It was his fate, and our counrty's lot, that so quintessentially American a figure as George W. Bush would take this country so deeply into the complications of Arab and Muslim affairs. The man who had promised a "humble foreign policy" pushed into Kabul and Baghdad; he made himself the most decisive figure in the affairs of the Mideast; he scared the Syrians out of Lebanon; and his "diplomacy of freedom" unsettled the autocrats in Arab lands who had always counted on America's indulgence of their ways. Now the Bush era ends, and the judgment of it will pass to the historians. They will differ, but there can be no denying that the 43rd president has left his mark on history.
The victor in November will work his way on—and around—the Bush legacy. It is not true that the Republican standard-bearer will give us another Bush term. And we know that Barack Obama is the antithesis of all Bush stands for. Certainly, the victor will not start with a clean slate. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will still be with us, and the larger struggle between American power and Islamist radicalism will still be there the morning after our presidential election. In the final installment of his chronicle of the Bush presidency, The War Within, Bob Woodward quotes Bush's message on Iraq to the man who will succeed him: "Don't let it fail."
There is will and design in what Bush bequeaths to his successor. An immensely popular military commander, Gen. David Petraeus, will head the U.S. Central Command. Iraq and Afghanistan, and the burning grounds of the Islamic lands, and the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will be his responsibility. Even were Senator Obama to prevail, and the Democrats to emerge with decisive majorities in both houses of Congress, it would be hard for the new administration to walk away from the American burden in that greater Middle East.
There is no need to second-guess what a John McCain presidency would mean for that struggle. The message is one of resolve, and the promise is victory in that battleground. But there will be a McCain difference. President Bush, in his second term, took up the cause of "freedom" and "reform" in Arab and Muslim lands. He made it his cause, and he gave it a messianic edge; in a break with decades of American diplomacy, he was willing to break with the autocrats of that region and to prefer freedom's risks to the stability that the rulers promised.
He did not succeed in all he attempted. He had signaled his dissatisfaction with the ruling regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But the Saudi rulers rode out the storm. The oil windfall of recent years bailed them out. They drew down the domestic debt that had played havoc with the stability of their domain prior to 9/11. Nor did the regime of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, ossified and riddled with corruption and favoritism, bend to America's will. Mubarak hunkered down and gave every indication that he intended to put in place a dynastic succession for his son. The bet of the dictator in Cairo was that Pax Americana had no pretty alternatives, that America's fear of the Islamists coming to power in Egypt would trump its desire for reform. A true cynic who dreads the unknown, Mubarak bet that he would still be there when Bush headed off to Crawford, Texas, on Jan. 20, 2009. It is doubtful that John McCain will place so great an emphasis on Arab and Islamic reform.
9/11 mind-set. The ways in which great powers acquire burdens, and spheres of influence, are infinitely varied. There is accident, and there is design, and there are the elements of biography and personality. America's imperium in the turbulent domains of the Arabs, and the Muslims, is easy to interpret. It came America's way on 9/11, when those death pilots shattered America's peace of mind. Up to then, Bush had been trying to find his way. He was, in the eyes of at least half of our country's population, an illegitimate president who had lost the popular vote. For a brief time, the country rallied around him, found its voice in his, didn't mind the tough talk and the swagger.
Eight years—and two wars—later, that American unity is a distant memory, and the war in Iraq had ruptured that national consensus on America's proper role in foreign lands. The successor of this terribly consequential and controversial president will have to knit together a new consensus, set out to find a sustainable mix of assertiveness and restraint, and leave his own mark on history as he grapples with President Bush's bequest.