President Bush is moving reflectively through his final days in office, in various interviews putting the best face on a presidency that has garnered some of the worst presidential approval ratings from Americans in history.
Much depends on whether Iraq – currently enjoying a new and boisterous kind of democracy – courtesy of American arms and diplomacy, sinks back into a dysfunctional state, or encourages larger freedom throughout the Arab world.
Nor is there much praise for his oft-voiced calls for democracy among the presently unfree peoples around the world, a campaign that he made the centerpiece of his foreign policy. One might have hoped that such calls would receive widespread acclaim and action except from a few dictatorial rulers such as those of North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, Burma (Myanmar), Zimbabwe, and a few Arab states.
Such was not the case and the reasons for this are several.
First, there was resentment at the manner of the demands. They were interpreted as an imperious diktat from a powerful America. Richard Nixon may not have been everyone's favorite president but he did understand the art of international politics when he warned against "the condescending policies of paternalism."
Second, although the invasion of Iraq was of noble intent for many, it was succeeded by a slew of post-war political and economic blunders that made it a poor example of American nation-building.
Third, the Bush administration sanctioned wartime measures seen as a contradiction of the ideals President Bush preached abroad. The names "Abu Ghraib" and "Guantánamo" became a tragic indictment of what was perceived to be inhumane American treatment of human beings.
No matter that the disgusting handling of Arab prisoners at the Baghdad prison of Abu Ghraib, captured in photos that went around the world, was the shameful work of a handful of badly-supervised soldiers. Their actions, as one distinguished retired US general told me, "left a stain on the US military which will last long."
No matter that the Guantánamo prison on Cuba housed some of the most vicious Al Qaeda prisoners responsible for gruesome actions against American and other innocent civilians and military personnel. No matter that some of them had critical information about Al Qaeda's future plans. Their torture, including waterboarding, that took place at a variety of locations, was branded unworthy of the US, even by such patriotic Americans as John McCain, himself the victim of torture at North Vietnamese hands.
How will President-elect Obama seek to change the sometimes negative image of America he has inherited? He has pledged to do so "by deed and by example." He has said he will close the Guantánamo prison. In a Foreign Affairs magazine article, he promised to end shipping prisoners "to be tortured in far-off countries" or detained without charge or trial. "To build a better, freer world," he wrote, "we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people."
He has said he will try to "reboot America's image" among the world's Muslims and give a major speech in a Muslim capital. Combating the terrorists' "prophets of fear" will require "more than lectures on democracy," he wrote. America, he urged, "must make every effort to export opportunity," while giving "steady support for political reformers and civil society."
Freedom requires at least three essentials – free elections, a free judiciary, and a free press. Mr. Obama can cite such with pride as he invites the world to look at the American example.
In his own recent election as an African-American minority, many millions voted without chaos, violence, or fraud.
The courts operate without fear or favor, pursuing even senators and governors perceived of wrongdoing. High office does not shield them from punishment.
Then there is the press, peppering the president-elect with every question from what kind of dog he is bringing, to how he will end the recession, and deal with a nuclearizing Iran.
It is an amazing nation. It will take some explaining. He'll be glad he has a dog.