Good reflections on leadership, Bret. Here are a couple more thoughts about presidential leadership.
I, also, did not like Reagan's policies (and, like Bush, I thought he was intellectually deficient for the office). One thing he was very good at, though (and which George W sucks at) is communicating a clear, simple message based on his personal values.
Whether Reagan made good decisions is another issue. At this relatively close point in history, people ascribe the demise of the Soviet Union to Reagan's ante-upping defense spending. But, he may have just been lucky. Lucky in the sense that Gorbachev came along, in 1985, and was the perfect Soviet leader to be receptive to Reagan's approach. Brezhnev (until 1982), Andropov (until 1984), and Chernenko (until 1985) were all unreceptive. It's not out of the question that one of these leaders (had they lived) or another one other than Gorby might have acted much differently under the economic pressure felt by the Soviets at the time. Perhaps some would have acted in desperation in a way that would have been terribly bad for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Reagan's decisions, then, may not have looked so good.
Further, the Soviet Union would have collapsed eventually. Reagan's policies may have sped the demise, but maybe not. Gorbachev was a change agent with a pretty good feel for what was happening to his country regardless of Reagan's policies.
The point is, I'm skeptical about giving too much credit to Reagan's policies. However, in this domain, I do give him high grades for execution of them. His policies and their execution in other areas, e.g., in Latin America, are another story altogether.
How about Bush? Could he wind up looking good in Iraq?
Of course he could. Again, it may depend on chance -- e.g., the emergence of a progressive Arab leader. Most likely, there will be a mix of good and bad which will attract proponents primarily according to partisanship. The other possibility -- remote, in my mind -- is that Bush will actually do something that significantly helps things turn out well. It could be something visible and symbolic, or it could be lots of behind-doors canvassing. Nothing suggests to me that he is good at either of these. Nonetheless, it might be a little interesting to think about the symbolic things he could do to change the equation.
In my opinion, the best defense against terrorism is to marginalize it. I doubt that terrorism can be beat through confrontation -- it's too amorphous to confront. This is our current approach, and, on the surface, it appears successful. Frequently, we hear reports about disruption to terrorist cells or financing or weapons flows. But, I don't think this will be successful. This approach acknowledges and empowers the beast -- which, in turn, attracts the desperate and disaffected around the world.
While I'm not against some degree of security precaution, I don't think it will be very effective in the long run. The fluid beast of terrorism will find its way through our defenses, eventually.
Perhaps it would be better to ignore terrorism as a serious threat, and emphasize a different reality? A reality that only acknowledges construction -- rather than destruction -- as a winning strategy.
So, when Bush finally gets Saddam (I'm convinced we will not leave Iraq until that happens -- unless Saddam cleverly figures out how to get himself to another country willing to host him -- don't think he's not trying), he should declare victory, then come out with a powerful symbol of anti-violence that all countries can participate in. For example, he could declare that he is asking the U.N. (this is really dreaming, isn't it!) to administer a grassroots-oriented "peace and development fund" into which all countries will divert 1/4 of their weapons expenditures for a year, with the U.S. making the initial commitment. He could explain that a new era of peace is within our grasp, and it is only a matter of everyone committing to make it happen. Target development funds to go to extremely poor countries as well as to the most troublesome countries. North Korea would be near the top of the list. (North Korea, as Madeleine Albright rightly says, is the most threatening country on Earth. But, all its power is based on repression -- which is inherently unstable. With the demise of a few key leaders -- maybe only one -- its current incarnation will crumble. Our main goal should be to make sure that it doesn't take down others with it.)
OK, so maybe my proposal is not realistic. But, the concept is important. Eliminate terrorism through marginalization, i.e., by giving desperate people more interesting things to talk about and to be involved in. So long as our mindset revolves around terrorism, terrorism will be fed.
By the way, about 3000 people died in the 9-11 attacks. 43,000 died in automobile crashes last year. Perhaps our money should be going to an Office of Homeland Automotive Safety?