(Inter Press Service)
In a farewell press conference on Monday, George W. Bush once again expressed the belief that his eight-year presidency, particularly his foreign policy record, will be vindicated by history, but the portents for that happening are not particularly good.
Already last spring, nearly two-thirds of 109 professional historians polled by the History News Network rated Bush as 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 the 1930s. Bush will leave office next Tuesday with the lowest sustained approval ratings of any modern president.
With the exception of hardline neoconservatives and other far-right hawks who ruled the roost in Bush’s first term, the overwhelming consensus of veteran analysts here 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."
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, were also damaging.
"The Bush administration has left you [the United States] 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 among experts here.
"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 last week, who once called Bush’s hopes of democratizing the Arab world by invading Iraq as "cross[ing] the line between neo-conservative 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, by 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, 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 in Washington, D.C., 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, Japan.
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 Southern 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 counterinsurgency 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 under way 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 certain.
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 rival 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.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
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