Shadow Government

In response to Steve Walt

With former President George W. Bush’s memoir being released today, Steve Walt yesterday launched a preemptive strike against the Bush record. In this article, my fellow Foreign Policy blogger attempts to blame Bush for just about everything that went wrong in the last decade, while crediting Bush with nothing that went right. One suspects that ...

Evan Sisley-Pool/Getty Images
Evan Sisley-Pool/Getty Images

With former President George W. Bush’s memoir being released today, Steve Walt yesterday launched a preemptive strike against the Bush record. In this article, my fellow Foreign Policy blogger attempts to blame Bush for just about everything that went wrong in the last decade, while crediting Bush with nothing that went right. One suspects that Walt might even hold Bush responsible for the Texas Rangers’ recent loss in the World Series — according to Walt, as owner of the Rangers, Bush "wasn’t particularly good at that job either."

Walt offers up a 14-point indictment against Bush (perhaps it’s a sign of how animated some Bush opponents get that even the realists start imitating Woodrow Wilson, at least when it comes to writing 14-point documents). The more spurious accusations merit responses — and the omissions bear noting as well:

  • Walt singles out the Bush administration for "insufficient attention" and a "cavalier attitude" towards Osama bin Laden and terrorism in the eight months before the September 11th attacks, and notes accusingly that "9/11 happened on Bush’s watch, and the buck stops at his desk." Yet Walt fails to mention the Clinton administration’s preceding eight years of relative inattention to the threat from bin Laden (including missed opportunities to kill or capture him). Nor does Walt give Bush any credit for one of his administration’s signal achievements in the 7.5 years following September 11th: protecting the United States from any further large-scale terror attack.
  • He calls the "Global War on Terror" a "rhetorical catastrophe" because of the vagueness of the term "terrorism" and the purported inaccuracy of the term "war," since terrorism allegedly is not a "military problem." This ignores the fact that the Bush administration deliberately made the strategic choice to focus on "terror" precisely to make clear that the conflict was not with Islam itself — a matter of first-order importance in the battle of ideas. Of course the administration knew that terrorism is just a tactic, and that this didn’t mean a new U.S. campaign in Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka. Moreover, both Walt and the Bush White House would agree that the conflict demanded stepped-up intelligence efforts, new law enforcement tools, domestic security measures, and multilateral cooperation – all of which the Bush administration embraced. But al Qaeda also declared war on the United States and followed through with the bloodiest act of war on U.S. soil in our history, under the sponsorship and protection of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. If that doesn’t qualify as a "military problem," then nothing does.
  • He accuses Bush of "sabotaging peace in the Middle East," while neglecting to mention that Bush was the first president to declare that official U.S. policy supports the creation of a Palestinian state. This was a paradigm shift in the U.S. posture, a notable affirmation of Palestinian aspirations, and continues to be a key pillar of the otherwise-troubled peace process today. Moreover, Bush articulated another uncomfortable truth necessary to the cause of peace: Peace would not be possible as long as the Palestinian leadership (read: Yasir Arafat) was compromised by support of terrorism and unaccountability to the Palestinian people. For all of his limitations, current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a more credible and capable negotiating partner in helping build a viable Palestinian state — a vindication of Bush’s insight.
  • Walt cites the Bush administration’s refusal to recognize the Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections as evidence of a cynical, selective approach to democracy. But an essential pillar of democracy is the renunciation of terrorism and peaceful participation in the political process — terms which Hamas refused to embrace, and the reason why the EU and the Obama administration don’t recognize the Hamas government either.
  • He says that Bush administration policies "unwittingly encouraged" nuclear proliferation by North Korea and Iran under the myth that if only more concessions and inducements had been offered by the United States, Pyongyang and Tehran would have disavowed their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yet this implicitly ascribes an unrealistic omnipotence to the United States (i.e. U.S. actions are the most important factor in determining other nation’s behavior) and ignores several other crucial variables, such as the serious flaws in the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea; the fact that both the North Korean and Iranian regimes decided to pursue nukes in part to divert domestic attention from their own misrule and to assert their power in their respective regions; or the many concessions and incentives the Bush administration did offer in both cases. Not to mention that any discussion of the Bush record on non-proliferation needs to include the significant success of persuading Libya to give up its nuclear program.
  • And yes, no litany of accusations against Bush would be complete without blaming him for the global financial crisis (though to be fair, Walt admits that Bush "does not deserve all the blame," just most of it). Again, what Walt fails to mention is telling, including factors such as the Clinton administration’s irresponsible expansion of the Community Reinvestment Act and sub-prime mortgage lending, the categorical blockage by Congressional Democrats of any efforts to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or the longstanding bipartisan support for the Fed’s easy money policies. Scholars will no doubt spend decades trying to understand the causes of the economic crisis, and few actors, including the Bush administration, will emerge faultless. But any serious effort to understand the crisis needs to go beyond simplistic polemics.

And what of Walt’s omissions? Well, any fair assessment of President Bush’s record also needs to take into account his robust support for free trade (including the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and increasing the number of bilateral FTAs from three to 14); his multilateral efforts to combat WMD proliferation through the Proliferation Security Initiative; his landmark development policies such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the $15 billion committed to HIV/AIDS relief, and indispensable support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and especially Bush’s successful management of great power relations such that the United States pulled off two delicate trifectas of solid relations with Asian powers Japan, China, and India, and (by his second term) with European power centers France, Germany, and Britain.

Perhaps most telling is a fact that Walt concedes, and laments: the significant number of Bush administration policies and strategies that the Obama administration has adopted. If this continues to be the case, then critics of the Bush administration record will have to shift their critique to U.S. foreign policy in general.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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