No, President George W. Bush Did Not Undermine American Power and International Order
To begin, a quiz. Which U.S. president did all of the following?
- refused to attack Iran over its nuclear program, while instead working through the U.N. Security Council to pursue multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
- refused to attack North Korea over its nuclear program, while instead working through the U.N. Security Council to pursue multilateral negotiations and a diplomatic settlement;
- resisted strong pressure to attack Syria over its weapons of mass destruction program;
- did not undertake any major use of force without first securing congressional authorization by strong bipartisan majorities;
- did not undertake any major use of force that did not involve upholding U.N. Security Council resolutions;
- did not undertake any major use of force without participation from dozens of allied and partner nations;
- led in the expanded use of a new multilateral institution connecting industrialized democracies with rising economic powers, the G-20;
- significantly expanded the international free trade system;
- doubled the amount of Overseas Development Assistance the United States spends, including dramatically expanded contributions to multilateral bodies such as the Global Fund;
- spoke out repeatedly against the growing attitudes of “isolationism, protectionism, and nativism” — especially within his own party;
- spoke out against Islamophobia and reached out to Muslim communities in the United States and around the world in an effort to avoid stigmatizing Islam while conducting counter-terrorism operations;
- negotiated Libya’s peaceful relinquishment of its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction;
- became the first U.S. president to officially call for the creation of a Palestinian state;
- forged a diplomatic compromise to end estranged relations with the world’s largest democracy, India.
If you guessed George W. Bush, on whose National Security Council staff we each served, you are correct. If you did not guess Bush, it might be because you read Fareed Zakaria’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, which regrettably distorts the Bush record and fails to deal candidly with (read: barely mentions) the records of the other post-Cold War presidencies. This is all the more unfortunate because Zakaria is one of the most prominent and thoughtful observers of the world scene, and he makes some crucial points about the importance and fragility of the international order and the decline of American influence. This decline, as he describes, is a complex and tragic story that blends structural factors in the international system and deliberate choices made by the United States, its leaders, and its people.
But rather than do the hard work of showing how each administration had a mixed record, Zakaria instead adopts the tired conventional wisdom that seems to blame everything on the 43rd president — and on just a tiny handful of the decisions he took. In so doing, Zakaria seems to pretend that neither the 42nd nor the 44th president did anything that had negative consequences for America’s national interests or global standing.
Here is Zakaria’s indictment of the Bush Administration at its core:
After 9/11, Washington made major, consequential decisions that continue to haunt it, but it made all of them hastily and in fear. It saw itself as in mortal danger, needing to do whatever it took to defend itself—from invading Iraq to spending untold sums on homeland security to employing torture. The rest of the world saw a country that was experiencing a kind of terrorism that many had lived with for years and yet was thrashing around like a wounded lion, tearing down international alliances and norms. In its first two years, the George W. Bush administration walked away from more international agreements than any previous administration had. (Undoubtedly, that record has now been surpassed under President Donald Trump.) American behavior abroad during the Bush administration shattered the moral and political authority of the United States…
We are not going to defend every Bush decision of the 9/11 era, but it is important to note that Zakaria severely understates the terrorist threat the country faced in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. No other nation in the world had ever experienced a terrorist attack on the scale and severity of September 11, 2001, with its almost 3,000 dead, the destruction of two of the country’s most iconic buildings, the devastation of part of the Pentagon, and untold billions of dollars in economic damage. And U.S. policymakers had to confront the very real prospect that these attacks were likely just the beginning, for in al-Qaeda the United States faced an adversary that remained intent on inflicting even more catastrophic destruction to the nation — especially if Osama bin Laden could fulfill his intention of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, al-Qaeda never succeeded in another mass-casualty attack on the United States. That was not because the terrorist organization did not want to do so, but because the Bush administration (and later the Obama administration) prevented al-Qaeda from doing so. In downplaying the severity of 9/11 and the ongoing jihadist menace at the time, Zakaria luxuriates in a peculiar form of hindsight bias: Because Bush’s efforts helped ensure that America was not attacked again, the terrorist threat was therefore overstated.
