One more failure of the Bush administration
By Aaron Friedberg Before turning resolutely to face the future, I’d like to cast one more backward glance at the Bush era. In the process I want to pick up on a theme that Chris, Peter, and I all raised in our recent posts and also to answer the other half of the question Chris ...
By Aaron Friedberg
By Aaron Friedberg
Before turning resolutely to face the future, I’d like to cast one more backward glance at the Bush era. In the process I want to pick up on a theme that Chris, Peter, and I all raised in our recent posts and also to answer the other half of the question Chris put to us when we began this enterprise a few weeks ago.
In my view, the single overarching error of the Bush administration, the meta-mistake that touched virtually everything it did in the national security domain was its failure to build a sustainable consensus around the policies it favored. Worse than not succeeding in this endeavor, it never really tried. As a result it failed to gain the benefit of the moderating influence that comes from pursuing the broadest possible support, and when it ran into trouble it found itself with precious few friends.
There were two reasons for this failure. The first was the administration’s tendency to argue by assertion or, as E.J. Dionne put it in a recent article in The New Republic to announce policies rather than to explain them. This may have been due in part to the inclinations of the president himself who, by all accounts, did not relish argument and debate. But it sprang also from a deeper source: namely the administration’s electoral strategy of mobilizing its base rather than trying to win over skeptics and swing voters. If you think it’s impossible to convince people to change their minds (or worse, that by doing so you will weaken the support of your core constituents) you aren’t likely to try very hard.
The second source of difficulty was the extraordinarily broad interpretation of executive power under which the president claimed authority to take a variety of actions with little or no consultation with the Congress. I leave the question of the constitutionality of these moves to legal scholars. (Given their overriding fear of tyranny, I find it hard to believe that the Founders ever intended to give presidents as much autonomy in making foreign and defense policy as they have claimed in recent decades. But that’s a discussion for another day.) From a political and strategic standpoint, the problem with proceeding in this way is that it provides no assurance of continuity across administrations, increases the risk of revelations and scandals, and again, lessens the need for presidents to build a consensus behind their preferred policies. In a democracy, there’s no way to fight a "long war" without one.
Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987, and co-director of the School of Public and International Affairs' Center for International Security Studies.
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