Delusion Points

Don't fall for the nostalgia -- George W. Bush's foreign policy really was that bad.

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, it has become a cliché to observe that the newish president, who spent his 2008 campaign promising a U-turn from his deeply unpopular predecessor’s activities abroad, has ended up with a foreign policy that looks surprising like George W. Bush’s. The United States has more troops in Afghanistan than it did at the end of the Bush years, Guantánamo is still open, efforts to engage Iran have failed, and while American soldiers may have begun pulling back from Iraq, they’ve left plenty of Western defense contractors in their wake.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s release of Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, this line of thinking is reinforcing one of the Beltway press corps’ favorite rituals: the “was he really that bad?” nostalgia for a president that the same reporters and analysts were happily pummeling only two years ago.

Don’t believe a word of it. George W. Bush’s presidency really was that bad — and the fact that Obama has largely followed the same course is less a measure of Bush’s wisdom than a reminder of the depth of the hole he dug his country into, as well as the institutionalized groupthink that dominates the U.S. foreign-policy establishment.

Decision Points has 14 chapters, each one pivoting around a key decision that Bush made in his adult life. So, in honor of America’s newly published ex-president, here’s my own list of 14 decisions that Bush made — ones that tell a slightly different history of the 43rd presidency.


1.Listening to Cheney. In 2000, George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney to run his vice presidential candidate search effort. In a supremely self-confident move, Cheney muscled the competition out of the way and nominated himself — and Bush agreed. This was Bush’s ur-blunder, the mistake from which so many subsequent errors flowed. Cheney wasted no time stocking the administration’s foreign-policy apparatus with extremists eager to implement the full neoconservative program, and they got their opportunity on Sept. 12, 2001. As Richard Perle — a central member of the neocon team himself — later told the New Yorker‘s George Packer, “if Bush had staffed his administration with a group of people selected by Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker … Then it could have been different, because they would not have carried into it the ideas that the people who wound up in important positions brought.” Talk about failing to dodge a bullet.

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2. Criminal Minded. During his first year as president, Bush took the unusual step of formally removing the U.S. signature from the convention to create an International Criminal Court. Not only was the move unnecessary — the convention was already dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate — but it also angered longtime NATO allies who strongly supported the measure. But the administration still wasn’t satisfied: It subsequently threatened to withhold foreign aid to a number of smaller U.S. allies if they didn’t reject the convention too, a move that further alienated supporters and angered the governments whose arms were being twisted. From the very start, in short, Bush showed little interest in other states’ opinions and was all too willing to throw America’s weight around.

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3. No-Go on Kyoto. The Kyoto Protocol climate treaty was a flawed agreement, and there was little chance that the U.S. Senate would ever ratify it. But instead of acknowledging the need to address global warming and outlining a better approach to the problem, Bush flatly rejected the idea of any such treaty as, in the words of his spokesman Ari Fleischer, “not in the United States’ economic best interests.” Instead of making the United States look farsighted and generous, Bush’s response made the United States appear both myopic and callous. Thanks to Bush’s indifference, eight years went by with hardly any progress on one of the world’s thorniest problems — and one that, a decade later, we’re still no closer to solving.

Sion Touhig/Newsmakers

4. Osama bin Who? Bush paid scant attention to terrorism or al Qaeda during the 2000 campaign, and he and his national security team continued that cavalier attitude right up until the 9/11 attacks. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice downgraded the status of the national coordinator for counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz even told Clarke in early 2001 that he was “giv[ing] bin Laden too much credit.” Even worse, intelligence warnings of an impending attack in the summer of 2001 received insufficient attention, and we all know what happened next. Bottom line: 9/11 happened on Bush’s watch, and the buck stops at his desk.

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5. Department of Rhetorical Catastrophes, Part I: The “Global War on Terror.” It would have been easy enough for Bush to declare war on al Qaeda and its allies after 9/11. Instead, he declared war on the very idea of terrorism — a decision that theoretically gave the United States a dog in local conflicts from Ireland to Uzbekistan to Sri Lanka, and not always on the side of the good guys.

Declaring a “war on terror” also gave Osama bin Laden a loftier status than he deserved. Instead of portraying him as a murderous criminal worthy of international contempt and little else, the rhetoric of global conflict elevated him to the status of a warrior heroically defying the world’s sole superpower. It also encouraged Americans to wrongly view terrorism as a military problem, instead of one that is best addressed through patient intelligence efforts, domestic security measures, and quiet collaboration with like-minded governments.

