Lame Legacy

Early on in his administration, George W. Bush decided not to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Did the president consider the problem too difficult to solve? No, that wasn’t quite it. Too much of a domestic hot potato? Wrong again.

Instead, the 43rd American president had his eyes on the prize. And not in a good way. Bush just couldn’t get psyched up to help mediate the conflict between Israel and Palestine. “There’s no Nobel Peace Prize to be had here,” he told his advisors.

The notion that our soon-to-be-ex-president coveted the Nobel Peace Prize is surreal, like Kim Jong Il waiting for an Oscar or Mugabe holding out for the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. That didn’t stop Bush’s boosters from getting him among the 156 candidates for the prize in 2002. In 2004, both he and Tony Blair were in the running. But those dreams of Nobel Prizes are long gone. Instead, the ultimate lame duck and his circle of sycophants have fallen back on a more amorphous honor: legacy.

With only one week left in what 61% of U.S. historians have called the worst presidency ever, it is time for one last, squirming appraisal of the damage done.

You might think that something entitled the Highlights of Accomplishments and Results of the George W. Bush administration would be issued to the press on the back of a cocktail napkin, along with peanuts, a stiff drink, and an air-sickness bag. Instead, the 52-page document — and these are only the highlights! — focuses on the war on terrorism, increased military spending (including missile defense), the freedom agenda, foreign aid, and, sorry, I just couldn’t get past page 16. I must be suffering from budget deficit disorder. The nearly half-trillion dollar budget deficit that Bush is handing off to his successor — it will climb closer to a cool trillion when the bailout bill comes due — makes it impossible for me to absorb anything that links “Bush” with “accomplishments.”

In their evaluation of the glossy, upbeat document, the folks over at The Progress Report conclude: “the U.S. military is weaker now than it was five years ago, the State Department is suffering from staffing shortages and low morale, and Bush’s approval of illegal interrogation techniques harmed the CIA’s intelligence-gathering initiatives and threatened troops abroad.”I’d go further than that. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 73% increase in military spending over the last eight years, have practically bankrupted the country. The administration’s embrace of missile defense and aggressive expansion of NATO have destroyed relations with Russia. The State Department is facing more than just low morale: the Middle East is in flames, North Korea has nukes, India and Pakistan are flirting with apocalypse, the global economy has tanked, and the icebergs are melting. Condi can’t wait to get out of the hot seat and let Hillary try to clean up the mess.

As for torture, even Jack Bauer is having second thoughts. Howard Gordon, executive producer of the TV show 24, recently confessed: “We felt that we couldn’t denounce Jack and wash away the last years of the show, but we do have him travel some distance on the subject and give voice to different points of view.” Uh, why not denounce Jack? Send him to The Hague: it would make for good TV when U.S. Special Forces raid the International Criminal Court in an attempt to rescue him.

As for the two other items on the “Best of Bush” list — the freedom agenda and foreign aid — it’s hard to find much evidence of success. On foreign aid, the Bush administration has done a bang-up job if you include all the military hardware it’s given away like Santa Claus on steroids. But if you just look at overseas development assistance (ODA), the Bush team fell down on the job. In 2007, U.S. assistance dropped nearly 10%, and the United States tied for last (with Greece) for being the stingiest major industrialized country in a ranking of nations that looked at aid as a percentage of gross national income.

In terms of the “freedom agenda,” the folks who pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003 aren’t so pleased with their gift of democracy (not surprisingly, Iraq isn’t listed in the White House’s freedom agenda accomplishments). In Pakistan, the administration backed strongman Pervez Musharraf until the last moment; it continues to count undemocratic Saudi Arabia as an ally. Its “democracy promotion” efforts — in Iran, in Venezuela — have compromised authentic democratic forces.

And that leaves the “Global War on Terror,” which the Bush team equates with the Cold War as a defining struggle for the United States. Having ignored several warnings about al-Qaeda and failed to prevent the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration shifted into overdrive for a crusade that has boosted the ranks of terrorist organizations, increased the number of terrorist attacks (14,499 in 2007, up from 11,156 in 2005, up from 199 in 2002), destabilized great swathes of the Middle East, and made U.S. citizens more not less of a target worldwide.

