While in a farewell press conference Monday George
W. Bush once again expressed the belief that his eight-year presidency, particularly
his foreign-policy record, will be vindicated by history, the portents are
not particularly good.
Already last spring, nearly two thirds of 109 professional historians polled
by the History News Network rated Bush the worst president in the nation's
history, while another 35 percent said he was among the 10 worst of the 42
who preceded him.
And that was six months before the mid-September financial crisis that most
economists agree will turn out to be the worst since the Great Depression of
Bush leaves office next Tuesday with the lowest sustained approval ratings
of any modern president.
With the exception of hard-line neoconservatives and other far-right hawks
who ruled the roost in Bush's first term, the overwhelming consensus of veteran
analysts is that his "global war on terror" for which
he is likely to be most remembered has inflicted unprecedented and possibly
permanent damage on Washington's image abroad.
The latter problem may not matter to those who, like Vice President Dick Cheney
and the "neocons," have long disdained diplomacy and other forms
of "soft power."
But the unexpected difficulties confronted by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan
and Iraq as well as the transparent failure of "hard power"
to have the desired effect in other "terror-war" theaters, such as
Somalia and Pakistan (or Lebanon, in Israel's case) have exposed the
limits of a U.S.-dominated "unipolar world" and the ability of the
U.S. armed forces to enforce it on their own.
"The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again
Gulf War, Afghan war, next war is that power is its own reward,"
chortled the Washington Post's neoconservative columnist and champion
of "unipolarity," Charles Krauthammer, after U.S.-backed forces chased
the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan in late 2001 in a concise
and now highly ironic statement of the administration's first-term worldview
and strategic intent.
"The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for
American power," Krauthammer added.
Particularly destructive to Washington's image, of course, were the 2003 invasion
of Iraq and the use of "aggressive interrogation techniques"
which most human-rights experts call torture against terrorist suspects
at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and secret U.S.-controlled prisons around the world.
Uncritical backing for Israel, even when it waged a series of military campaigns,
most recently in Gaza, that appeared to give scant regard to the welfare of
the civilian population, was also damaging.
"The Bush administration has left you [the U.S.] a disgusting legacy
and a reckless position towards the massacres and bloodshed of innocents in
Gaza," declared no less a friend than former Saudi ambassador and intelligence
chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, in a speech last week that created quite a sensation
"Neither Israel nor the U.S. can gain from a war that produces this reaction
from one of the wisest and most moderate voices in the Arab world," remarked
Anthony Cordesman, a highly regarded Middle East specialist at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who once called Bush's hopes of
democratizing the Arab world by invading Iraq as "cross[ing] the line
between neoconservative and neo-crazy."
In fairness, the unilateralism and militarism that dominated most of Bush's
first term, when Cheney, then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative
advisers were in the saddle, softened considerably in his second.
This softening was due to both the discrediting of pre-war assumptions about
Iraq and the ascendancy of administration realists led initially by Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice and, after Rumsfeld's resignation in November 2006,
his successor, Robert Gates.
While the hawks strongly opposed any engagement with the surviving members
of the "Axis of Evil," North Korea and Iran, the realists successfully
persuaded Bush that pressure, isolation, and military threats had actually
proven counterproductive to U.S. interests.
The realists also convinced him that diplomatic engagement would have the
benefit of demonstrating to the rest of the world that Washington was prepared
to exhaust at least some diplomatic remedies before resorting to war.
In fact, the second term witnessed a notable softening hawks would
say "appeasement" in Washington's position in a number of
areas, including, remarkably, limited cooperation with the previously-despised
International Criminal Court (ICC), a more forthcoming rhetoric if not
actual policy on global warming, and even deference to Washington's
European allies in dealing with a resurgent Russia, notably during last August's
conflict in Georgia.
With the military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, multilateralism and
diplomacy ceased to be dirty words.
Indeed, the administration spent considerable effort in its second term patching
up ties with what Rumsfeld had once contemptuously referred to as "Old
Europe" that part of the globe that had been most alienated by the
neo-imperialist trajectory of the first term.
This is apart from the Arab and Islamic worlds and, to a lesser extent, Latin
America, where old resentments flared over Washington's endorsement of, if
not complicity with, a failed military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez in 2002.
Judging by opinion polls and expert opinion, Bush fared considerably
better in Asia, where, to the disappointment of Rumsfeld and Cheney, he built
on the progress made by his father and Bill Clinton in deepening ties with
China, and did so without alienating Washington's closest regional ally,
In addition, Bush's courtship of India, capped by the controversial nuclear-energy
accord ratified by Congress last summer, is considered by many analysts
as his greatest foreign-policy achievement.
Bush's five-year, $15 billion AIDS initiative launched in part to highlight
his "compassionate conservatism" on the eve of the Iraq invasion
also helps explain his not-insignificant popularity in sub-Saharan Africa
(although $15 billion is currently what his administration is spending each
month on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
He is also given credit for his role in ending the long-standing civil war
between Khartoum and the insurgency in south Sudan, although that diplomatic
success, however fragile, stands in rather stunning contrast to failures in
Darfur, eastern Congo, and Somalia, where, if anything, the U.S. efforts to
keep Islamist forces from gaining power have been little short of disastrous.
To his defenders, Bush's finest moment and one on which he appears
to pin the greatest hope for his legacy came two years ago when, despite
the unprecedented popular disapproval of the Iraq war and the advice of foreign-policy
establishment, he "surged" some 30,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq
as part of a new counter-insurgency strategy designed to halt the country's
precipitous slide into all-out sectarian civil war.
While favorable trends within the Sunni community were already well underway
at the time as former insurgents, backed by U.S. funding and weapons, had turned
against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the surge clearly helped reduce the violence in Baghdad.
But whether the surge has set the stage for its strategic goal of national
reconciliation, or even the kind of democratic state that Bush had hoped would
become a model for export to its Arab neighbors and Iran, remains far from
If it has, Bush may yet be hailed as a 21st-century Harry Truman, whose low
approval ratings at the time of his departure from the White House in 1953
nearly rivals Bush's but whose sponsorship of NATO and the Marshall Plan, among
other early Cold War initiatives, are now recognized as significant achievements.
If, on the other hand, Iraq falls back into chaos or splits apart or evolves
into a new dictatorship or becomes even more closely tied to Iran than it already
is, then Bush's fate as the worst U.S. president would almost certainly
be sealed. History will have to decide.
(Inter Press Service)