Few expected that when George W. Bush became the U.S. president in January 2001, his tenure would be dominated by foreign affairs. When the former Texas governor entered the White House, the nation was at peace and he was expected to focus on domestic issues while pursuing a traditional conservative foreign policy agenda implemented by a respected team of steady professionals.
But as Bush prepares to leave office, most analysts agree he has been one of the most consequential foreign policy presidents in decades. Yet, just as his legacy has been substantial, many say it’s also been one of the most substantially negative in history.
Experts cite a litany of reasons for Bush’s dubious record overseas: two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are at the top of the list, along with the administration’s larger efforts to democratize the Middle East; accusations of human rights abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib; mishandling of key relationships such as Russia and Pakistan; ongoing nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea; lack of action on climate change and international accords; and Bush’s general skepticism — some say disdain — for multilateral cooperation and diplomacy to address global problems, antagonizing even some of America’s closest allies.
The result: America’s standing around the world plummeted despite the enormous international goodwill shown immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In a series of surveys since 2001, the Pew Global Attitudes Project traced this free fall. Speaking to Congress in 2007, Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew project, said the drop was closely related to the start of the war in Iraq, which then mushroomed into a broad condemnation of U.S. foreign policy.
This new anti-Americanism, though worldwide, is clearly strongest in the Muslim world, Kohut added, noting that it has now spread from a critical view of the American government to a harsh assessment of American society.
The anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world has been one of the many disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor for President Carter. Now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brzezinski has become one of the fiercest critics of Bush’s foreign policy.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat in 2008, Brzezinski said that Bush assumed office focusing on missile defense, military transformation and big power relationships, paying little attention to fighting terrorism or other transnational challenges.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush became so preoccupied with terrorism that he lost sight of other issues, according to Brzezinski, who called Bush’s decision to invade Iraq a “catastrophic mistake” that has done serious damage to America’s image and power in the world. It has also been, in his view, a geopolitical disaster that diverted resources from the terrorist threat building in Afghanistan and many other parts of the world.
Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, wrote a detailed assessment of Bush’s foreign policy in August 2008 and offered an equally blistering critique of Bush’s approach to fighting terrorism.
To begin with, Bush’s basic conception of the so-called war on terror has been flawed, Zakaria contends. It has been poorly thought out, badly implemented, and has produced many unexpected consequences that could linger for decades.
“The administration made monumental errors in its first few years, ones that have cost the United States enormously,” Zakaria writes. “The shift in impressions about America’s intentions across important sections of the globe, the sense in much of the Islamic world that America is anti-Muslim, the vast and counterproductive apparatus of homeland security — visa restrictions, arrests and interrogations — are lasting legacies of the Bush administration. Its dysfunction and incompetence have left a trail of misery in countries like Iraq and Lebanon, which have been destabilized for decades.”
Zakaria also hammers Bush as “the most fiscally irresponsible president in history” who neglected to provide strong leadership on energy issues and climate change.
He acknowledged though that there have been some significant successes, especially during Bush’s second term, when some mistakes of the previous four years were corrected. “The foreign policies that aroused the greatest anger and opposition were mostly pursued in Bush’s first term: the invasion of Iraq, the rejection of treaties, diplomacy and multilateralism. In the past few years, many of these policies have been abandoned, modified, or reversed,” he writes.
Nevertheless, Zakaria concludes: “On the whole, Bush’s record remains one of failure and missed opportunities.”
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian CATO Institute, says a fair reading of Bush’s record must note areas of accomplishment. “There were some quiet things that were done well, mostly under the radar screen. The Bush administration was skillful in handling our relationship with Japan, China and India. And he has a very good record on Africa, especially with his push to expand funding to fight AIDS,” he pointed out.
But overall, he too bashes Bush’s foreign policy, arguing that his administration can hardly be seen as a conservative one.
“If I were assigning grades, I would give him a solid D. He did some things well. Many things, including some very important things, he did very badly. The war in Iraq was both unnecessary and mismanaged. The war in Afghanistan has drifted and suffered at crucial times from a lack of high-level attention,” Carpenter charged.
