The Republican front-runner seems to be addicted to the warmongers and regime-changers who inspired his brother’s foreign policy. Which should drive a sane person to drink.
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American life. But that’s clearly not the case with American foreign policy.
Last week, when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced the names of his 21 informal foreign-policy advisors, it read like a who’s who of Republican presidents past. There was George Shultz, secretary of state in Ronald Reagan’s administration; James Baker, who held the same job for Bush’s father; and Robert Zoellick, who served under Baker in George H.W. Bush’s State Department and later became U.S. trade representative.
But it is the more recent names that were most notable. Seventeen of the 21 officials on Jeb Bush’s advisory board served in the administration of Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush. In case you’ve forgotten (as it appears many Americans have), George W. Bush was president from 2001 to 2009, and he had the most calamitous foreign-policy tenure of any U.S. president, perhaps ever.
He also started a war in Iraq, which didn’t work out too well. In fact, it was kind of an unmitigated disaster. In 2008, it was the focus of the presidential campaign and a good part of the reason that Barack Obama (who opposed the war) prevailed in the Democratic nomination fight over Hillary Clinton (who initially backed it) and defeated John McCain (who basically supports every war) later that year.
Yet within two cycles it seems that the Iraq misadventure and Bush II’s disastrous foreign policy in general are practically ancient history — and that those responsible for it have been so quickly rehabilitated that his brother is citing them as reason to have confidence in his foreign-policy judgment.
An example: You might think that Paul Wolfowitz — who was deputy secretary of defense in W’s first term and told Congress a month before the Iraq invasion that “it’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army” — would no longer be taken seriously in the U.S. foreign-policy community. But you’d be wrong. Wolfowitz, who is generally considered one of the architects of the Iraq War, is on Jeb’s advisory board.
Then there is John Hannah, who was national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Not two months ago, he wrote here on Foreign Policy‘s website that “regime change has a proven track record in helping put a number of bad actors out of the nuclear weapons business.” Hey, worked well in Iraq! He joins other W veterans like Stephen Hadley, who first was deputy national security advisor and later national security advisor, serving from 2001 to 2009; Meghan O’Sullivan, who ran Iraq and Afghanistan policy in the White House from 2004 to 2007 (you know, the years when the war was going swimmingly); and John Negroponte, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and later director of national intelligence.
Speaking of intelligence, Jeb’s advisors also include Porter Goss, who headed the CIA from September 2004 to May 2006 and whose tenure in the job is largely considered an utter failure. The man who followed him in office, Michael Hayden, is one of Jeb’s advisors too. You might remember Hayden from the warrantless wiretapping of Americans — without congressional or judicial approval — that went on under his tenure as director of the National Security Agency. You’ve also got Michael Chertoff, the head of homeland security under George W. Bush and a co-author of the Patriot Act. Finally, there is Michael Mukasey, Bush’s last attorney general. An apparent Islam expert, Mukasey declared at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference that “the vast majority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims adhere to a view of their religion that agrees on the need to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on the world.”
In fairness, not all of these officials are responsible for the Iraq disaster, and simply having served in the Bush administration is not necessarily reason enough for someone to be written off. Still, it is remarkable that the taint of Iraq seems to have completely washed off anyone even associated with the war. In an alternate universe — one where advocating, promoting, and implementing disastrous wars might have consequences — having someone like Wolfowitz on your campaign advisory board would be seen as a political liability. But clearly Jeb views it as a way of boosting his credentials.
It’s as if Jimmy Carter had asked the architects of the war in Vietnam — Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, or Walt Rostow — to be his foreign-policy advisors when he ran for president in 1976.
Then again, maybe this state of affairs isn’t so surprising. The rehabilitation of Bush-era foreign-policy advisors has been going on seemingly ever since W left office. Just this past September, House Republicans invited Cheney to speak to their caucus about Iraq the day before President Obama addressed the nation about confronting the Islamic State. Republicans apparently saw no irony in hosting the former vice president. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said, “Most of us think we did the right thing in Iraq.” And, after all, Cheney’s advice, said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), wasn’t that controversial: It was “mainly to spend more money on the military.”
Of course, Cheney was also all over the Sunday talk shows this fall when the Senate Intelligence Committee released the so-called “torture report,” which detailed the brutal treatment of detainees in CIA prisons and black sites. If Cheney isn’t viewed as a political liability for Republicans, the party might as well dig up Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy and trot his dead corpse around on the campaign trail in 2016.
The Republican Party’s brazenness in showing no shame for the mistakes made in Iraq is compounded by the fact that the Democrats, in part, have some of the same skeletons in their closet. It’s not going to be easy for Hillary Clinton to attack Jeb Bush for bringing in a bunch of Iraq War retreads, considering that she voted to authorize the war as a senator in 2002.
Putting aside the politics of the Iraq War, the very fact that there is no stigma associated with being the architect of a war that so badly undermined U.S. national security and squandered billions of dollars and thousands of lives is depressing evidence that few lessons have been learned from this disaster. It’s also a good recipe for ensuring that none will be. Indeed, many of the same Bush advisors who confidently predicted success in Iraq in 2003 are now lambasting Obama’s reliance on diplomacy and pushing for a militarized approach to dealing with Iran and Syria. What reason is there to believe that if they return to public service in another Bush administration they will take a different approach to foreign policy and national security?
If you want to know why bad decisions on foreign policy tend to get repeated, perhaps a good place to start is reliance on the same people who made those bad choices in the past to get it right the second time.
Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images