Assessing the Bush Administration: A Foreign Catastrophe at Every Turn

President George W. Bush has been using his last weeks in office making the case that he was not a disaster as president. There’s not much else for him to do – after all, no one cares what he thinks about the issues. Everyone, even those who voted for John McCain, are waiting for Barack Obama to take the oath of office on Tuesday. A lame duck even before the election of his replacement, most any president becomes the lamest of lame ducks in his final weeks in office. Especially one as unpopular as President Bush.

Good for a sardonic laugh is the Bush administration wrap-up, "Policies of the Bush Administration: 2001-2009." Needless to say, it portrays a heroic statesman who made America safer, freer, and wealthier. It suggests we are living in a parallel universe like that in a Star Trek episode.

The president’s principal claim, leading p.1, is that he "kept America safe." One aspect of that was waging "the Global War on Terror." Too bad al-Qaeda survives and the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan with a military solution looking ever more distant. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is being sucked into the vortex, creating the potential for genuine catastrophe.

As for Iraq, the administration glories in the fact that it "freed 25 million Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein." Yes, and in the process left millions of Iraqis dead, wounded, and displaced. Those who survived are living under a government likely to become increasingly authoritarian and sectarian. That’s sure a great way to create democracy. Heck of a job, Georgie!

More seriously, the president claims to have "prevented another attack on US soil." Let us grant that almost in spite of themselves administration officials have taken out much of the al-Qaeda organization and made it more difficult for terrorists to organize an attack in America. But the Bush administration’s manifold mistakes and errors also frequently hindered efforts to combat terrorism: the inefficiency of the Department for Homeland Security; many dubious arrests and lengthy incarcerations, as well as the well-publicized mistreatment of prisoners at home and abroad; and creation of new radical grievances spawning more terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. The administration even lauds the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, as if travelers are more secure because of the increased bureaucratic nonsense through which they must pass.

Indeed, if we are to equate correlation with causation in terms of the lack of assaults after 9/11, should we not apply the same standard to 9/11 itself? That is, by all accounts pre-9/11 the administration failed to heed warnings and address shortcomings that could have prevented the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. So there’s no home run for George W. Bush even here.

The Bush administration claims to have "invigorated international alliances and partnership," yet most of America’s friends reacted in horror to Washington’s militaristic and hubristic approach to foreign affairs. The administration squandered the enormous goodwill generated by 9/11, making it more difficult to convince sympathetic states to cooperate in destroying transnational terrorist networks.

As for expanding NATO, the administration has made America less secure by multiplying security commitments in a region of no significant geopolitical interest to America. The Bush administration sacrificed relations with Russia, a rebounding power whose aid Washington desires in a number of areas. Last August the US even found itself confronting nuclear-armed Russia in the Caucasus over a war started by a third country. Ironically, the administration set the precedent for Russian intervention against Georgia with Washington’s misguided efforts to dismember Serbia and create an independent Kosovo. A foolish "success" is no success.

The Bush performance report also contends that "the President’s freedom agenda helped emerging democracies build the institutions that sustain liberty." The first two countries listed are Iraq and Afghanistan. The likelihood of either country becoming a liberal democratic society in our lifetimes is about on par with the odds that Congress will approve spending programs without pork. But the administration goes further, even claiming credit for urging "valued partners like Saudi Arabia to move toward freedom." Well, maybe by inches. Riyadh remains a totalitarian state; high-profile US support for the monarchy remains a blot on any president’s claim to be advancing human liberty.

Some of the administration’s claims are harmless blather. The president "announced steps to help the Burmese people bring peaceful change and democratic transition to their country." Well, he may have announced steps, but they’ve had no impact. Of course, there isn’t much any president could have done about that tragic country; at least President Bush didn’t launch yet another bloody military invasion and nation-building mission in response.

Finally, the administration proclaims: "the president has transformed our military to become better trained, better equipped, and better prepared for the threats of today, tomorrow, and beyond." It’s an astonishing assertion. After all, the military would have been far better provisioned and transformed had the administration not squandered $620 billion on an unnecessary war in Mesopotamia. And the total bill could eventually run $2 or $3 trillion for Bush’s Iraq folly.

This also is the administration that couldn’t be bothered to provide armored Humvees and body armor for its own troops. Throwing money rarely solves social problems, but quickly equipping combat personnel is a different matter. Apparently the administration didn’t want to acknowledge that anything was amiss with the Iraq adventure requiring better protection for US forces. Americans died as a result.

Finally, the president’s misguided invasion placed enormous strain on the volunteer military, with both the active and reserve forces suffering significant recruiting problems. To make its recruiting objectives the Army lowered standards for new recruits. The administration also imposed "stop-loss," halting retirements and extending enlistment terms, and began treating reservists as substitutes rather than supplements to the active forces, sending citizen soldiers on a succession of lengthy tours. The Pentagon even called up members of the Individual Ready Reserve, an almost unprecedented step.

Not everything has been a disaster. The president can claim credit for not wrecking relations with China and for significantly improving ties with India – perhaps the administration’s single most important foreign policy achievement. The administration also recognized the importance of diplomacy when it negotiated denuclearization with Libya, completing a process of engagement begun under Bill Clinton.

However, the report sidesteps or ignores other monumental failures. For instance, policy towards North Korea and Iran has been a shambles. The US actually invaded the least dangerous member of the "Axis of Evil." In contrast, Washington spent several years refusing to talk to North Korea, which goes unmentioned in the administration document. The North busily reprocessed nuclear fuel and is thought to have acquired the capability of building another ten or so nuclear weapons. Only after the debacle was manifest to all did the administration appear to notice, causing it to change course. Now Washington is locked in endless and endlessly frustrating negotiations with Pyongyang.

The US government adopted a similar stance toward Iran – celebrated by the administration as working "with the international community to isolate the regime in Tehran" – refusing to even respond to Tehran’s offer to negotiate an overall settlement with Washington in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Since then America’s bargaining power has dwindled as Iran gained mightily from Saddam Hussein’s ouster. So the administration belatedly began low level diplomatic discussions with Iran in Iraq and considered opening a diplomatic mission in Tehran. All the while Iran continued its nuclear developments – apparently pursuing a peaceful program today, but prepared to move to a weapons program tomorrow if desired.

With war raging in Gaza the administration’s claim to have "laid the groundwork for a future Israel-Palestinian peace agreement and a democratic Palestinian state" can only evoke horselaughs. There was never any pretense that the US was an honest broker between the two sides. The administration’s subservience to the interests of Israeli hard-liners was highlighted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s claim to have pulled President Bush off of the podium during a speech to insist that the latter torpedo a UN Security Resolution calling for a cease fire which had been drafted with the assistance of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Tightening sanctions on Cuba proved to be a miserable failure. Washington’s apparent approval of a briefly successful coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was maladroit and counterproductive, especially for an administration purporting to promote democracy around the globe.

In short, the administration has amassed an extraordinary record of foolishness, incompetence, and arrogance. It is one thing to tolerate a braggart who gets the job done. But no one will endure a self-inflated nitwit who ruins everything he touches. Yet that was Uncle Sam as projected by the Bush administration over the last eight years.

The Bush presidency has been an American tragedy, with horrid consequences for the rest of the world. George W. Bush personally is a decent man, but proved to be wholly inadequate for job to which he was elected. With a new president about to take the oath of office, we should all hope that the lessons of the last eight years have been learned, and learned well. We cannot afford a repeat experience, now or in the future.