On the brief occasions when the president now appears in the Rose Garden to “comfort” or “reassure” a shock-and-awed nation, you can almost hear those legions of ducks quacking lamely in the background. Once upon a time, George W. Bush, along with his top officials and advisers, hoped to preside over a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana a legacy for the generations. More recently, their highest hope seems to have been to slip out of town in January before the you-know-what hits the fan. No such luck.
Of course, what they feared most was that the you-know-what would hit in Iraq, and so put their efforts into sweeping that disaster out of sight. Once again, however, as in September 2001 and August 2005, they were caught predictably flatfooted by a domestic disaster. In this case, they were ambushed by an insurgent stock market heading into chaos, killer squads of credit default swaps, and a hurricane of financial collapse.
At the moment, only 7 percent of Americans believe the country is “going in the right direction,” Bush’s job-approval ratings have dropped into the low 20s with no bottom in sight, and North Dakota is “in play” in the presidential election. Think of that as the equivalent of a report card on Bush’s economic policies. In other words, the Yale legacy student with the C average has been branded for life with a resounding domestic “F” for failure. (His singular domestic triumph may prove to be paving the way for the first African American president.)
But there’s another report card that’s not in. Despite a media focus on Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the record of his Global War on Terror (and the Bush Doctrine that once went with it) has yet to be fully assessed. This is surprising, since administration actions in waging that war in what neoconservatives used to call “the arc of instability” a swath of territory running from North Africa to the Chinese border add up to a record of failure unprecedented in American history.
On June 1, 2002, George W. Bush gave the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Afghan War was then being hailed as a triumph and the invasion of Iraq just beginning to loom on the horizon. That day, after insisting the U.S. had “no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” the President laid out a vision of how the U.S. was to operate globally, facing “a threat with no precedent” al-Qaeda-style terrorism in a world of weapons of mass destruction.
After indicating that “terror cells” were to be targeted in up to 60 countries, he offered a breathtakingly radical basis for the pursuit of American interests:
“We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long [T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act Our security will require transforming the military you will lead a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.”
This would later be known as Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” even a 1 percent chance of an attack on the U.S., especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with militarily as if it were a certainty. It may have been the rashest formula for “preventive” or “aggressive” war offered in the modern era.
The president and his neocon backers were then riding high. Some were even talking up the United States as a “new Rome,” greater even than imperial Britain. For them, global control had a single prerequisite: the possession of overwhelming military force. With American military power unimpeachably #1, global domination followed logically. As Bush put it that day, in a statement unique in the annals of our history: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
In other words, a planet of Great Powers was all over and it was time for the rest of the world to get used to it. Like the wimps they were, other nations could “trade” and pursue “peace.” For its pure folly, not to say its misunderstanding of the nature of power on our planet, it remains a statement that should still take anyone’s breath away.
The Bush Doctrine, of course, no longer exists. Within a year, it had run aground on the shoals of reality on its very first whistle stop in Iraq. More than six years later, looking back on the foreign policy that emerged from Bush’s self-declared Global War on Terror, it’s clear that no president has ever failed on his own terms on such a scale or quite so comprehensively.
Here, then, is a brief report card on Bush’s Global War on Terror:
1. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda: The Global War on Terror started here. Osama bin Laden was to be brought in “dead or alive” until, in December 2001, he escaped from a partial U.S. encirclement in the mountainous Tora Bora region of Afghanistan (and many of the U.S. troops chasing him were soon enough dispatched Iraqwards). Seven years later, bin Laden remains free, as does his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri, probably in the mountainous Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border. Al-Qaeda has been reconstituted there and is believed to be stronger than ever. An allied organization that didn’t exist in 2001, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was later declared by President Bush to be the “central front in the war on terror,” while al-Qaeda branches and wannabe groups have proliferated elsewhere.
Result: Terror promoted.
2. The Taliban and Afghanistan: The Taliban was officially defeated in November 2001 with an “invasion” that combined native troops, U.S. special operations forces, CIA agents, and U.S. air power. The Afghan capital, Kabul, was “liberated” and, not long after, a “democratic” government installed (filled, in part, with a familiar cast of warlords, human rights violators, drug lords, and the like). Seven years later, according to an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate, Afghanistan is on a “downward spiral”; the drug trade flourishes as never before; the government of President Hamid Karzai is notoriously corrupt, deeply despised, and incapable of exercising control much beyond the capital; American and NATO troops, thanks largely to a reliance upon air power and soaring civilian deaths, are increasingly unpopular; the Taliban is resurgent and has established a shadow government across much of the south, while its guerrillas are embedded at the gates of Kabul. American and NATO forces promoted a “surge” strategy in 2007 that failed and are now calling for more of the same. Reconstruction never happened.