But, as important as 9/11 was in shaping Bush’s worldview, it is a gross distortion to pretend that it turned the president into a fearful, reckless marauder for the next seven years. We began the article with the litany of geopolitical deeds above precisely because they are not the actions of a presidency squandering American power through cavalier use of force, rejection of diplomacy, disregard of multilateralism, or abandonment of international leadership. And yet, they are important parts of the Bush record.
As one of us has written, and as we both believe, it is clear in hindsight that the Iraq War was a mistake, wrongly conceived and poorly executed, at exorbitant cost to the United States in blood, treasure, and credibility. We supported the war at the time — as did Zakaria. But even with the original errors of Iraq, Bush’s decision in 2007 to order the new counter-insurgency strategy largely remedied a failing situation — this despite fierce opposition from domestic political opponents. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, Iraq was relatively stable, peaceful, and on a trajectory to reach the Bush-articulated war aim of a country that could “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.” It was an ally in the global campaign against terrorists. If invading Iraq was a mistake that put at risk the American-led international order, then it would have been an even bigger risk to follow the advice of the war critics in 2006 and simply walk away, thus ensuring that Iraq would have been a catastrophic strategic defeat. A fair-minded evaluation of the war that begins with a critique of Bush’s decision to invade would have to end with praise for how Bush did not heed the critics, including Zakaria, who urged that he rapidly withdraw U.S. troops in 2006. Instead, he did the opposite and, in so doing, turned the situation around.
That said, we agree with Zakaria’s core point that the international order that America created and led for 70 years is crumbling, and that American power risks precipitous decline. We further agree that President Donald Trump has made many catastrophic choices in word and deed that have exacerbated this decline.
And we concede that Zakaria did not list every negative development one could imagine from the Bush era. For instance, as important as Iraq was in shaking international confidence in American leadership, it is possible that the Great Recession, which started on Bush’s watch, may have been even more of a shock to the international system. Here, of course, it is harder to pin the blame exclusively on Bush himself, since the financial roots of the crisis extended at least a decade or more before Bush took office and reflected many economic trends beyond the realm of policy choices. And, more consequentially, a fair-minded evaluation would have to credit Bush’s rapid, innovative, and politically courageous crisis management, which averted a far worse financial calamity and set up the Obama Administration for eventual success. If the Bush administration fit the caricature Zakaria drew, it would not have managed that crisis nearly as well as it did.
Where we part ways with Zakaria is we do not agree that all causation in world affairs ended when Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. On the contrary, we see a much more nuanced accounting of the pros and cons of the Bush legacy. In fact, we believe that Zakaria is ignoring the strong case that can be made for what might be called “Bush revisionism,” that makes a full accounting of his legacy.
The question is not whether Bush took any actions that destabilized and undercut the international order and American power and credibility. Of course he did, with the Iraq War being exhibit A and some of the post-9/11 counter-terrorism excesses being exhibit B. The question is, rather, whether on balance the Bush administration contributed more to the dissolution of the international order and the decline of American power, or rather the bolstering and preservation of both? We think the latter, by a long shot.
Moreover, we believe that Bush’s successor also made consequential decisions that surely deserve to be considered in any reckoning alleging the “self-destruction of American power.” It is stunning that in an article purporting to explain the arc of American power in the post-Cold War era, Zakaria does not even mention the name of the president who served for eight of those years, presiding over the time when American relative power declined the most.
