He was focused on domestic issues. He promised a “compassionate conservatism.” In a 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore, he recoiled from the image of an arrogant United States offending the rest of the world. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” he said. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.”
Eight years later, Bush leaves behind a very different legacy. Foreign policy dominated his two terms, from the global war on terror to the invasion of Iraq, from the collapse of the global economy to the rising concerns over global warming. This approach was neither conservative nor compassionate, but radical in scope and brutal in effect.
And the president who promised to lead a humble nation presided instead over an extraordinary display of national arrogance that, as Bush the candidate predicted, led to unprecedented global unpopularity for the United States.
Bush dates his own transformation to the September 11 attacks that his administration was singularly unsuccessful in preventing and woefully unprepared to address. At the same time, the changes put into place after 2001 were also carefully scripted by a group of neoconservatives, led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who had waited many years to obtain power and expand U.S. military dominance.
But this story of a radical rupture in U.S. foreign policy — as a result of either unanticipated tragedy or carefully prepared politics — is only half the story. The arrogance and overreach of the Bush team only partially explains the failures of their foreign policy.
Over its two terms, the Bush administration also maintained certain features of traditional statecraft, although conflicts within the administration diluted, paralyzed, or otherwise compromised these attempts at diplomacy. In fact, it was the interplay between these two competing tendencies within the administration that doomed so many of the Bush initiatives. Much of the failure of his foreign policy can be chalked up to the external resistance to the radical initiatives and to the half-hearted commitment internally to the more traditional approaches.
After Sep. 11, for instance, the United States had a legitimate grievance against terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. But instead of taking treating these acts within the realm of criminal justice, the administration launched a “global war on terror” that had no boundaries or time limits, that had poorly defined targets and goals, that broke international laws and offended key allies, that swelled the ranks of terrorists and dramatically increased the number of terrorist attacks worldwide, and that precipitated conflicts in countries like Iraq that had nothing to do with Sep. 11.
Because of the damage to U.S. reputation and its relations with potential allies in the effort, this radical departure from international practice hamstrung the State Department in its pursuit of more traditional counter-terrorism practices.
Russia is another example of how mixed signals compromised U.S. policy. Cooperation between Washington and Moscow looked promising after the first summit between Bush and Putin in June 2001. The two countries negotiated the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) and took some steps to expand energy cooperation.
But here, too, a more radical U.S. agenda, advanced over the objections of balance-of-power conservatives, undercut the more traditional diplomacy. The Bush administration, pushing ahead with missile defense, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and planned to place portions of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
By pushing NATO expansion to the borders of Russia, the United States also unnecessarily antagonized what should have been an important global partner. As a result, nuclear reductions stalled, disputes over Iran grew sharper, and the gulf widened over both Kosovo and Georgia.
Or consider U.S. policy toward North Korea. Bush came into the White House rejecting the traditional diplomacy of the Bill Clinton administration, which had frozen North Korea’s nuclear program and nearly negotiated a missile deal as well. Instead, the new administration pursued a containment-plus approach that sought regime change in Pyongyang. Neoconservatives hated Clinton’s “appeasement” of North Korea and couldn’t wait to unravel his 1994 Agreed Framework.
But the Bush strategy failed miserably as North Korea unfroze its program in 2002 and moved quickly to build the nuclear weapon it tested in 2006. Subsequently and belatedly, the administration changed course and pursued negotiations. Yet hardline opposition within the administration — and North Korean suspicions of U.S. motives — prevented traditional diplomacy from achieving denuclearization and an overall peace deal with Pyongyang.
This pattern repeated itself elsewhere. The radical program for Iraq — invasion, regime change, occupation — made subsequent attempts to build democracy or recreate a functioning economy nearly impossible. Stubborn unilateralism — around global warming, the war in Iraq, blockading Cuba — made it more difficult for the United States to forge multilateral coalitions or strengthen international organizations.
The Bush administration talked a great deal about human rights — in Sudan, Cuba, Iran. But its more radical commitment to torture (Abu Ghraib), extraordinary rendition (to countries like Syria), and illegal detention (Guantanamo) made its declarations ring hollow.
The administration touted the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But because of a more radical contempt for using government funds for social needs, overall U.S. foreign aid dropped nearly 10% in 2007, and the United States tied for last (with Greece) as the stingiest major industrialized country in terms of aid as a percentage of gross national income.
Bush’s foreign policy legacy is not entirely negative. After some initial tension with China, the administration managed to forge a useful working relationship and helped to decrease the risk of war across the Taiwan Strait. Building on a model of engagement started by the Clinton administration, Bush continued to work with Libya and managed to ink a deal to eliminate the country’s nuclear program.
But when people look back on the first U.S. administration of the 21st century, the modest diplomatic successes with Libya and across the Taiwan Strait will not loom large. Far more influential will be the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dangerous indifference to global warming, and the gargantuan increases in military spending.
Neither the arrogant attempt to remap the world nor the more modest efforts to repair the damage achieved their intended goals. The United States is weaker today than eight years ago, in hard and soft power, and both experts and the general public give the president very low grades.
George W. Bush, however, prefers the judgment of history to the evaluation of his peers. He is right in one respect at least. Unlike William Harrison or Millard Fillmore, Bush will indeed be remembered. Future generations will remember the Bush years in every dollar of debt to repay, every inch of rising seawater to sandbag, and every terrorist bombing in Kabul and Baghdad to decry.