The real Bush tragedy
By Christian Brose I asked earlier this week what the Bush administration got right and wrong, and what Obama (and the rest of us) should take away. This discussion will continue I’m sure, but one theme has emerged that’s worth commenting on. It’s the idea that the Bush administration actually got many of the most ...
By Christian Brose
By Christian Brose
I asked earlier this week what the Bush administration got right and wrong, and what Obama (and the rest of us) should take away. This discussion will continue I’m sure, but one theme has emerged that’s worth commenting on. It’s the idea that the Bush administration actually got many of the most important points right, but then through bad execution, partisan hubris, internal sectarian fighting, ethically-dubious policies, or just the merciless intervention of events, what was more or less right in theory failed in practice.
Kori offers a good example on defense transformation:
The administration billed transformation as the way it would cut defense costs: skip a generation of weapons, find ways to substitute technology for personnel-intensive tasks, and promote innovators. If a battalion now has the accurate firepower a brigade used to, we should be able to find savings. But the Administration didn’t.
This is undoubtedly right. Other policies, however, were not just flawed in their implementation; they were flawed by design, and seeing errors only of execution lets the administration off too easy.
Philip sees the focus on democracy as one.
Most of the rhetoric of democratization was too narrow in the way it spoke to the issues that plague modern societies. Responding to wrenching, often horrifying struggles, the administration seemed to offer up answers that evoked generic recipes from America’s political cookbook.
This dovetails with the question Peter raises about the "war of ideas."
While the Bush Administration deserves credit for seeking the struggle against Al Qaeda and the related terrorist network in a holistic sense, and not narrowly in military or in non-military terms, it is a sad fact that there was only modest progress in the war of ideas portion of the struggle. The President and many of his advisors rightly understood the problem and worked hard to advance the effort….
For whatever reason — and I would argue that the reason was not lack of understanding — we have left too much on the to-do list in this area for the Obama team.
Here I think Peter’s being a bit too generous. The "war of ideas" was for too long flawed as an idea, not just in the execution of it.
In the aftermath of 9-11, the administration cast the so-called "war on terror" as a "war of ideas," but for a majority of the time thereafter, conceived of it as public diplomacy. The problem with this is that public diplomacy is about explaining America, its values, and its policies to the world — in short, trying to get people to like us. A worthy and necessary idea that, but when it comes to fighting Al-Qaeda, a misplaced one. Getting people to like us isn’t the point. The point is stopping people from wanting to kill us. That’s counter-radicalization, and it’s not done through jazz concerts in embassies, well-written op-eds, and pressing the flesh and kissing babies on foreign trips. It’s done by giving the angry young men who Al-Qaeda preys upon real alternatives to extremism. I’m still not sure there’s a strategy to really do that broadly even now.
Broader still is the question of whether the administration was correct to treat the "war on terror" as the new organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. I’d argue that was another concept flawed in its design. In a world of failing states, rising and resurgent great powers, and globalization going off the rails, defining terrorism as the one issue around which our national efforts would revolve doesn’t work. Indeed, what we have to accept, and what I think the Bush administration never fully did, is that there is no One Big Thing in our world today, a la the containment of communism, that can organize all of our foreign policy. That’s just not the kind of world we live in today.
Where the question of execution flaws versus design flaws really rings true, I think, is in Bush’s second term, where real changes were undertaken to the designs of many policies — changes that, to me, were for the better; but to, say, John Bolton … well, not so much. Either way, by then it was already mostly too late. America and the world had moved beyond the administration. And the great degree of continuity that will likely exist between Bush and Obama will be mistaken by many people for change, whether you believe in it or not.
And that, with respect to Jacob Weisberg, is for me the real Bush tragedy — the sense of missed opportunity, of how far too often the administration’s own actions set back the cause of the very ideas it correctly championed, and how by the time it rightly shifted course, it was mostly too late.
Iraq, thankfully, is turning around. But Afghanistan is an open question. North Korea has a nuclear weapon. Iran is on the doorstep. The window for a two-state solution is smaller. Liberty is a dirty word to many people, even many liberals. Talk of good governance, as Philip points out, is tainted by prisoner abuse. Free trade has become synonymous with rising inequality and financial calamity. And after one of the most self-proclaimed idealistic presidencies in recent memory, our public discourse is making a fetish out of pragmatism.
This judgment would seem harsh, were it not for the fact that it is based only on the very goals and standards that we set for ourselves.
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