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Saturday Feature
Bush is incurious and dogmatic but he is still the right leader
David Frum

          This has been a very bad month for the Bush presidency, maybe the worst to date: Hurricane Katrina, bad news from Iraq and grumbling from within the president's own party over spending and immigration. The man who once scored the highest approval numbers in the history of US presidential polling is now scoring some of the lowest.
There is no denying that much of the trouble is the president's own fault. He chose to appoint Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He chose to spend lavishly on highways and farmers and a new prescription drug benefit at the same time as he was fighting a global war on terror. And of course it is he who remains the final decision-maker on national security.
I will say, though, as one who worked for the president and still critically supports him, that I find the sudden surge of public disenchantment with Mr Bush very difficult to understand. If you were looking for a diligent manager of the office of the presidency, a close student of public policy, a careful balancer of risks and benefits George W. Bush would never be your man. But is this news?
The case for President Bush has never been that he was a master of detail. The case is the opposite: that he is a leader who dares greatly and, accepts risks from which most politicians would flinch.
Political pundits too often praise risk-taking and bold leadership in the abstract. Then, when things go wrong or prove difficult, those same pundits cluck and condemn. But risk-takers never enjoy 100 per cent success. That's why it is called "risk".
So let us interrupt the post-Katrina Bush-bashing-for a moment to measure the boldness of the risks this president has run.
Look first at Mr Bush's Social Security reform proposals. His immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, had used the slogan "save Social Security first" to beat back Republican tax-cut proposals. it was an ingenious tactic, and it worked -- tactically.
But Mr Clinton's clever manoeuvres did nothing for the programme he was ostensibly defending. It remained just as bad a deal for America's young workers as ever. Its finances remained just as unsustainable as ever.
If anything, Mr Clinton's political success actually aggravated the programme's problems, by intensifying the taboo against talking honestly or sensibly about the future of the Social Security programme.
The plan to reform Social Security now seems to be stalled in Congress, and Mr Bush's detractors can call this a failure if they wish.
But those who have followed this debate will remember that as recently as 1982, personal accounts in Social Security were condemned as an idea from the outer fringe -- so much so that when a whiff went around that Ronald Reagan might favour them, the "Great Communicator" hastily convened a commission under Alan Greenspan to distance himself from anything like the suggestion of reform.
Mr Bush has moved personal accounts from the fringe to the centre of the American debate. His proposals have faltered for now. They will return -- and next time, the momentum for reform will be much stronger.
Or consider tax reform. Many economists believe that the ultimate solution to the problems of pensions and healthcare in aging societies must begin by shifting the burden of taxation from production to consumption. This idea, also, has been virtually taboo as a public discussion topic in the US until now.
But Mr Bush's tax reform commission will soon report, and it is a good bet that it will recommend just such a change. Congress may act on the report or not. But the debate has been transformed -- and forever.
All this holds true most of all for Mr Bush's security policy. It was Mr Bush who rejected America's former policy of treating terrorism as essentially a legal rather than a military policy. It was Mr Bush who declared that henceforth, the US would call to account not only individual terrorists, but the states that sponsored them.
The real danger after the attacks of September 11, 2001 on America was not that the US would "overreact" -- how can a nation overreact to a devastating terrorist attack on its greatest city? -- but that it would under-react by persisting in the failed methods of the past.
Instead, and for the first time, the US deployed a response commensurate to the injury and insult that had been perpetrated.
And after a decade of hesitation, Mr Bush did what his predecessors kept saying it was necessary to do, but somehow never got around to doing. He removed from power the Middle East's most dangerous and aggressive dictator, its most persistent supporter of terrorism and seeker of weapons of mass destruction: Saddam Hussein.
The aftermath of the war has been nasty indeed. But does anybody ever stop to consider where the world would be now had Mr Bush opted to leave Mr Hussein in place?
The Iraqi leader would be by now earning an oil income of billions of dollars a month. The inspections regime authorised by the United Nations in 2002 would long ago have collapsed, as it did in 1998. Sanctions would have dwindled away. An enriched Mr Hussein would be poised to exploit the opportunities created by the stresses and strains of the global war on terror.
There is an almost perfect opposite case to Iraq in the form of Iran and the controversy over the country's nuclear programme, There, Mr Bush has followed the advice of his European allies. He has taken the matter to the UN. He has followed the conventional rules of the game.
The result: an emerging policy failure that will be far more catastrophic than anything that is happening in Iraq -- an Iran that has defied an ineffectual international community to pursue an arsenal of nuclear weapons. To paraphrase John Milton: "Inaction hath her defeats, no less ignominious than action."
In a 2003 book about Mr Bush, I offered this assessment of his personality: Mr Bush is "a good man who is not a weak man. He is impatient, quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic, often uncurious, and as a result ill-informed ... [but] outweighing the faults are his virtues: decency, honesty, rectitude, courage, and tenacity".
That appraisal still seems accurate to me. It was on that basis I dubbed Mr Bush "the right man".
His multiplying critics may disagree with that verdict - but surely they must agree, even in this season of trouble, that George W. Bush has at least dared to ask the right questions and accept the right challenges.
The writer, a former special assistant and speech-writer to President George W. Bush, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC


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