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Friday, February 1, 2008

I'm really gonna miss GWB!

Bush's End Game
January 29, 2008

In Ronald Reagan's last year in office, he traveled to Moscow for a summit and signed arms deals. In Bill Clinton's final year, he negotiated to the very end before failing to get a Mideast peace deal thanks to Yasser Arafat's duplicity.

We cite our most recent two-term Presidents to show that, even with only a year left, the Bush Presidency is far from over. With his low approval rating and a Democratic Congress, Mr. Bush's final State of the Union last night reflected his limited ability to shape legislation. But even a lame duck President has more power to influence events than anyone else on the planet.

That's especially true on foreign policy, where he can do much in the next year to aid his successor. In the war against al Qaeda, that means insisting that Congress formally endorse the need for anti-terror wiretaps without a court order. Only yesterday Senate Democrats bowed to the anti-antiterror left in refusing to vote on legislation that has already passed the Senate Intelligence Committee. (See related article.) Some of Mr. Bush's own Cabinet officers will also urge him to close the al Qaeda prison at Guantanamo this year, in part to win media hosannas. But this is a decision better left to a successor, who will want to weigh the choices of how best to handle stateless enemy combatants and may find Gitmo the least bad option.

We were also glad to see Mr. Bush stress free trade last night, especially the U.S. pacts with Colombia and South Korea now pending in Congress. Free trade is a hard sell even in the best of times, but it is an issue on which a President must spend capital in the national interest. Colombia is a key ally in a bad neighborhood not far from U.S. shores. For Congress to reject Colombia's attempt to link itself to the U.S. economy would be a strategic blunder of the first order.

Mr. Bush staked his Presidency on Iraq, for better and then for worse and now for better again. The success of General David Petraeus's "surge" means that a transition to a stable, democratic Iraq is possible, and building on the gains of 2007 in Baghdad is crucial this year. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as too many of Mr. Bush's generals, will want a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal for their own parochial ends. But the only timetable that matters should be the one requested by General Petraeus. Mr. Bush can also help his successor by doing the heavy lifting toward a long-term security pact that will show Iraqis we aren't about to flee even after the election.

More broadly, Mr. Bush's foreign policy has often slipped in the past year into conventional "realist" mode, with little to show for it. No doubt the State Department is promising "legacy" breakthroughs in North Korea and Palestine, but those are long shots. Adversaries in both places will try to wait him out, hoping for better terms from the next President.

One price for this new "realism" has been the unfortunate decline of what Mr. Bush likes to call his "freedom agenda." Egypt's democrats are dismayed at his recent over-embrace of Hosni Mubarak, while Lebanese wonder about his State Department's solicitation of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Like Reagan at Moscow University, Mr. Bush could use his final months with the bully pulpit to make clear that the U.S. isn't abandoning its support for the world's democrats despite the difficulties in Iraq and Palestine.

Meanwhile, his words on Iran last night rang hollow because his diplomacy has neither stopped Tehran's nuclear program nor cowed its larger regional ambitions. It may even have increased the chances of a military confrontation, to the extent that Israel feels the world lacks the will to stop an Iranian A-bomb. Without far tougher sanctions and more, Mr. Bush runs the risk of being the President who allowed the mullahs to realize their nuclear dream.

As for domestic policy, we take Mr. Bush's "stimulus" deal with Democrats as an attempt to help his own political standing. Finally, he and Democrats are "getting something done." There's a price for this as well, however, which is the end of any chance to make any of his tax cuts permanent before he leaves office. Now that legacy will hang on the election, and the next President. At least Mr. Bush should keep making clear to voters the gigantic tax hike that awaits them if his lower rates expire.

Perhaps the best service Mr. Bush can do in his final months is push back against a public pessimism that could escalate into retreat from world leadership. This mood is partly fed by partisans who hope to ride this sour mood back to the White House, so the worse things seem the better for them. But we are hardly in dire straits at home or abroad. Our economy is slowing but not in recession and its resilience may yet see us through the housing crash without one.

Most important, in the last year we have fought back from the brink of defeat in Iraq. The credit belongs mainly to our soldiers and Marines, but credit also goes to Mr. Bush for surging troops despite furious political opposition and the seductive exit ramp offered by the Beltway's Iraq Study Group. That decision may be his Presidency's finest hour.