And they’re saying that future generations will thank George W. Bush for what he has done? Don’t give that man a hand — give him a shoe. Not that he cares. Says Barton Gellman in a Washington Post roundtable on legacy, “I think he really, truly, as much as anyone who ever held a high office, does not care what we think.” Unless we happen to serve on the Nobel committee, that is.

Obama and Gaza

The president-elect has maintained a diplomatic silence about the Gaza conflict. No doubt he is hoping that a ceasefire can be reached before he takes office.

Why wait? asks Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Ian Williams. “The president-elect should speak out now about the desirability of Israel abiding by UN Security Council Resolution 1860, which calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Israeli troop withdrawal, and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he writes in Obama and Israel. “A word from Obama would give Israel the excuse it desperately needs to extricate itself from the hole it dug in Gaza, while redounding to the president-elect’s credit globally.”

It’s not likely, though, that Obama will take Israel to task for its attack. Writes FPIF contributor Steve Niva in War of Choice, “With the American political establishment firmly behind Israel’s attack, and Obama’s foreign policy team heavily weighted with pro-Israel insiders like Dennis Ross and Hillary Clinton, any efforts to hold Israel accountable in the United States will depend upon American citizens mobilizing a major grassroots effort behind a new foreign policy that will not tolerate any violations of international law, including those by Israel, and will immediately work towards ending Israel’s siege of Gaza and ending Israel’s occupation.”

Meanwhile, as FPIF contributor Ira Chernus reports, a lively debate is taking place in the Israeli intelligence community over a report that their military intelligence service lied about the willingness of Palestinian leaders to negotiate a peace deal.” All of the suffering in Gaza — indeed, all of the suffering endured by Palestinians under Israeli occupation for the last eight years — could have been avoided if Israel had negotiated a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat when it had the chance, in 2001,” he writes in Did Israeli Intelligence Lie? “The official Israeli position is that there was no chance, ‘no partner for peace.’ That’s what Israeli leaders heard from their Military Intelligence (MI) service in 2000, after the failure of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David. Arafat scuttled those talks, MI told the leaders, because he was planning to set off a new round of violence, a second intifada. Now former top officials of MI say the whole story, painting Arafat as a terrorist out to destroy Israel, was an intentional fiction.”

Obama and the Rest of the World

Obama staked much of his reputation as an advocate for change on his position against the Iraq War and his support for troop withdrawal. But as FPIF contributor Eric Stoner points out, the president-elect hasn’t gone out of his way to listen to Iraqis and incorporate their thinking into his policy proposals.

“Not only is Iraqi opinion completely ignored, but Obama’s website actually blames the victim — a popular line with both Democrats and Republicans — by stating that ‘the Iraqi government has not stepped forward to lead the Iraqi people,’” Stoner writes in Obama: Listen to Iraqi Opinion. “How Iraqis are supposed to take control of their destiny with 146,000 U.S. troops — and an even larger number of U.S. contractors — in their country is apparently not a relevant question.”

Another Obama promise was to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Sometimes campaign promises disappear ‘twixt campaign trail and Oval Office. FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen doesn’t think this issue will go away. “Campaign attacks on NAFTA and candidate promises to renegotiate proved that demands for revision of the free-trade model have reached critical mass in U.S. politics,” she writes in Obama and NAFTA. “A post-election report from Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch heralded a net gain of 28 fair-trade members in the House and seven senators. Most of these politicians, it notes, didn’t just happen to be critical of the free-trade model. They actively ran on a fair-trade platform and won partly on that stance.”

Obama has also shown some willingness to engage Cuba diplomatically and remove the current travel ban to that country. As FPIF contributor Mavis Anderson writes in her review of a new book on Cuba by Reese Ehrlich, “A new policy toward Cuba in 2009 would have an impact beyond Cuba; it would send a strong signal to our South and Central American neighbors that a new day has dawned in the United States in relation to Latin America as a whole. This is a change that Latin American leaders have been promoting to President-elect Obama.”

A final note on lameness: In last week’s World Beat, I erroneously stated that neither the United States nor Israel had signed the UN Convention against Torture. For reasons too tortuous to go into, I was looking at the wrong list. In fact, both countries are signatories, not that signing the accord much influenced their conduct. Thanks to reader Marc Cohen for the heads up.