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6. Making “Waterboard” a Household Word. Within days of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began preparing to authorize a set of practices — meticulously documented in Jane Mayer’s excellent The Dark Side — that are normally associated with brutal military dictatorships. These measures included the systematic use of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, secret renditions of suspected terrorists, targeted assassinations, and indefinite detention without trial at Guantánamo and other overseas facilities. These practices were endorsed and approved by John Yoo, a mid-level official in the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and Bush admits in his memoir that he personally approved the waterboarding of captured terrorist suspects. The sordid debacle at Abu Ghraib prison was hardly an isolated incident conducted by poorly supervised subordinates; it was in fact entirely consistent with Bush’s post-9/11 approach to human rights and civil liberties. And as Obama’s inability to shut down Guantánamo suggests, it may take decades to dismantle these practices and restore America’s tarnished international image.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

7. Department of Rhetorical Catastrophes, Part II: The “Axis of Evil.” In the months following 9/11, the United States received a surprising degree of help in Afghanistan from Iran, a country which (whatever its history with the United States) was no friend of al Qaeda and a bitter enemy of the Taliban. Intelligence sharing and diplomatic coordination with Tehran helped the United States rout the Taliban and later install Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.

How did Bush reward Iran for this valuable assistance? By labeling it part of an “Axis of Evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address, along with Iraq and North Korea. This foolish bit of bombast derailed any possibility of building a better relationship with pre-Ahmadinejad Iran, which may have been precisely what Bush’s neoconservative speechwriters intended.

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8. Iraq. The Iraq war was a screw-up of such colossal magnitude that it’s easy to forget how many discrete screw-ups went into the making of it. There were the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the nonexistent links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. There’s the humiliating spectacle of Secretary of State Colin Powell presenting hours of bogus testimony to the U.N. Security Council. There was Paul Wolfowitz’s bizarre claim that the war would pay for itself, when the real price tag is now in excess of $1 trillion. And let us not forget the 4,000 Americans and 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead, more than 30,000 American soldiers wounded, and several million Iraqi refugees forced to flee their homes. A strategy that was supposed to bring U.S.-friendly democracy to the Middle East instead produced an empowered Iran and a more fragile balance of power in the region. The only thing more astonishing than the scope of these blunders is the fact that the former president does not regret his decision, even now.


9. Snubbing Iran, Again. In the midst of the “Mission Accomplished” euphoria that followed the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, a worried Iran sent a Swiss intermediary to Washington with a far-reaching offer for a “grand bargain,” including an end to Iranian support for groups such as Hezbollah and a deal on Iran’s nuclear energy program. The offer was reportedly approved by Iran’s top leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Bush administration turned the Iranians down flat — why negotiate with the next candidate for regime change? — and Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly reprimanded the Swiss ambassador for even delivering the message in the first place.

Instead of a possible rapprochement, we ended up with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president and a steadily worsening relationship with Tehran. Would a different response have left us in a better position today? We’ll never know.


10. Sabotaging Peace in the Middle East. When Bush took office, he decided to put Israeli-Palestinian peace on the back burner, even though plenty of people warned him that the situation would only get worse if neglected. After 9/11, he did briefly try to persuade Israel to exercise some restraint in the occupied territories; the situation there, he realized, was fueling anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world and making it harder to weaken al Qaeda. Bush soon came under pressure from the Israel lobby, however, which helped convince him that the United States and Israel were “partners against terror” and that he should just follow the Israeli lead on this issue.

For the rest of his presidency, Bush’s Middle East diplomacy consisted of a series of essentially meaningless gestures, most notably the 2003 “road map” and the 2007 Annapolis summit. Meanwhile, Israel continued to expand settlements in the West Bank with hardly a murmur of protest from Washington. Bush refused to have anything to do with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat and did hardly anything to bolster Arafat’s moderate successor, Mahmoud Abbas, even after the new leader repeatedly renounced the use of terrorism, endorsed Israel’s right to exist, and reaffirmed his desire to negotiate a final status agreement. Bush also did virtually nothing to build on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which the Arab League endorsed at its Beirut summit that year and again at the 2007 Riyadh summit. By the time Bush left office, a two-state solution was more distant than ever, and America’s image in the Middle East had hit a new low.

