Rare is it to find a president whose foreign policy has imploded as dramatically and catastrophically as has that of George W. Bush. Little more than a year after taking office, the candidate who espoused humility turned into the chief executive who embraced empire. Four years later, the administration’s drive for global primacy irrespective of the needs of America, interests of other nations, and wishes of other peoples has dramatically sapped Washington’s power and influence. Washington’s fulminations about defeating Iraq’s insurgents, preventing North Korea’s missile launches, dismantling Iran’s nuclear program look increasingly hollow. Countries and movements once thought to be cowering in Uncle Sam’s shadow now exhibit flagrant contempt for Washington’s desires.
It is the administration determined to stay in Iraq, not its critics who advocate withdrawal, that is responsible for the fact that thousands of patriotic men and women, through no fault of their own, will die in vain. Indeed, not just die in vain, but die in a conflict that is weakening the U.S. and making all Americans less secure. The president says that the Iraq war is “straining the psyche” of America, but it is really the administration’s botched foreign policy that is straining our psyche.
Consider the international environment on Sept. 12, 2001. Terrorists had struck a shocking blow, but the U.S. held a position of enormous advantage. America possessed the greatest military on earth, was allied with all of the major industrialized powers, and benefited from a surge of international goodwill reaching even into the Muslim world.
Al-Qaeda was hemmed in, with its leadership tied to the medieval regime in Afghanistan. Pakistan agreed to sacrifice its ties to Kabul to back America. Problem states like Saudi Arabia began to address Washington’s concerns over financial and ideological support for terrorism.
Iraq was contained impoverished through years of sanctions and threatened by hostile neighbors, most importantly Iran. Baghdad avoided committing national suicide by attacking the U.S. or collaborating with al-Qaeda. And, despite endless contrary claims, Iraq possessed no weapons of note, nothing with which to threaten America even if Hussein unexpectedly decided to play jihad warrior.
North Korea, though found to be cheating at the margins of its nuclear agreement with America, nevertheless was not reprocessing its existing store of plutonium. Iran’s foreign behavior did not match its theological fervor, and would soon indicate its interest in a dialogue with the U.S.
Washington’s relations with Russia were good. Ties with China had survived the spy-plane controversy. America’s genuine adversaries could be numbered on one hand: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea.
America had turned a financial deficit into a surplus. Although hard feelings remained over the outcome of the disputed 2000 election, Bush would receive bipartisan backing for his handling of 9/11, which seemed resolute yet restrained.
A poker player with this hand would sweep the pot. A chess player in this position would play out a classic “won game” to collect the victory point. A competent, knowledgeable, responsible president in this situation would ensure America’s long-term influence while disarming ongoing security threats.
Unfortunately, we did not possess a competent, knowledgeable, responsible president. Which explains the world in which America finds itself today.
The U.S. remains the planet’s premier military power, but at enormous expense: Washington accounts for roughly half of the globe’s military spending, but is flushing much of that down the Iraqi sewer. Gross strategic error and practical mismanagement have left the military badly stretched. The services are maintaining force levels only by lowering enlistment standards and are ill-prepared to handle another serious military contingency. Perhaps even worse, America’s illusion of invincibility has been shattered. As military historian Andrew Bacevich has noted, Muslim insurgents and terrorists have figured out how to counteract America’s unquestioned military superiority.
The Europeans, Japan, and South Korea remain our allies, but their willingness to back U.S. initiatives is much diminished. France is dedicated to limiting American power, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is being forced out of office largely because of his support for the Bush administration, and other politicians deemed too friendly to the U.S. have been defeated by angry electorates. Where friends of Bush have prevailed, such as Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, it is despite rather than because they joined with Washington.
Global good will toward America has vanished. Numbering the countries in which the people support Washington’s policies is easy India, Israel, Kuwait. The U.S. has gone from sympathetic victim to arrogant victimizer. Hatred of American policies is especially strong among Muslims, stretching from the Mideast to Indonesia to Europe.
Al-Qaeda has been damaged, but a multitude of loose affiliates and independent imitators have sprung up around the world, with more terrorists active than before. What seemed to be a clear success in Afghanistan is dissolving into civil war and potential chaos, with the arrival of suicide bombing, the tactic of choice in Iraq.
Pakistan, exposed as the globe’s worst nuclear proliferator, wobbles dangerously as it plays a double game involving Islamists and the West. Saudi Arabia makes a mockery of the administration’s emphasis on democracy while funding Wahhabi clerics and madrassas even in America. These and other “friendly” states are under increased pressure as the vision of the U.S. and its ally Israel daily killing Muslims continues to intensify anti-American feeling.
Then there is Iraq. The U.S. invasion and occupation have created a seething sectarian cauldron. Ugly authoritarian stability has been replaced by horrific unpredictable slaughter. Thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died; jihadists have gained a vivid recruiting poster for adherents worldwide; an entire country has become a training ground for urban terrorists.