Result: Losing war.
3. Pakistan: At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration threw its support behind Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator of relatively stable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. In the ensuing years, the U.S. transferred at least $10 billion, mainly to the general’s military associates, to fight the Global War on Terror. (Most of the money went elsewhere). Seven years later, Musharraf has fallen ingloriously, while the country has reportedly turned strongly anti-American only 19 percent of Pakistanis in a recent BBC poll had a negative view of al-Qaeda is on the verge of a financial meltdown, and has been strikingly destabilized, with its tribal regions at least partially in the hands of a Pakistani version of the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda and foreign jihadis. That region is also now a relatively safe haven for the Afghan Taliban. American planes and drones attack in these areas ever more regularly, causing civilian casualties and more anti-Americanism, as the U.S. edges toward its third real war in the region.
Result: Extremism promoted, destabilization in progress.
4. Iraq: In March 2003, with a shock-and-awe air campaign and 130,000 troops, the Bush administration launched its long-desired invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, officially in search of (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad fell to American troops in April and Bush declared “major combat operations ended” from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier against a “Mission Accomplished” banner on May 1. Within four months, according to administration projections, there were to be only 30,000 to 40,000 American troops left in the country, stationed at bases outside Iraq’s cities, in a peaceful (occupied) land with a “democratic,” non-sectarian, pro-American government in formation. In the intervening five-plus years, perhaps one million Iraqis died, up to five million went into internal or external exile, a fierce insurgency blew up, an even fiercer sectarian war took place, more than 4,000 Americans died, hundreds of billions of American taxpayer dollars were spent on a war that led to chaos and on “reconstruction” that reconstructed nothing. There are still close to 150,000 American troops in the country and American military leaders are cautioning against withdrawing many more of them any time soon. Filled with killing fields and barely hanging together, Iraq is despite recently lowered levels of violence still among the more dangerous environments on the planet, while a largely Shi’ite government in Baghdad has grown ever closer to Shi’ite Iran. Thanks to the president’s “surge strategy” of 2007, this state of affairs is often described here as a “success.”
Result: Mission unaccomplished.
5. Iran: In his January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush dubbed Iran part of an “axis of evil” (along with Iraq and North Korea), attaching a shock-and-awe bull’s-eye to that nation ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. (A neocon quip of that time was: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) In later years, Bush warned repeatedly that the U.S. would not allow Iran to move toward the possession of a nuclear weapons program and his administration would indeed take numerous steps, ranging from sanctions to the funding of covert actions, to destabilize the country’s ruling regime. More than six years after his “axis of evil” speech, and endless administration threats and bluster later, Iran is regionally resurgent, the most powerful foreign influence in Shiite Iraq, and continuing on a path toward that nuclear power program which, it claims, is purely peaceful, but could, of course, prove otherwise.
Result: Strengthened Iran.
Unlawful Enemy Combatants
6. Lebanon: Vowing to encourage a “democratic,” pro-western Lebanon and crush the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, which it categorized not only as a tool of Iran but as a terrorist organization, the administration green-lighted Israel’s disastrous air assault and invasion in the summer of 2006. From that destructive war, Hezbollah emerged triumphant in its southern domain and strengthened in Lebanese national politics. Today, Lebanon is once again close to a low-level civil war and the influence of Syria, essentially the unmentioned fourth member of the president’s “axis of evil,” is again on the rise.
Result: Hezbollah ascendant.
7. Gaza: As part of the president’s “freedom agenda,” the administration promoted Palestinian elections on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip meant to fend off the rising strength of the Hamas movement, which it considered a terrorist organization, and promote the power of Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, however, won the election. The U.S. promptly refused to accept the results and, with Israel, tried to strangle Hamas in its Gaza stronghold. Hamas today remains entrenched in Gaza, while Abbas is a weakened figure.
Result: Hamas ascendant.