It gets worse: Bush also gave a green light to Israel’s misguided attempt to use air power disarm Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war. Israel’s strategy was doomed to fail, and though U.S. officials had been briefed about its plans well before the war broke out, Bush did not tell the Israelis to come up with a better strategy. Instead, he gave Tel Aviv consistent diplomatic backing, even when it became clear that its strategy was not working and was causing massive damage throughout Lebanon. The United States even delayed a U.N. cease-fire resolution in order to give Israel time to “finish the job,” a measure that prolonged the war for no good purpose and led to even greater Israeli casualties.


11. Hurricane Katrina. It takes a truly spectacular domestic-policy blunder to register as a foreign-policy screw-up, too. Yet Bush’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina was exactly that. Observers around the world saw this debacle as both a demonstration of waning U.S. competence and a revealing indicator of continued racial inequality, if not outright injustice. (You know you’ve screwed up when you get offers of relief aid from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.) Because America’s “soft power” depends on other states believing that we know what we are doing and that we stand for laudable ideals, the disaster in New Orleans was yet another self-inflicted blow to America’s global image. If the United States cannot take good care of its own citizens, why should anyone think we can “nation-build” in some distant foreign land?


12. Democracy, but Only When Our Guys Win. When it turned out that Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction, Bush tried to justify the invasion as part of a broader campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East. Unfortunately he was no better at that than he was at finding mobile bioweapons labs or chemical weapons caches. Bush pressed the Palestinian Authority to hold legislative elections in 2006, but when Hamas won, he simply refused to accept the results. For Bush, it seemed, democracy only made sense when the candidates that he liked won. The White House subsequently tried to foment a Fatah-led coup, a ploy that backfired and left Hamas in charge of Gaza and the Palestinians badly divided.


13. How Not to Stop Nuclear Proliferation. Bush was clearly worried about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, especially after 9/11. But the decisions he made unwittingly encouraged it. He threatened would-be proliferators with sanctions and regime change, and refused to hold serious talks with them until they fully complied with American demands. If anything, this approach gave North Korea and Iran a powerful incentive to obtain a nuclear deterrent to protect themselves from the United States. Not surprisingly, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003 and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. It is not clear whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but it is certainly in the process of developing a sophisticated nuclear enrichment capability that will bring it close to the point where it could build a nuclear weapon if it ever decided that a deterrent was needed. During Bush’s eight years in the White House, Iran went from having a few hundred nuclear centrifuges to having more than 5,000. And while Iran faced economic sanctions and the threat of military force, India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or open all of its nuclear facilities to outside inspections — and still obtained a generous new nuclear cooperation agreement.


14. The Crash Heard ‘Round the World. By lowering taxes while waging costly wars, Bush produced near-record fiscal deficits and a mountain of foreign debt. At the same time, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s easy money policy encouraged a vast real estate bubble that eventually collapsed in 2008. Bush’s economic team also paid little attention to regulating Wall Street, thereby facilitating the reckless behavior that produced a major financial collapse in 2008. The resulting meltdown cost Americans trillions of dollars and millions of jobs, and the aftermath will affect U.S. economic prospects for many years to come.

Although Bush does not deserve all the blame for causing the greatest recession since the 1930s, he was in charge when it happened and his actions contributed significantly to the debacle. And because international influence ultimately rests upon a state’s economic strength, the damage wrought by this economic crisis may be Bush’s most enduring foreign-policy legacy.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

One could go on. There’s the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the opportunistic decision to impose tariffs on imported steel in 2002, the failure to hold military commanders accountable for letting bin Laden escape at the battle of Tora Bora, the failure to fire the serially incompetent Rumsfeld after the Iraq war went south, and the mixed messages from Washington that encouraged Georgia to miscalculate its way into war with Russia in the summer of 2008. But there’s no need to pile on further, and you may be running short on anti-depressants by now.

The United States would have been far better off had George W. Bush never decided to enter politics and instead had spent the last two decades running a baseball team. The former president wasn’t particularly good at that job either, but failure there would have had far fewer consequences for America and for the world. Obama’s efforts to clean up Bush’s legacy may have been disappointing so far, but that’s no reason to feel nostalgic for the man who created all these messes in the first place.  

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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