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Archive for Thursday, May 31, 2007

Assessing Bush, Blair, Clinton

May 31, 2007

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How will history judge the "three musketeers" of modern global politics, President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former President Bill Clinton?

The trio has exerted a prodigious influence on the course of events for a decade and a half. Indeed, what they have done as leaders, for better or for worse, will affect the world for generations to come.

That Blair, who will step down next month, has worked so well with both Bush and Clinton is a mystery to some, but not to those who understand his abiding belief in the British-American special relationship. As Blair has suggested, it would be a dark day if that light ever burned out.

Still, friendships can have downsides. Blair is leaving office an unpopular fellow, primarily because of his willingness to follow Bush into the morass of Iraq - and to stay put, critics would say, in the fine tradition of lapdogs.

Of course, critics have even less flattering comments to make about Bush, including the belief that history will remember him as one of the worst U.S. presidents. And then there is Clinton, whose soaring second term collided with and nearly crashed as a result of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So, what should we tentatively make of their legacies?

In terms of Blair, I agree with The Economist, which recently called him "the most gifted politician of his generation - certainly in Europe and (depending on your opinion of the foxier but less-disciplined Clinton) perhaps wider than that." The magazine also somewhat blandly declared that Blair will come to be seen as a better prime minister than he is today.

Of course he will. Inevitably, the wisdom that accrues with time and distance enables us to perceive people and their deeds in a fuller light. I believe that Blair, given his many accomplishments - with the crowning achievement of peacemaking in Northern Ireland - eventually will be seen as one of Britain's best prime ministers.

Bush, despite Iraq, and Clinton also will fare better in future evaluations.

Readers may wonder how I can say that about Bush, in light of my strong pessimism about U.S. prospects in Iraq ever since the much-touted troop "surge" turned into little more than a spurt. For one thing, we do not know how the war will turn out.

And no matter what happens, Bush will deserve credit in an area where none of his predecessors had his foresight and gumption: the war against terrorism. If former President Jimmy Carter, former President Ronald Reagan, Bush's father and Clinton - the parade of U.S. presidents during the first two decades of the modern wave of terrorism - had taken that step, we might have avoided the tragedy of 9/11.

Some - and I exclude myself - would even go so far as to suggest the Bush might one day be seen as ingenious for diverting terrorist attention away from the United States. That is, although he might have created a previously non-existent front in the war against terrorism by invading Iraq, he could have effectively delayed for years an expansion of extremist activity within U.S. borders.

Now, Clinton. Setting aside the Lewinsky issue, he appears more likely to be remembered for presiding over a boom economy and middle-of-the-road consensus politics than for his foreign deeds. Yet, as the first president elected after the Cold War, Clinton appreciated better than most the new era's possibilities. In the Middle East, specifically, he helped propel one of the most ambitious peacemaking bids in decades.

Sadly, Middle East peace, a terrorism antidote and a solution in Iraq still elude us. So, I look to new musketeers, a globally diverse legion of them - including Americans and Brits - for answers.

- John C. Bersia, an editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

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