The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has gone from the potential of one or two atomic bombs to a dozen. Washington’s refusal to negotiate has only encouraged Kim Jong-Il to play his favorite game of brinkmanship. Iran, too, appears to be ever more speedily developing nuclear weapons, as America’s demands seem to have only spurred its efforts. At the same time, Washington removed Tehran’s greatest enemy and restraining force by defenestrating Hussein.
Relations with Russia have noticeably cooled, with Washington denouncing President Vladimir Putin’s turn toward authoritarianism, barring Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and ignoring Moscow’s perceived regional interests. There is less name-calling with China, but Beijing is quietly working with other states to counter American power. And U.S. policy has left a herd of nations, well beyond its core antagonists, dedicated to limiting its power.
Indeed, the Bush administration has helped bring into being a new international tactic: “balking.” Although Washington’s critics did not feel so threatened as to organize militarily, they are increasingly prepared to resist and frustrate America’s demands. U.S. protestations of its unique benevolence and good will merely serve to encourage opposition.
The Republican executive and legislature have proved to be the most spendthrift government in the last four decades. Massive deficits will spill forth in coming years, with an explosion of outlays as the population begins growing rapidly older. And any sense of bipartisanship disappeared in the midst of administration manipulation, deceit, ignorance, incompetence, partisanship, and demagoguery. That Democratic politicians would attack the administration was inevitable; that Democratic voters would almost unanimously, and almost all passionately, despise the administration was not.
It is an astonishing record.
Of course, instability and violence overseas are not all President Bush’s fault. The seeds of many conflicts were planted long ago. Counterproductive U.S. policies in the Mideast have been creating enemies for decades. Other nations would pursue interests at variance with those of America irrespective of who occupies the Oval Office. Moreover, the administration has been silently shifting away from its most flagrantly arrogant and unilateral behavior. Still, the president who takes responsibility for nothing is in fact responsible for much.
With a record so bad, his political success is particularly astounding. Indeed, the president must be recognized as an electoral marvel. Short on factual analysis, he remains good with empty sound bites about America being attacked, the importance of promoting freedom, and defeating terrorists. Never mind his resemblance to the man who murders his parents and then asks for mercy as an orphan: Bush points at the train wrecks that he has caused as the reason to keep him on as the train’s engineer.
In both 2000 and 2004, President Bush was able to use a certain populist charm to counteract the fact that he is ill-informed and simplistic, without the slightest intellectual curiosity. With the temperament of a college jock or frat boy, he makes gut-level decisions, doesn’t recognize the possibility of mistakes, refuses to revisit his past handiwork, views opposition as disloyalty, and avoids holding people responsible.
Yet he built an intense, if limited following, and was able push through the most divisive policies on narrow votes along partisan lines. Even as his foreign initiatives failed, and, in the case of Iraq, failed dramatically, he was able to energize supporters with self-serving calls to rally around the flag. Only with his popularity falling even among conservatives and Republicans in 2006 did it appear that his divide, polarize, and conquer strategy might finally fail.
That his presidency is different is evident in how he has not only polarized the electorate, but traditional political constituencies. Six years after his election, all that matters is the war.
The Left has been reduced to snarling impotence, raging at the mere mention of his name. But a coterie of would-be liberal warriors well-represented at the New Republic, among Democratic legislators, and in hard leftists such as Christopher Hitchens backed Bush despite his apostasy on so many other issues.
Similarly, most on the Right rallied around Bush, even though he routinely sacrificed deeply held conservative principles, such as fiscal responsibility and federalism. Those who once backed tough-minded but limited containment of communism and derided mushy-headed liberalism under Jimmy Carter joined President Bush in hoisting Woodrow Wilson as their role model, advocating warmongering in the name of peace. A much smaller faction, however, consisting of libertarians, paleoconservatives, and traditionalists, resisted, finding more in common with leftist critics of Bush than with their allies of years, even decades.
On both sides, the division has led to bitter antagonisms. Longtime friends and allies have been read out of their respective political movements because of their positions on Iraq and the foreign policy vision behind it. The old Humpty Dumpty of political coalitions might well take years to put back together, if it ever is. In yet another way, George Bush’s impact will live on well past his term in office.
Obviously, there are many important issues that distinguish competing political candidates. Today, however, there is only one decisive issue: America’s foreign policy.
George W. Bush’s domestic performance has been poor. His international performance has been catastrophic. Where competence, nuance, humility, and caution were called for, he provided deceit, ineptitude, recklessness, and ignorance.
On virtually every individual issue Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Europe, and more the administration has blundered. But the destructive whole is greater than the malign sum of the parts. Most of America’s unique advantages of just five years ago have been tossed away. The United States today is weaker, more isolated, and more vulnerable because of the Bush administration’s policies.
To whom much is given, much is expected, explains the Bible. And to whom was more given than George W. Bush, who was entrusted with the care of the most powerful nation on earth? He has violated that trust. “We live in troubled times,” the president says with unusual understatement, “but I’m confident in our capacity to not only protect the homeland but in our capacity to leave behind a better world.” America indeed has such an ability, but those goals are likely to be realized only under a different president. With more than two years left of his presidency, Americans must do everything possible to reduce any further harm he can wreak.