Is George Bush the worst US president ever?

He's been described as such by fellow candidate for the title, Jimmy Carter. So has Bush left the country in a better or worse state than he found it in? And what of his 'adverse impact' on other countries?

"You know how bad things have got when Jimmy Carter's critique of your presidency is taken seriously," says Gerard Baker in The Times. Last week, the 82-year-old former US president attacked the current one during an interview with an Arkansas newspaper, saying that "as far as the adverse impact on the nations around the world" go, George Bush's administration had been the "worst in history". Being told by Carter that you're the worst president in history is "like being told by William McGonagall that your poetry stinks".

The avalanche of comment caused by Carter's words "irate and delighted" shows this argument is one "people want to have", says Christopher Caldwell on "Is Bush the worst president in American history?" Carter himself finished as a "calamitous failure", but it looks like Bush will join him "on the bottom rung". To judge whether a president has failed is to ask whether he has left the country in "a better or worse shape than when he found it". By this measure, it would take a real turn-up to rescue Bush from a "dismal" verdict. Other presidents have drawn America into ill-advised wars, but Bush's in Iraq has been "particularly rich in unintended consequences" most worryingly, an Iran "bent on acquiring nuclear weapons".

Wait a minute, says Christopher Hitchens on It was Jimmy Carter who "created the conditions for the Gulf crisis in the first place", initially by "fawning on the Shah of Iran" and, when that failed, by encouraging Saddam Hussein to invade Iran and by "tilting" US policy to his side. Quite, says Amity Shlaes in Bloomberg News. How ironic that Carter should attack in the area where his own "missteps" had such grave consequences. Carter's handling of the hostage crisis in Iran, involving group prayers and endless negotiations, "sent a message that the US prefers sanctimony to fighting back against violent fundamentalist Islam". That "picture of wishy-washy America is still costing lives today".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

And let's not forget the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Had Brezhnev not felt emboldened by Carter's passivity, he might never have sent in his troops. It was the later Soviet withdrawal that led to the chaos that made Afghanistan a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. Carter's foreign policy debacles extended far beyond the Middle East, says Mark Moyar in The Wall Street Journal. During his presidency, Carter managed to "alienate nearly every major country in the world", without asserting American power in a way that "might justify that alienation".

It's true that Carter didn't have a "stellar foreign policy record", says Joan Walsh on He was "overmatched" by the hostage crisis and Afghanistan. But no US president since has succeeded in defeating the Islamic radicalism that first challenged the Carter administration, and Bush has "almost certainly made the situation worse" with his "unnecessary, unilateral, pre-emptive and disastrous war with Iraq". Far from beating the Islamic radicals back, the war has turned the country into a recruiting ground. There's no denying that Iraq is a "self-inflicted wound" that continues to sap self-confidence, says Baker. But the "scale of the damage to America there can be overstated". An inept president can set back the course of a nation's progress and "like Mr Carter before him, Bush's ledger is heavy on the liabilities". But the US recovered from Carter, thanks to a good leader and citizens with a constant capacity for reinvention. "Who's betting it won't do so again?"