The biggest victim of the Bush legacy? The left’s capacity for strategic thought

The biggest victim of the Bush legacy? The left’s capacity for strategic thought

In his excellent critique of the critics of the Bush foreign policy legacy, Peter Feaver spotlighted Water Russell Mead’s advice to Republicans to reflect "openly and honestly" on how the 43rd President forever corrupted the GOP’s foreign policy credentials. Every time I hear this advice — usually given by my Democratic friends in sorrow rather than anger — I ask them when Democrats will reflect openly and honestly on how their own caricature of Bush foreign policy has distorted and crippled their party’s capacity for strategic thought.

The fundamental flaw in President Obama’s grand strategy lies in its origins — a view of America’s role in the world crafted as the mirror image of a self-satisfying political narrative about Bush. It was a worldview based on the projection of their critique of Bush onto the world and not on the fundamental dynamics of power and competition that actually exist in the international system. In the editorial pages of the New York Times, faculty lounges across the country, and the Phoenix Project on foreign policy in Washington, a hugely simplistic assessment of Bush foreign policy emerged between 2001 and 2008. American foreign policy, it was decided, had become unilateral and militaristic. Our standing in the world had collapsed (an assessment based on Western European polling and one that ignored repeated polls in Asia and Africa that showed the United States was considerably more popular at the end of the second Bush administration than the end of Clinton’s time in the White House). We were not willing to talk to our adversaries, etc.,etc. 

As a result, the Obama foreign policy doctrine that emerged was entirely process-oriented and based on each of these critiques. How could the United States stabilize relations with China? By cooperating on climate change, a supposedly win-win transnational theme neglected by Bush. How would the administration solve the dangerously revisionist policies of Iran and other members of the Axis of Evil? Through engagement and dialogue, an obvious tool not exploited by Bush. How would the problems of proliferation be addressed? Through a visionary speech in Prague on total nuclear disarmament, something anathema to Bush. How to handle human rights and democracy? Smarter to tone down naming and blaming so that we could reassure countries like China and Iran that we were no longer pursuing a dangerous neocon policy.

In bits and pieces realism and realists emerged triumphant in the first Obama term. Hillary Clinton’s Asia policy stands out, as does the triumph of realists in the debate over the Nuclear Posture Review. But what is the Democratic foreign policy establishment’s basic doctrine today? Absent the organizing principle that Bush was the root of our problems, there is no core doctrine. Of course, the critics said Bush had a doctrine … so maybe it would be better not to have one of those after all.