8. Somalia: In 2006, using U.S. trained and funded Ethiopian troops, the Bush administration intervened by proxy in a Somali civil war to oust a relatively moderate Islamist militia on the verge of unifying that desperate country for the first time in a long while. Two years later, the situation has only deteriorated further: the capital Mogadishu is in chaos, militant Islamists have retaken much of the south, those Ethiopian troops are preparing to withdraw, and the Bush-backed government to fall. At least 10,000 Somalis have died, and more than a third of the population, a jump of 77 percent, needs aid just to survive.
9. Georgia: Promoting Georgian democracy and an oil pipeline running through its territory that brought Central Asian energy to Europe while avoiding Russia the administration armed, trained, and advised the Georgian military, backed the country for NATO membership, and looked the other way as its leader launched an invasion of a breakaway region (where Russian troops were stationed). Support for Georgia was part of a long-term Bush administration campaign to rollback Russian influence in its “near abroad,” especially in Central Asia (where results would, in the end, prove hardly more promising). The Russian military promptly crushed and then demolished the Georgian military, brought the future usefulness of the oil pipeline into question, and sidelined NATO membership for the foreseeable future. In response, the Bush administration could do nothing at all.
Result: Humiliating defeat.
Axis of Evil Extra Credit Target
10. North Korea: Calling North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il variously a “dwarf,” a “pygmy,” and simply “evil,” and his regime “the world’s most dangerous,” Bush targeted it in his “axis of evil” speech. As an invasion of Iraq loomed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made clear that the U.S. was willing to fight and win wars “on two fronts.” The administration turned its back on modestly successful, Clinton-era two-party negotiations that froze North Korea’s plutonium-processing program, began overt and possibly covert campaigns to undermine the regime, and regularly threatened it over its nuclear weapons program. The invasion of Iraq evidently led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to the obvious shock-and-aweable conclusion and he promptly upped the pace of that program. In 2006, the country tested its first nuclear weapon and became a nuclear power.
Result: Nuclear proliferation encouraged.
11. Global Public Opinion: In the 2003 National Security Strategy of the United States was this infamous line: “Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism.” In other words, the UN, the International Criminal Court, and al-Qaeda were all thrown into the same despised category, along with, implicitly, international public opinion. Who needed any of them? The result? With the help of its torture policies and its prison camp at Guantanamo for public relations, the Bush administration achieved wonders. Never has global opinion of the U.S. been lower (or anti-Americanism more rampant) than in these years and when the administration needed allies, they were hard to find (or expensive to buy).
Result: Public diplomacy in the tank.
12. The American Taxpayer: The Bush administration estimated that the war in Iraq might cost the U.S. $50-60 billion, the war in Afghanistan far less. By now, those wars have officially cost more than $800 billion, close to $200 billion in the last year (at an estimated $3.5 billion a week). Their real long-term costs are almost incalculable, though they will certainly reach into the trillions. The full price tag of the Global War on Terror, including the costs of extraordinary renditions, as well as the building and maintaining of offshore prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and elsewhere, is unknown, but historians looking back will undoubtedly conclude that the squandering of such sums helped push the U.S. toward financial meltdown.
If you want a final taste of pathos to deal with the disasters it created, the Bush administration has finally turned to the most un-Global-War-on-Terror-like diplomatic maneuvers. It rushed an envoy to North Korea to save a disintegrating nuclear deal (while agreeing to remove that country from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror), is preparing the way for possible negotiations with parts of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban (call it “reconciliation”), and is evidently considering setting up a “U.S. Interest Section” in Tehran soon after the election.
In these last years, the Bush administration’s deepest fundamentalist faith its cultish belief in the efficacy of military force above all else has proven an empty vessel. With its “military strengths beyond challenge” all-too-effectively challenged, Bush’s second-term officials are finally returning to some of the most boringly traditional methods of diplomacy and negotiation under far more extreme circumstances and from a far weaker position while their former neocon supporters scream bloody murder from right-wing think tanks in Washington and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. “Having bent the knee to North Korea,” former UN ambassador John Bolton wrote recently in that paper, “Secretary [of State] Rice appears primed to do the same with Iran, despite that regime’s egregious and extensive involvement in terrorism and the acceleration of its nuclear program.”
And they do have a point. This administration does now seem to be on bended knee to the world.
As with Pandora’s Box, however, what the Bush administration unleashed cannot simply be taken back. A new administration will not only inherit an arc of instability that is truly aflame, but the paradigm, still remarkably unexamined, of a Global War on Terror. Now, there is a disaster-in-the-making for you.
[To listen to a podcast in which Tom Engelhardt discusses this article, click here.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt