Legacy in progress

March 20, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH told reporters last week he doesn't have much time to "wander, lonely, in the Oval Office, kind of asking different portraits, how do you think my standing [in history] will be?" He's so busy lately partly because he's trying to shape that legacy by moving ideological soulmates into positions to ensure his impact will be long felt.

The latest of these appointments went to Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative deputy defense secretary, whom Mr. Bush has tapped to promote democracy through economics as president of the World Bank.

As chief architect of the ill-conceived U.S. war in Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz is a controversial if not despised figure in the United States and other parts of the world. But Mr. Bush isn't out to win over detractors with this choice. He's a man on a mission to remake international as well as domestic institutions to reflect his philosophical views. He needs an ideologue with the intelligence and passion of Mr. Wolfowitz at the World Bank.

In a similar vein, Mr. Bush dispatched John R. Bolton, a scathing critic of the United Nations, to represent the United States in the world body, where presumably he would seek to bring about reforms.

Perhaps the greatest challenge went, however, to Bush alter-ego Karen Hughes, whom the president has recruited to improve America's image overseas, particularly in Muslim countries. If the current impression of Americans is often arrogant, superior and insensitive, it's hard to imagine how that might be improved while at the same time the United States is aggressively trying to remodel the world.

The president's legacy would be best served if his agents presented themselves as they would hope America to be viewed: generous, tolerant and respectful.

Mr. Wolfowitz, for example, could be enormously helpful in relieving the poverty of disease-ridden Africa if he doesn't get hamstrung in ideological politics. Mr. Bolton needs somehow to develop diplomatic skills to avoid disaster at the United Nations. And Ms. Hughes must go far beyond the disciplined spin of her years as a Bush spokeswoman if the United States is going to prevail based on its ideals and values, not its bullets and bombs. A slick PR campaign won't do it.

If the president does happen to quiz those portraits in the Oval Office for predictions of how it will all turn out, they'd likely say it's too soon to know. There might also be a few gasps, though, at the breathtaking risk of creating more enemies.

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