“The situations in Iran and North Korea have not improved,” he added. “Our relationship with Russia has been very uneven. The administration’s support of several rounds of NATO expansion was seen as very provocative by Russia and damaged our relationship with that country.”
Partly in response to the scathing critiques, Bush has delivered several speeches to defend his foreign policy decisions. In early December, Bush traveled to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he discussed his actions to defeat global terrorism. He insisted his policies have kept the United States safe since 9/11 and have placed “unrelenting pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates” that will lead to their eventual defeat.
In another December speech at the Brookings Institution on his Middle East policies, Bush claimed Iraq has become a “powerful example of a moderate, prosperous and free nation.” In addition, he noted there has been “important progress” in the effort to secure a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
What ultimately happens with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to larger extent Iraq will help shape how Bush is remembered, many experts say. They also point out that history may soften the 43rd president’s record — a position Bush himself has suggested. Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, said in an interview that presidential reputations often change with the passage of time. He observed that when Harry Truman left office in 1953, he was perceived as a failed president, although his reputation steadily improved over the years and he is now considered one of the best American presidents.
Still, though Lichtman thinks it’s too soon to know how history will judge Bush, he doubts the president — who leaves office with some of the lowest approval ratings on record — will be seen in a favorable light. “From where we now sit, it appears that Bush’s foreign policy legacy will have many negative elements. He initiated two wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — and neither has been brought to a successful conclusion during his two terms in office. That is not the best way to build a legacy of success,” he said.
David Frum, a journalist and former White House speechwriter under Bush, counters that historians will be less focused on the Iraq war than people realize.
“There’s no denying that the war in Iraq has defined the presidency of George W. Bush in important ways. But history is not likely to remember the war as negatively as most assume. It’s now likely that the war will stagger to an inconclusive ending,” Frum wrote in a recent essay in Foreign Policy magazine. “As the war recedes into history, it will come to be seen as more like the frustrating Korean conflict, or the Philippine insurrection, rather than the debacle of Vietnam. It will be an important part of Bush’s legacy, but hardly all defining,” he argued.
Frum asserts that a fuller view of Bush’s legacy will focus on his work to develop an important military alliance with India, negotiate bilateral trade agreements, and strengthen the country’s relationships with China, Australia, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam. “Bush is bequeathing to his successor an Asian strategic environment much friendlier to the United States than the one he inherited,” Frum noted.
Amy Zegart, a political science professor at UCLA, points to an even larger international agenda Bush pursued that will leave a much more lasting impact. Unlike Frum, she doubts Bush will be vindicated by history — but history won’t soon forget his boldest foreign policy idea: that democratizing the Middle East is the best way to combat the root causes of terrorism and the surest road to peace.
“America’s 43rd president may go down as one of the most criticized in American history, but his grand strategy will undoubtedly set the course of American foreign policy for the next administration and possibly for the next generation,” she told The Washington Diplomat.
“The truth is that Bush’s big ideas are here to stay. Bush’s freedom agenda, which calls for spreading democracy to extend peace between states and combat terrorism within them, will almost certainly endure. I think George W. Bush has set the intellectual foundations of American foreign policy for a generation.”
She concluded: “Bush will not be judged kindly by history. But make no mistake, his freedom agenda will endure in the next administration and beyond.”
To that end, Moisés Naím, editor in chief of Foreign Policy, said in an interview that Bush’s foreign policy legacy will largely be determined by how the various policies he started — including his Middle East democracy experiment — actually end up.
“It is too soon to tell now what his legacy will be. It will greatly depend on how Iraq turns out. It will greatly depend on if Iran becomes a nuclear power. It will depend on whether the current economic crisis destabilizes countries in 2009 — countries such as Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Ukraine and Spain seem very vulnerable,” he said.
Naím also noted that historians will be intrigued by the huge shift in Bush’s foreign policy between his first and second term — a nuance often left behind in the legacy debate.
“The fiercest debate you could have would be between Bush in the first term and Bush in the second term,” he said. “I guess this shows there is a real educational value in having spent four years in the White House. He came to office full of certainties, but these certainties were shattered, first by 9/11, then by the way that Iraq didn’t turn out how he was told it would turn out. The world, it seems, is a lot more complicated than Bush expected.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.