains.
Absorbing that insult was Bush's final service on Iraq. Whatever venom the war generated is concentrated on Bush himself. By having personalized the responsibility for the awfulness of the war, Bush has done his successor a favor. Obama enters office with a strategic success on his hands -- while Bush leaves the scene taking a shoe for his country.
Which is why I suspect Bush showed such equanimity during a private farewell interview at the White House a few weeks ago. He leaves behind the sinews of war, for the creation of which he has been so vilified but which will serve his successor -- and his country -- well over the coming years. The very continuation by Democrats of Bush's policies will be grudging, if silent, acknowledgment of how much he got right.
In the years since, when the war was going poorly, I've regretted this witness, especially because I had erred by lumping Saddam Hussein with Muslim fundamentalists. In the wake of the surge, I've felt better. Perhaps this shows that preachers shouldn't talk about foreign policy, or just that they should do it better than I did. Far more important, it reminds us that leaders sometimes have to make decisions whose consequences, for good or ill, won't be fully clear until long after they leave office. Do we want Presidents who will only take a risk on a policy they believe is best if they can be guaranteed favorable results in the next two or four years, or in time for the opening of their Presidential libraries? (Seeing the Krauthammer column as mere partisan repositioning, Andrew Sullivan takes exception to Krauthammer's rosy assessment of the situation in Iraq. Sullivan supported the war, too, of course, so to that extent he and Bush are in this together. Yet while Bush's approval numbers are historically low, Sullivan just won best blog. Go figure.)
As of now, many can't wait for George W. Bush to leave. This group may well include George W. Bush. Some, including Katie Couric, can't bring themselves to say the word "President" when introducing him. Others wish he had communicated as openly over the last eight years as he has in the last two weeks. And yet how interesting that the Presidential transition has gone so well, a tribute to the temperaments and love of country of both men. How interesting it would be if President Obama took the same pains to keep Bush informed as President Nixon did with his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and especially if it became known that 44 was having the occasional private chat with 43.
Many are eager for new leadership because they think that Obama will be able to wave a magic wand and quickly repair an economy stunted by a generation of bipartisan mismanagement. Perhaps when he can't -- perhaps when he too is tested by challenges to U.S. security and interests -- we'll gain new appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the office. Perhaps then we'll say to George W. Bush, as Barack Obama no doubt will on the inaugural stand next Tuesday, "Godspeed, Mr. President, and thank you."