Thursday, January 15, 2009

Assessing Bush: Foreign Policy

In just over a week, the presidency of George W. Bush will creak, finally, to a stop. The joke I keep hearing is that he's forgotten but not gone, and that's not far from the truth--turn on the news or pick up a paper, and nobody's talking Bush. When a guy has made such a hash of things, I guess we all would rather look forward than backward (we're Americans, after all). But for a week or so, I'm going to post on the legacy of the Bush administration because, whatever we think of the man who's leaving, we cannot forget what he's left us with.

Not the Man for the Job
It is one of those intriguing historical ironies that Bush will be remembered mainly as a war president, his administration dominated by foreign policy. Coming in, foreign policy was unknown and uninteresting to the governor--he hadn't traveled abroad nor did he evince any interest or much knowledge in the rest of the world. The early months of his presidency bore out his incuriosity, as he focused on No Child Left Behind, tax cuts, and his faith-based initiatives, outsourcing foreign policy to the Vice President.

And then came 9/11.

Everyone knows the events that followed chapter and verse: Afghanistan, bogus build-up to Iraq, invasion and catastrophe, "Mission Accomplished," Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret rendition, "enhanced interrogation," the surge. These events, when combined with the Bush diplomatic approach (if you can call that) of extreme bellicosity comprise an experiment historians might reasonably call "speaking loudly and carrying a small stick." We have Bush to thank for running such a pure experiment--now we know exactly how badly this approach works in the real world.

The Bush Doctrine
The attacks on 9/11 allowed neocons to test certain hypotheses that would have been unthinkable without them. Key was the National Security Strategy published in 2002. In it, the White House argued that "anticipatory defense" (invasion) of even non-threatening countries was a legitimate measure in the age of terrorism. Even this radical re-imagining of national defense didn't totally justify the Iraq war--its justifications were too thin ("we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud") and Iraq's link to dangerous terrorism too tenuous. Already Bush is beginning to apply revisionism to this recent history, but the bulk of the claims appeared false even in media accounts. It was not the failure of the CIA, but Bush, that created the justification for the war. This shined a light on one enormous difficulties of "anticipatory defense"--how do you know when to anticipate? With Iraq, Bush was wrong.

This National Strategy document had an additionnal purpose; it also became the cudgel the US wielded in its rudimentary diplomacy. Thus did Bush serve notice to the "axis of evil" that if they didn't shape up, we'd shape them up. In the months and years following our invasion of Iraq, the White House rattled its sabers toward Syria, Iran, and North Korea, using the threat of strikes as a replacement for engaged diplomacy.

Bush wishes history to exonerate him in the long view, somehow imagining that a stable Iraq will vindicate the Bush Doctrine. But that ignores the massive failure of the Bush Doctrine according to its own logic. The Bush Doctrine wasn't a philosophical treatise about bringing democracy to unstable countries. Rather--and it's right there in the name--it was security strategy. Judged on these grounds, invasion has proved to be a terrible method of tightening security.

Torture and American Exceptionalism
The Bush administration's foreign policy was animated by the idea of American Exceptionalism--that is, the belief that the US is a more highly evolved democracy than anywhere else on earth. The entire GOP establishment, but especially pious Bush, felt that whatever the US did was almost definitionally moral and correct. This kind of hubris led, perversely, to many of the darkest acts in our nation's history--a different kind of exceptionalism. Relying on this view, the administration developed a series of legal positions allowing the US to permanently detain prisoners, to conduct torture practices explicitly condemned by the UN Convention Against Torture, to use "rendition" to transport prisoners to secret "black sites" where foreign countries would conduct torture. Their rhetoric was clear throughout this period: we have to do this because we are the last bulwark of democracy willing to stand up to extremism. They never got the irony.

In the years since these practices started, no evidence that I'm aware of has emerged suggesting they provided useful intelligence. But they have certainly been a main factor in the declining status of the United States internationally and have now put US citizens and soldiers at risk for brutal practices in response. In this way, the Bush administration has caught up with the 19th-century logic of the Geneva Conventions.

Speaking Loudly and Carrying Small Sticks
When Bush took office, threats to the United States came from terrorists, Middle Eastern instability, the rising powers of China and Russia, and selected troublesome regimes like Burma and North Korea. As he exits office, not a single one of these threats has diminished; thanks to our weakness in Iraq and our inability to dampen the rise of terror or even stabilize Afghanistan (that was our "success"), Bush has exposed the US's strategic weaknesses. Worse: thanks to Bush's spectacular mishandling of foreign policy, the US's leverage to affect these situations has been substantially reduced.

Earlier, I mentioned that Bush managed an inverse Roosevelt--speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. This will be the enduring lesson of the Bush years. His administration has demonstrated that its not possible to invade your way to peace; nor can you threaten your rivals into behavior you wish to see. Countries like Iran and North Korea, erstwhile evil axis team members, now know that the US will not invade. Standing up to the US is great domestic politics, so our diplomatic leverage has been diminished, and the hands of tyrants strengthened. And we have done much to fray long-held strong relationships with Europeans. When Bush took office, US might was unparalleled and our influence at an all-time high. Eight years later, we find ourselves despised and disrespected internationally, our influence badly weakened. There is reason to think that much of the animus is directed at Bush, not the US, and that after another eight years, an Obama administration may have repaired the damage. That remains to be seen.

History will unfold some more before Bush's reputation is solidified. It is extremely hard to imagine a scenario in which any improvement in the world situation improves Bush's standing, however. More likely, it will be a cautionary tale that will cast a 40-year shadow across politics in the way Vietnam did before it. The "Bush Doctrine" will stand in as one of the great foreign-policy disasters in US history. And Bush himself will become the cautionary tale of arrogance and ignorance that almost did us in.

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