Bush’s War

Eminent historians H. W. Brands and Doris Kearns Goodwin on whether Iraq will be the president’s legacy, the trouble with the Vietnam analogy, and how bad times for the country often produce great leaders.

Evan Smith: Right before Christmas, Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who is no Howard Dean Democrat, told the Washington Post that he believed that Iraq would be the totality of George W. Bush’s legacy. Do you agree with that?

H.W. “Bill” Brands: It depends on how it turns out. If Bush accomplishes what he set out to accomplish—to establish democracy in Iraq—then I think he will be seen as one of the boldest, greatest visionaries ever to occupy the White House: He took a position that most people thought was a long shot, he acted on his belief that this was necessary to change the dynamics in the Middle East, and he pulled it off. If he doesn’t pull it off—if Iraq dissolves into civil war and the Republicans take a hammering in 2006 and the Democrats reclaim the White House in 2008—then things are going to look a lot different.

Is it all or nothing?

Brands: Actually, there’s a middle ground. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bush announces sometime between now and the elections in 2006 that the mission is substantially accomplished and begins to draw down American forces. If he can basically get American forces out of there before things collapse all at once, then he might be able to say, “Well, we tried, and we got Iraq on its feet, and then, you know, a democracy is a democracy. They choose the leaders they want. And if they choose bad leaders, that’s their fault and not ours.”

Smith: Doris, what do you think about that?

Doris Kearns Goodwin: I agree with Bill that if Iraq became a model democracy or even just a democracy, and in doing so changed the whole complexion of

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