The 2020 election campaign is likely to get much uglier before November 3rd. Both parties face internal wars that will shape future U.S. foreign policy.
In Democratic primaries younger progressive candidates continue to challenge establishment paladins. And leading members of the bipartisan War Party continue to fall. The latest Bigfoot loss appears to be Eliot Engel, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Out will go a reliable hawk and Israel ally, replaced by a younger member critical of endless war and lawmaking for foreign interests. Engel’s loss also could result in a committee leader more skeptical of reflexive intervention.
Unfortunately, no such ferment is happening within the more reliably hawkish GOP congressional caucus. Other than a few outliers such as Sen. Rand Paul, Republicans are not just avowed interventionists but genuine warmongers. For instance, in 2017 Sen. Lindsey Graham lightheartedly dismissed the possibility of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula as being "over there" rather than "over here."
However, insufficient enthusiasm for war might cost President Donald Trump some traditional GOP support. Although John Bolton said he is not prepared to vote for Joe Biden – apparently economic and social issues matter too much to Bolton – some Republican hawks are turning to the presumptive Democratic nominee. Indeed, a new SuperPAC, "43 Alumni for Biden," is set to launch, supposedly backed by "hundreds" of George W. Bush (the 43rd president) appointees. They emphasize foreign policy.
The former president probably won’t be involved. The New York Times reported that Bush won’t vote for Trump and brother Jeb is undecided. However, the former president’s aides said he hadn’t said anything on the issue. That would be consistent with his silence during the Obama years.
However, Bush’s former appointees aren’t holding back. Jennifer Millikin, a Bush apparatchik at the General Services Administration, said of Trump: "The president is a danger." Reuters reported: "Dozens of Republican former national security officials are set to back Biden, claiming that Trump is a threat to US security, people involved in the effort told Reuters."
President Donald Trump’s failings are obvious to all. He has yet to halt any of the "endless wars" which he criticized. He risked conflict with North Korea before changing course and nearly triggered hostilities with Iran, which would have been a disaster for Americans in while serving the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Nevertheless, as Bush alumni climb into the electoral ring, it is worth remembering how they and their boss viewed and implemented "national security." The result was not pretty.
George W. Bush has been called the country’s worst president. He certainly is in the running. However, the competition, going back more than two centuries, is quite stiff. Woodrow Wilson is my candidate, for taking the US into World War I, a ridiculous murderfest – Europeans called it a sausage or meat grinder – among imperial powers that did not concern America. The conflict loosed fascism, Nazism, and communism and led to World War II. Besides helping cause the death of tens of millions of people, Wilson was a sanctimonious, pompous, arrogant racist who jailed critics and eviscerated civil liberties to advance his plan to reorder the entire globe.
The impact of Bush’s crimes didn’t turn out to be quite that disastrous.
Still, he failed at what he claimed was his most important success, keeping "America safe." He was president during 9/11, his officials having dismissed warnings of the extraordinary terrorist attack to come. Indeed, when running in 2016 Trump unkindly pointed out this fact. That spoiled the Republican candidates’ partisan lovefest for Bush, led by brother Jeb. Trump declared that the emperor had no clothes.
Of course, Bush could claim that most of the blame for 9/11 went to prior presidents, who bombed, invaded, and occupied other nations, supported multiple dictatorships over oppressed peoples, and underwrote decades of occupation and repression by a nominal democracy that imposed military rule over millions of conquered people. However, Bush doubled down on all of those policies while announcing to the world that bad guys targeted America because we were so special, both virtuous and free, innocents abused and mistreated by an unfair world. He knew nothing and learned even less.
His campaign to protect the homeland sacrificed civil liberties and relied on torture. He treated the presidency as an elective dictatorship, with the president empowered to order the arrest and isolation of Americans in America. Abuse of foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and existence of secret prisons elsewhere embarrassed Washington and sullied the nation’s reputation around the world.
Although much has been written of Donald Trump’s ignorance, Bush also had a reputation for preferring short and uncomplicated intelligence briefings. He responded to a negative report from the Baghdad CIA station chief by asking if the man was "a defeatist." The 9/11 Commission reported that "the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent." Secretary of State Colin Powell was directed to make a statement before the UN Security Council that turned out to be false in almost every particular. While not limited to foreign policy, the description by James Traub of the New York Times magazine seemed particularly apt: "George Bush is a craven, lazy, hypocritical nitwit."
