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Memo to Ben Rhodes: The Bush Administration Ended 5 Years Ago

Memo to Ben Rhodes: The Bush Administration Ended 5 Years Ago

Commenting on last weekend’s Iran deal, today’s New York Times reports:

White House officials suggest that the president always planned to arrive at this moment, and that everything that came before it — from the troop surge in Afghanistan to the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden — was cleaning up after his predecessor.

Let’s consider that claim. Is it really credible that the last five years of American diplomacy have been little more than a mopping-up operation by Team Obama of its predecessor’s mistakes? According to presidential aide Ben Rhodes, for whom the 2008 campaign never ended, the answer is apparently yes:

"In 2009, we had 180,000 troops in two wars and a ton of legacy issues surrounding terrorism," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "So much that was done out of the box was winding down those wars. We’ve shifted from a very military face on our foreign policy to a very diplomatic face on our foreign policy."

Set aside the fact that, during George W. Bush’s administration, the United States was attacked on its soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor by a terrorist network that continues to actively target the American people — events now known as "legacy issues surrounding terrorism."

If President Barack Obama wants his diplomacy to be judged against that of his predecessor, it is worth an honest look at Bush’s own scorecard. It certainly included its share of stumbles and setbacks. But set aside the ideological blinkers, and it appears that the Bush administration conducted some rather credible diplomatic footwork. This included:

  • Assembling a coalition of 50 countries for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan
  • Assembling a coalition of 49 countries for the war in Iraq
  • Working with allies to induct seven new members from Central and Eastern Europe into NATO in 2004
  • Standing up a Proliferation Security Initiative bringing together approximately 100 countries to halt the illicit trade in nuclear weapons components
  • Negotiating and enacting 13 bilateral trade agreements, as well as concluding two more, with South Korea and Colombia, approved by Congress after Bush left office
  • Breaking open a far-reaching strategic partnership with India by successfully negotiating an unprecedented approval for India’s civilian-nuclear trade with the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

It would be unfair to Obama to benchmark against eight years of his predecessor’s diplomacy when he has had only five — particularly given the historical trend of second-term presidential activism in foreign policy. But American statecraft under Obama has seemed mainly to involve delivering a set of well-written speeches while pivoting toward America’s adversaries and away from its friends.

Obama’s diplomatic record is patchy, to put it mildly. It includes:

  • Failure to negotiate a follow-on force agreement with the Iraqi government in 2011, leading to the total withdrawal of U.S. forces and Iraq’s descent into political violence
  • Impending failure to negotiate a follow-on force agreement with the Afghan government, which as in Iraq could lead to the squandering of a decade’s worth of sacrifice at considerable detriment to U.S. interests
  • A diplomatic "reset" with Russia that has freed that country to directly undermine U.S. interests by arming Bashar al-Assad’s regime, blocking sanctions against both Syria and Iran at the U.N. Security Council, blackmailing Ukraine into walking away from the path to Europe, and deepening the Russian army’s occupation of Georgia
  • A self-declared "pivot" to Asia that has left many of America’s friends and allies in the region doubting whether the commitment of resources and high-level attention matches the country’s rhetoric
  • A sleepwalking approach to the Arab Awakening that has accomplished the neat trick of alienating both allied Arab regimes and the Arab street, earning America even more enmity (if that was possible) across the political spectrum in pivotal countries like Egypt
  • A diplomatic agreement on Syria that transformed Assad from the target of military attack to a partner in peace even as his army continued killing his fellow citizens, making a mockery of American "red lines" and leaving America’s allies incredulous
  • A diplomatic agreement with Iran that does little to diminish its latent nuclear capacity or its state sponsorship of terrorism, producing the sharpest break in American relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in a generation.

Bush’s critics at home and abroad charged his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to China’s authoritarian rulers, and naiveté in seeking a disarmament deal with North Korea. Obama’s critics at home and abroad charge his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to Russia’s authoritarian ruler, and naiveté in seeking disarmament deals with Iran and Syria. Maybe not so much has changed after all, Mr. Rhodes.