Walter Russell Mead and the Bush legacy

Walter Russell Mead and the Bush legacy

Walter Russell Mead has just published his assessment of the Bush foreign policy legacy. He describes it as "Part One," which hints that more is forthcoming. But there is plenty to chew on in this first epistle.

Let me say up front that Mead’s Via Meadia blog is one of the few genuine "must-reads" in the blogosphere, that I am very often in agreement with much of what he writes there, and that I consider Walter a personal friend and intellectual mentor. The Economist calls Mead the "bearded sage," and it is an apt appreciation. I regularly assign his books to my students, and they are among the favorite class readings each semester.

So I have tried to weigh his words carefully, and there is much truth in his account. Iraq and Afghanistan were riddled with strategic and tactical mistakes. American diplomacy, especially during the first term, often was clumsy and needlessly provocative. Don’t just take my or Mead’s word for it — former President Bush himself has acknowledged as much. 

As it says in the Good Book, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." As an erstwhile supporter of many Bush Administration policies and as a consistent friend of reasoned discourse, wise policy, and America’s national interests, Mead’s words should be considered and taken in the irenic and constructive spirit they are intended.  

So what hath Mead wrought? Part of the question concerns his intended purpose, which seems to veer back and forth between a political assessment of the Bush years’ damage to the GOP brand in the minds of voters, and a policy assessment of Bush’s overall national security legacy. The two are related but still distinct. A healthy political assessment would entail two things: On policy mistakes, it means Republicans engaging in healthy public discussion of where and why we got things wrong, and on policy successes it means describing the things we did get right — especially in the first drafts of history now being written. 

My fundamental concern with the Mead article is that it concentrates exclusively on the policy mistakes while completely ignoring the successes, and thus presents an imbalanced and even distorted picture of the overall Bush legacy. 

Just as a catalogue of the Bush administration’s mistakes and deficiencies, there is much Mead cites to contemplate, including many aspects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Heck, I could even add a few other items to the list, such as the mistaken policy in the 2007-2008 window of easing pressure and offering inducements to the North Korean regime in the vain hopes that then-dictator Kim Jong Il would relinquish his nuclear weapons. 

But as an effort to take a comprehensive stock of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, to weigh the Bush legacy as a whole, well, even bearded sages are not infallible oracles (nor, in fairness, would a good Anglican like Mead claim infallibility!). Mead overlooks many strategic successes of the Bush administration and in places seems to blame Bush for things that did not occur on his watch. In short, reading this assessment seems rather like reading an account of Reagan’s presidency that highlights major failings like the Iran-Contra scandal, the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, serious rifts with European allies, and increases in deficit spending — but then somehow fails to mention Reagan’s leadership in the Cold War’s dénouement and Soviet defeat. Or like reading an account of the Truman administration that only describes the quagmire of the Korean war, the fall of China to communism, and the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb — but fails to mention the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and other successful foundations of American Cold War policy.

No, no, I am not simply equating Reagan or Truman with Bush. What I am saying is this: In the main strategic threat the Bush faced as president, of Islamist terrorism, he succeeded in the overarching goal after September 11 of protecting the nation from any other large-scale terrorist attack. This possibility, almost unthinkable in the weeks and months after 9/11, is a first-order success and important context for the Bush record. Yet Mead does not mention it at all. Nor does he mention another revealing validation of the Bush legacy: the fact that the Obama administration has largely embraced the entire Bush counterterrorism system and strategic framework.

Turning to Bush’s freedom agenda, Mead seems to imply that the current instability and chaos of the Arab Awakening are somehow Bush’s fault, or at least can fairly be ascribed to the Bush administration by the American public (e.g. "the argument that Bush’s Arab democracy promotion agenda was such a glittering success that we should double down on it is a big time loser in American politics"). But this is caricature. It overlooks two fundamentally important points. First, Bush in 2003 made the strategic insight that the old order of American support for sclerotic autocracies across the Middle East simply was not tenable. The autocracies were fragile, corrupt, oppressive, and unsustainable as stable pillars of a strategic order. Second, Bush called for supporting political reform and human liberty as an urgent alternative to popular revolution.

In other words, Bush tried to put the United States on the side of Arab and Persian popular aspirations for more accountable governance before things boiled over into rioting in the streets, as began in December 2010 in Tunisia. It is simply a false choice to imply that the Arab autocracies could have continued indefinitely, as stable custodians of order in a fractious region. Instead, better to push for peaceful reforms within those systems while it was still possible. So while Bush can be credited with predicting that something like the Arab Awakening would eventually happen, he should not be blamed for the disappointments when it actually did take place. (The Obama administration, on the other hand, will likely not be judged well by history for its confused and negligent policies toward the Arab and Persian revolutions).

Mead also completely fails to mention another important Bush legacy, one that arguably might be more consequential as history unfolds: building the foundation for a new strategic order in Asia. From the strategic opening to India, to strengthened alliances with traditional friends like Japan and Australia and new partnerships with emerging powers like Vietnam, to the dual-track framework of engagement and dissuasion towards China, the Bush administration laid the groundwork for continued American leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the most dynamic region of the 21st century. Again, wisdom is vindicated by her children. After some Asia-policy missteps in its first year, the Obama administration pivoted (sorry, couldn’t resist) back to the Bush strategic framework for Asia. 

There are many other Bush successes and legacies that Mead fails to mention, including one of the most successful public health programs in history (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief targeted in sub-Saharan Africa), extensive free trade agreements, expansion of ballistic missile defense (for which the Obama White House is now very thankful), Libya’s relinquishment of its WMD program, the comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan that laid the groundwork for South S
udan’s independence, and the first official presidential commitment to Palestinian statehood, just to cite a few. On balance and in the whole, the Bush foreign policy legacy stands a good chance of being judged more favorably in history than by the conventional wisdom today. 

What does all of this mean for Mead’s main point? He is right that Republicans need to come to terms with the Bush administration’s legacy. Yet what complicates that is the implicit demand by many in the media and punditocracy that "coming to terms" requires "embracing the caricature." Peddling the Bush caricature may help the electoral prospects of Democrats, but what would help Republicans more — and the cause of constructive debate overall — is an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive assessment of the Bush foreign policy. Which in truth is far more nuanced than the incomplete assessment, verging on caricature, which emerges from Mead’s "part one." I am hopeful that "part two" will be more judicious.