Shadow Government

What Bush got right

By Philip Zelikow I will take a general view of what Chris raises here, but focus only on this question: How did the Bush administration contribute to defining the agenda for U.S., and global, public action? The 1990s were the prologue. In 1990 and 1991 the United States and its European allies laid good foundations ...

By Philip Zelikow

I will take a general view of what Chris raises here, but focus only on this question: How did the Bush administration contribute to defining the agenda for U.S., and global, public action?

The 1990s were the prologue. In 1990 and 1991 the United States and its European allies laid good foundations for what would be, in effect, a comprehensive postwar settlement. But — defeated in his bid for reelection — the first Bush administration did not add the words or complete the structures to fill out the president’s vision of a "new world order."

In 1993 and 1994, as foreign policy seemed to be guided more by serendipity, President Clinton began restlessly searching for some way of adequately describing America’s purpose in an increasingly globalized world that he could see was presenting different dangers — and new opportunities. The results were mixed. One critic was Condoleezza Rice, to which Clinton responded (this was in 1997), "She’s wrong about us not having a sense of direction, but she’s right about our doing a lousy job of explaining it."

Rice would soon get her own chance to work on this problem. In the wartime atmosphere of the White House after the 9/11 attacks, she led the way in developing a fresh way of describing America’s national security strategy. In an unofficial capacity, I contributed to the drafting of the resulting document, put together during the first half of 2002 and finally published that September.

Bush’s national security strategy succeeded…and it failed. Both are instructive. I’ll offer two examples of success now and more of each later.

Success #1: The Bush approach solidified an emerging consensus that world politics had changed in a profound way, emphasizing the rise of transnational issues, cutting across societies instead of being defined principally by the divisions between states. I addressed this argument here in 2003. Rice elaborated it here in December 2005. A number of others, from G. John Ikenberry to Robert Cooper, have also developed similar ideas.

As part of this transformation, traditional rivalries of power blocs receded in importance, at least for a time. There are unprecedented opportunities for cooperation among the world powers. This extraordinary situation of global opportunity remains in place, despite the acrid controversies of the early Bush years, in part because the essential global linkages were ably rebuilt and strengthened by Rice’s diplomacy during Bush’s second term. This is a positive, and often overlooked inheritance for our incoming president.

Success #2: The Bush administration’s post-9/11 determination to confront incipient threats before they exploded on American soil has provoked an intense, but ultimately constructive, global debate. There has been so much misinformation around this issue that it would help to add some historical detail.

The statements on preemption from the National Security Strategy of 2002 can be debated on two sets of premises, one true and one false. The true premise is that the preemption statement sought, deliberately, to catalyze a debate about how to head off new threats before they materialized catastrophically. The key work on this part of the document was done in late 2001 and early 2002. It was dominated by axioms taken from the past — above all the recent, searing past: the lesson taken away from the 9/11 attack about the now-evident consequence of having tolerated the wasp’s nest in Afghanistan. As the 9/11 Commission put it later: "It is hardest to mount a major effort while a problem still seems minor. Once the danger has fully materialized, evident to all, mobilizing action is easier — but it then may be too late." In 2001-2002, everyone at the top of the Bush administration had reflected on 9/11 and Afghanistan.

Another relevant memory from the past: All involved had been part of the administration of Bush the Elder during the Gulf war coalition victory in 1991, remembered as a successful exercise in somewhat fortuitous preemption, preventing Iraq from near-term development of nuclear weapons (as UNSCOM later learned in frightening detail). Partly because of the impact of that earlier Iraq experience, the problem of counter-proliferation to head off WMD development was a major defense planning issue in the Clinton administration, strongly associated with Bill Perry and Ash Carter. (I assisted Perry and Carter in some of that work during 1993, especially on the North Korean danger.) So the 9/11 attack surfaced a strategy/doctrinal issue that had been germinating for years.

The false premise is that the preemption statement was conjured to rationalize a 2002 (or earlier) decision to invade Iraq. Contrary to this common assertion, planning for future military operations against Iraq had little or no role in the original development of the 2002 National Security Strategy’s language on preemption.

The supposed gallery of "neocons," or their prospective Iraq agenda, had no memorable part in drafting the preemption passages in the 2002 strategy statement. The key figures at the drafting stage, on this topic, were Rice, Hadley, and me. The prospect of future operations against Iraq never came up in this context, at least not in my presence. And the chronology is off. As I now reconstruct the story, the planning to invade Iraq gathered powerful policy momentum in the summer of 2002. The relevant passages of the strategy document has been prepared well before.

In the initial debate over "preemption," thesis met antithesis, but — despite the disastrous failures in the war against Iraq that was launched in 2003 — a constructive synthesis has emerged. As the dust settles, the bar has clearly moved forward, against terrorist safe havens and against proliferators.  The international burden of proof has clearly moved against would-be proliferators, as is evident from the UNSC resolutions passed against both Iran and North Korea (there is no precedent for counter-proliferation resolutions of this kind being passed under chapter 7 of the Charter).  

And consider this statement:

"This century’s threats are at least as dangerous and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past….[detailing terrorist and rogue state dangers]…I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened."

George W. Bush? No. It’s none other than President-elect Barack Obama, from his carefully considered policy manifesto during the 2008 campaign.

For more on this read: Another thing Bush got right and What Bush got wrong.

Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is also a former government official, having held posts in five previous administrations.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola