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A Time For Giving Thanks

This column was written by Jules Crittenden.

As the transition progresses and Barack Obama's inauguration draws closer, it's a good moment to mull the gifts George W. Bush has left for the incoming president. Bush has made the world a better place, and if Obama wants to do the same, he will take the good things Bush has done and move forward with them.

Early indicators are in fact positive. In foreign policy, possibly embarrassed by the eagerness with which the world's most vile regimes have welcomed his election, Obama is backing off his many promises to sit down with dictators. His antiwar base is already outraged that he may not make closing the hated "Crusader gulag" at Guantánamo Bay his first act of national liberation from the Bush era. He is even reportedly considering allowing the CIA some leeway in interrogation techniques.

In the critical field of war and foreign policy, there are quite a few things for which President-elect Obama can thank George Bush.

First and foremost, Saddam Hussein-a state sponsor of terrorism, a producer of weapons of mass destruction, a warmonger, and a genocidal maniac-is gone. The threat he posed was a nagging concern to Bill Clinton, but Clinton, lacking the political will or perhaps a good excuse, was content to consider Saddam trapped in a box. George W. Bush didn't have that luxury. After the September 11 attacks the stakes were raised and Bush understood the world could not tolerate the presence of someone like Saddam, who defied all international challenges and was actively subverting the restraints upon him.

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For the last five years, Saddam has been viewed, in retrospect, as having been harmless, but that is only because he was deposed and captured by forces acting on George Bush's orders, then tried and hanged by the Iraqi people. The Baathist regime is no more.

Thank you, George W. Bush.

That difficult task, which required the terrible resolve to send men to their deaths and also required several painful readjustments of strategy and tactics, was done in time so that Obama should be able to fulfill his campaign promise of getting out of Iraq and ramping up in Afghanistan.

It will be possible for Obama to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq without a precipitous, premature withdrawal that could plunge the region into genocidal chaos and leave Iran the de facto regional power. Iraq is peaceful enough now that a policy fudge by Obama there-unlike on the Guantánamo issue-is something his liberal backers are unlikely to hold against him.

With minor policy adjustments that no one will notice, much less begrudge, he can stay past his 16-month deadline and continue to build Iraq as a beacon of democracy and a U.S. ally in the Middle East. Iraq's cabinet has approved a deal asking U.S. forces to stay until 2012, and Iraq's free parliament has been debating the matter in a highly spirited fashion-including fisticuffs-not unlike the early congressional proceedings of another nascent democracy.

Thank you, George W. Bush.

In the 1990s, anyone who told you Iraq would be a functioning, U.S.-allied democracy within a few short years would have been laughed out of the room. It has come at tremendous cost in both American and Iraqi lives. It is reasonable to assume, however, given the massive ethnic blood toll Saddam inflicted to maintain his regime, that establishing a Western-leaning Iraqi democracy has been accomplished with only a fraction of the violence that would have taken place absent U.S. intervention. Iran, while it meddles and wields deadly influence, has been kept at arm's length in the process, when Iran and Syria might both have been expected to descend on a post-Saddam Iraq. This highly dangerous region is stable-and has hope of remaining so.

The very concept of democracy in the region received a major boost when Arabs saw millions of Iraqis voting while under threat of death. This evolution is playing out in fits and starts in Lebanon and even the Palestinian territories, where voters have learned that the democratic process only begins with a vote. When Hamas chose to reward its backers with a bloodbath and international isolation, George Bush used that opportunity to draw an unprecedented gathering for former adversaries together to talk peace. Meanwhile, the very delicate Pakistan has advanced, with U.S. support, from military rule to elected civilian rule and remains an ally, if a problematic one, in America's war on Islamic extremism.

Thank you, George W. Bush.

George Bush has put a bow on his gift. The U.S. military's leading counterinsurgency warrior-philosopher, General David Petraeus, who resolved the initial mistakes of the Iraq occupation, now commands U.S. forces in the entire region, including Afghanistan. As some of the same voices that despaired in Iraq, declaring quagmires and demanding precipitous withdrawal, turn their despair to Afghanistan, Obama goes into battle without having to search for his Grant. He's already been found.

Thank you, George W. Bush.

The nuclear arms race in the Middle East was checked after 2003 when Iraq was cut out of it, Libya surrendered, and Iran momentarily halted its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran is back in the game, and apparently Syria as well, but Europe and the U.N. have come into line with George Bush on Iran, recognizing that ultimately someone must be willing to use force when all else fails. Bush has demonstrated to Obama that it is possible to negotiate from a position of strength with the international blessing that Obama craves.

Iran is perhaps the greatest challenge Obama will face. It requires him to be willing to take action on his own and not simply manage what was initiated by Bush. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran is one that threatens to upset the pro-democracy, pro-American balance of power Bush has painstakingly created.

There is one thing Bush did not do for Obama, a key bit of unfinished business in a midwar transition. Bush failed to increase the number of U.S. ground forces in the immediate post-9/11 period when Congress would have signed a blank check. As a result, Obama will become commander in chief of an overstressed military at a time when there is still more fighting to be done. To establish himself as a wartime president and show that he is serious about America's obligations and vital interests in the world, Obama, among his first acts as president, must make an effort to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.

George W. Bush did not solve all the problems of the world's most troubled and dangerous region. But, for all his shortcomings, he has moved them forward and established the United States as the dominant agent for change in the Middle East. Consider the mess Obama would be inheriting in the region if the Bush administration had just sat on its thumbs-Ahmadinejad's Iran with an even further advanced nuclear arms program, an aging Saddam installing one of his psychopathic sons in power or Iraq being torn apart in a genocidal nightmare. Imagine all the regimes of the region, unchastened and unimpressed by the U.S. exercise of power, looking for any weakness or advantage to exploit and quite possibly finding it in al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Bush has set conditions that could allow Obama, if he abandons the desire to be liked as the underlying principle of his foreign policy and sticks to the path the Bush administration has laid out, to preside over the greatest blossoming of liberal democracy and stability the Middle East has ever seen, and in all likelihood, to get the credit for it.

For all of this, Barack Obama owes George W. Bush a tremendous debt of gratitude.
By Jules Crittenden
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard

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