The Magazine

Before He Goes

What President Bush could accomplish in his final days in office.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Amid the cold gusts of winter, Republicans will soon be ushered out of power after controlling Congress, the White House, or both for 14 years. Here's a further chilling thought: Since 1896, with only one exception, when a party has taken over the White House, it has held it for at least eight years. The exception is the Jimmy Carter Democrats, retired after a single term in 1981. And it would be churlish to hope that Barack Obama will recapitulate the ineptitude and foolishness of the Nobel laureate from Plains.

So it could be eight years on the outside of the White House looking in for the GOP. It certainly looks like at least four years out of power in Congress as well, given the sizable Democratic margins. And the fact that Republicans will be blamed for an economy in free fall, and won't get the credit they deserve for successes in Iraq and the broader war on terror, hardly helps the GOP's prospects for a quick comeback.

Can Bush do anything in his last weeks to change this dynamic? It's hard to see how he can affect the economic narrative at this point.

But he could do his party--and the nation--a service by reminding Americans of our successes fighting the war on terror. He did address the achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan in a fine speech at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, last week, and he can do more along those lines. In particular, he can continue to pay tribute to the successes of the Army and the Marines on the ground, and explain that the task must be finished in both theaters. He can address issues like getting ROTC back on elite campuses (a position Obama also favors). And while he's at it, perhaps he could tell various admirals to stop moaning about how difficult it would be to deal with the pirates off the coast of Somalia (isn't keeping the shipping lanes open a core mission of the Navy?) and order the Navy to clobber them. If need be, the Marines would no doubt be glad to recapitulate their origins and join in by going ashore in Africa to destroy the pirates' safe havens.

Meanwhile, we seem to have al Qaeda mostly on the run (though not defeated). Here at home we haven't had a second attack, and in the West generally, it's over two years since a major attack. Bush can make the broader point that being on offense has been a successful strategy, and that the best form of public diplomacy is making it clear that joining the jihad is a losing proposition.

In addition, Bush can explain to Americans just how his administration's detention, interrogation, surveillance, and other counterterrorism policies have helped keep us safe. If he lays out the case for them publicly--as his appointees are surely doing to their transition counterparts privately--he'll make it easier for the incoming Obama administration to back off rash promises and continue most of the policies. This would be a real service to the country. It would also force a rethinking, by those capable of rethinking, of the cheap and easy demagoguing on issues like Guantánamo and eavesdropping. Over time, Bush might even get deserved credit for effective conduct of the war on terror.

As it happens, a Rasmussen Reports survey last week found about half of U.S. voters say the United States should not close the terrorist detention facility at Guantánamo, while less than a third think it should. So, on this and other war-on-terror-related issues, Bush's positions are reasonably popular--even though the Bush administration has done very little to make its case. Attorney General Michael Mukasey did a good job of laying out the argument for the administration's conduct of the war on terror in remarks to the Federalist Society a little over a week ago. Bush should take up this cause.

One last thing: Bush should consider pardoning--and should at least be vociferously praising--everyone who served in good faith in the war on terror, but whose deeds may now be susceptible to demagogic or politically inspired prosecution by some seeking to score political points. The lawyers can work out if such general or specific preemptive pardons are possible; it may be that the best Bush can or should do is to warn publicly against any such harassment or prosecution. But the idea is this: The CIA agents who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the NSA officials who listened in on phone calls from Pakistan, should not have to worry about legal bills or public defamation. In fact, Bush might want to give some of these public servants the Medal of Freedom at the same time he bestows the honor on Generals Petraeus and Odierno. They deserve it.

--William Kristol