Unsurprisingly, Bush’s "Global War on Terror" spawned new and even more virulent terrorists – especially al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State. The victims of this vile force were primarily Iraqis and Syrians, who first were overrun by Islamists intent on creating a totalitarian caliphate and next bombed by Washington as it sought to eradicate the new ISIS state that it had enabled. Bush’s GWOT bizarrely lived on through the Obama and Trump administrations, which fraudulently used Bush’s campaign to claim legal authority for wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq (again!), and Yemen going back to 9/11.
The war in Iraq, which Trump also criticized, but then-Sen. Joe Biden voted for, is widely recognized as the most serious geopolitical mistake that America made in decades, at least going back to the Vietnam War, and probably before. The latter had horrific humanitarian effects, but only limited geopolitical impacts. The falling dominoes stopped at Cambodia and Laos. Shortly afterwards Mao died and China retreated from decades of radical madness. Within a few years Hanoi was battling China and urging Americans to return. A few more years and the Soviet Union dissolved. The Vietnam War was awful, misguided, and wrong but seems to have receded into history.
In Iraq, in contrast, the mass killings, sectarian conflict, and bloody ethnic/religious cleansing remain fresh. Violent radicalism was loosed from a geopolitical Pandora’s Box, and since has been transformed, not eradicated. Tehran’s influence dramatically increased, with Iraq caught in between America and Iran. The rise of ISIS and other Islamic radicals spread to Syria and beyond. While it is impossible to know what Iraq would look like today had America not invaded 17 years ago, Hussein likely would have been out of power without the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displacement of millions of people, mass destruction across much of the country, and destabilization throughout the region. Tragically, the war is Bush’s malign gift that keeps on giving.
Afghanistan was Bush’s other great failure. If he really was focused on al-Qaeda, he could have launched a limited punitive operation targeting Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, followed by a swift withdrawal. Instead, he turned to nation building – really nation creating – attempting to establish a centralized liberal democracy in Central Asia. Nearly two decades, endless destruction, and thousands of civilian lives later American troops are still on station, tasked with protecting a dysfunctional regime and faux democracy undermined by pervasive corruption and endemic incompetence. When I visited a decade ago even Kabul was still dangerous. Yet everyone drove to the airport. Today the US embassy views the capital as too menacing for street travel and sends its employees via helicopter. So much for winning the war.
No where did Bush-the-younger challenge the usual failed conventional wisdom. Filled with hubris from his presumed Iraq victory he rejected Tehran’s offer to discuss all issues. So Iran expanded and accelerated its nuclear energy program, which caused hysteria in Washington. Even though the Neoconservative hawks with whom Bush filled his administration campaigned for war, the Iraq disaster precluded that option. But he put another round of sanctions on Iran, which helped lead to the crisis today.
Like his predecessors, Bush subordinated US Mideast policy to the demands of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Indeed, he was particularly solicitous of the Saudi royal family, covering up the kingdom’s connections with al-Qaeda and allowing Riyadh to fly Saudis home while Americans were grounded in the aftermath of 9/11. After catering to the regime’s whims he claimed as an achievement encouraging "valued partners like Saudi Arabia to move toward freedom."
He finished the Clinton administration’s illegal war against Serbia and amputation of the territory of Kosovo by recognizing the latter’s independence, which offered Russia a useful precedent for aiding the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Bush continued NATO’s reckless expansion and pushed to include both Georgia and Ukraine, redlines for Moscow. With John McCain pushing for confrontation during the Russo-Georgia war, the Bush administration considered bombing advancing Russian troops, before good sense prevailed.
Bush campaigned for a "humble" foreign policy. But his response to 9/11 was unbridled hubris and a campaign of social engineering that ignored culture, ethnicity, geography, history, politics, religion, and more. His failure seems inevitable. But the spectacular magnitude of the fiasco was his fault alone.
Of course, the mere fact that many of the architects and apparatchiks of this policy back Biden doesn’t guarantee that the Democrat will follow in Bush’s footsteps. However, Biden always has been an enthusiastic international meddler. And despite his effort to attract Bernie Sanders’ voters, the presumptive Democratic nominee has done little to moderate his interventionist tendencies.
Instead, Biden has criticized Trump from the right on China, North Korea, and Russia. The ongoing migration of Bush hawks makes Biden even more likely to attack Trump for being insufficiently warlike.
Generational change may eventually break the War Party’s near-death grip on American politics. But Biden should accelerate that process by updating his worldview for reality – and listening to the new generation of Democratic progressives, who are increasingly likely to carry their party with them in future years.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.