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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
than $800 billion, close to $200 billion in the last year (at an estimated
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
[To listen to a podcast in which Tom Engelhardt discusses this article,
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt