Shadow Government

What the winds of “change” won’t blow away

By Peter Feaver What did Bush get right? I asked this very question of a panel of distinguished critics at the launch of Kurt Campbell and Michelle Flournoy’s Center for a New American Security back in June 2007. The exchange came on the heels of several lengthy diatribes that castigated the Bush Administration for every ...

By Peter Feaver

What did Bush get right?

I asked this very question of a panel of distinguished critics at the launch of Kurt Campbell and Michelle Flournoy’s Center for a New American Security back in June 2007. The exchange came on the heels of several lengthy diatribes that castigated the Bush Administration for every possible error and thus underscored, according to the panelists, the urgent need to reverse everything. I asked them whether they could identify policies that the Bush team had gotten right and that the next (presumably Democratic) Administration would be well-advised to keep. The responses from people already named to key posts and those likely to be named were candid and provocative and amounted to, in my opinion, a pretty impressive list of policies — from immigration reform, to trade promotion, to Asia policy, to Iran policy.

That exchange only reinforced a view I have held for a long time: there is far more continuity than change in the key strategies that comprise American foreign policy. The big story a year from now is likely to be how many Bush policies Obama merely relabeled and continued rather than how many Bush policies Obama reversed entirely. If you want a preview, Chris lays out the case well in the new issue of Foreign Policy. Mind you, this is different from saying that Bush policies across the board were successful. Some were — more than the punditocracy credits right now (though I expect the score-keeping to evolve) — and some did not. Some were just the best of a bad set of choices.

Three big ones that I would flag include:

An early recognition that the war on terrorism was, as the 2006 NSS put it, "both a battle of arms and a battle of ideas — a fight against the terrorists and against their murderous ideology." Critics have usually (and falsely) complained that the Bush Administration viewed the struggle against terrorism narrowly through a military lens, slighting non-military tools and approaches. This is not true and when the Obama team reviews the National Implementation Plan (the classified plan that integrates all-USG activity in the war on terror), they will see just how extensive are the non-military activities.

Well-calibrated "great power" strategies. The "realist" tradition of foreign policy has traditionally emphasized evaluating great powers based on how they manage their relations with other great powers. More recently, those who call themselves realists have focused their attention narrowly on what used to be called the periphery, such as conflicts in the Middle East. But if you use a traditional realist yardstick, then the Bush Administration has done pretty well.

The Bush years boasted the best-ever relations with the following major centers of power: Japan, India, and China — and managed to advance all three relationships at the same time, even though each of those states views the other as a major threat. The Bush team developed a workable plan for integrating the rising BRIC powers into the world system; the collapse of the Doha round was a big blow to this effort, but the blame for that failure spreads far beyond the Bush Administration. Bush had as cooperative a working relationship with our closest allies — Britain, Australia, Canada, and Mexico — as any previous administration. Relations with other key NATO allies were stormy in the first term, but relations with France and Germany improved markedly with the change of leadership there. And relations with the new NATO allies were extraordinarily fruitful.

And what about Russia? Relations here clearly deteriorated and, from a perception management point of view, the President’s "soul gazing" statement about Putin was unfortunate. But given what Russians believed was the disastrous legacy of the Yeltsin years, I am not sure we had many good alternatives.

The so-called "surge decision." While the Administration’s mistakes in Iraq have been amply documented, they do not, in my opinion, negate the remarkable fact that President Bush changed the Iraq strategy (and key personnel) on January 10, 2007. He put in place a new strategy that dramatically altered the trajectory of U.S. fortunes in Iraq and therefore the broader Middle East. A number of us on this blog were part of the team that debated our options in the fall of 2006 and helped hammer out the new strategy. I wrote about that process here. Our prospects in the region then looked incomparably grimmer than they do today. Even more remarkable is that President Bush pushed this new strategy forward in the face of focused and resolute domestic opposition, especially in Congress. The book on that era, particularly the critical fall 2006-fall 2007 period, has yet to be written, but when it is I think it will reflect favorably on the Administration.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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