President Barack Obama chose to intervene in Libya without a commitment or even plan for stabilizing the country. In Syria, Obama chose to articulate maximal objectives (“the time has come for President Assad to step aside”) that tied our hands diplomatically but then overrode many of his advisors by not committing sufficient resources (at most, acquiescing to a covert assistance program) to achieve it. In the end, on his watch, Syria became the greatest humanitarian crisis in modern times, triggering a refugee crisis that pushed the European Union into a political crisis. Obama chose not to enforce his own “red line” when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own citizens. Obama chose to abandon a decades-long bipartisan goal of keeping the Russians from playing the pivotal role as holder of the balance of power in Middle East geopolitics. Obama chose not to accept Iraq’s deal for a modest stay-behind force that could have helped stabilize Iraq against the slide back into sectarian conflict. Obama chose not to thwart the rise of ISIL until it had conquered a significant part of Syria and Iraq, becoming the world’s most powerful terrorist entity. Obama chose not to provide Ukraine with lethal military aid when Putin violated the greatest post-Cold War achievement: the rejection of forceful redrawing of borders in Europe. Obama chose to hype a “pivot to Asia” but failed to back it with commensurate military resources or diplomatic commitment (exemplified by Obama’s proposal of the budget sequester to cut defense spending just months before he announced the pivot, Secretary Kerry’s many more trips to the Middle East than to Asia, the “strategic patience” policy that neglected North Korea’s nuclear advances, and Obama’s too-little, too-late push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Congress). And finally, Obama chose not to respond decisively when Russia tried to hijack the 2016 elections.
Of course, we know that all of these Obama choices were tough calls involving difficult tradeoffs on either side. Moreover, we are well familiar with the counterarguments ardent defenders of the administration would offer: Our hands were tied in Iraq; it is not reasonable to have asked Obama to do more in Syria given other constraints and his vigorous prioritization of a nuclear deal with Iran; one cannot blame Obama for a tepid response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine because Bush had his own tepid response to Putin’s invasion of Georgia; and so on. We would not paint Obama with the crude brush that Zakaria used to dismiss the similarly tough choices Bush made — decisions, Zakaria avers, made “hastily and in fear … thrashing around like a wounded lion.” However, we also know that there are counter-counterarguments that explain why these efforts to completely whitewash the Obama record are simply not convincing. And, of greatest significance for our purposes here, we know these Obama choices, even if sincerely made for understandable reasons, had profound consequences that contributed significantly to the phenomenon that Zakaria describes: the erosion of American power and credibility, and the undercutting of the international order.
For that matter, a more balanced accounting of the post-Cold War era might turn the lens on Bush’s predecessor to note how American power and credibility was undermined by the Clinton administration’s mismanagement of the Somalia operation in 1993, or by passively watching genocide in Rwanda in 1994, or by intervening in Kosovo without U.N. Security Council authorization in 1999. We could extend this list considerably, but the point is obvious. Zakaria glosses over the Clinton administration, ignores entirely the Obama administration, and instead embraces a crude reductio ad iraqum — reducing everything to Bush’s invasion of Iraq and counter-terrorism policies.
Zakaria is right that a combination of structural factors and American policy choices have combined to put considerable strain on the international order. He is wrong to pretend that the only consequential policy choices were those that can be blamed on President Bush.
For that matter, if one turns from historical critique to policy advice for the current administration, we suspect that Zakaria might agree with the following list of to-do items: make the case to the GOP base for international leadership and engagement; build an international coalition and multilateral institutions to confront global security threats like terrorism arising from militant Islamism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction; rebuild the military in size, morale, and lethality; expand the global circle of economic development and prosperity; deepen existing relations with allies, and bringing new partners aboard; and preserve a stable balance of power in Asia while promoting political reform and human rights in China.
If the Trump administration pursued those policy lines of action today, it would go some distance to repairing the damage the international order sustained over the last decade. It would also amount to something like a third term for President Bush, for each one of those was a major foreign policy plank in Bush’s platform and legacy.
This is, in sum, not the record of a presidency that destroyed U.S. power and influence in the international order. It is rather the record of a president who, while imperfect, was both committed to preserving and strengthening American power and international leadership, and also resolute and innovative in adapting when policy lines had unintended negative effects on America’s geopolitical position. In so doing, Bush updated the policies and institutions undergirding American power for the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century, positioning his successors with sufficient freedom of maneuver to make consequential choices of their own.
Peter Feaver is a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, where he directs the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Program in American Grand Strategy. He previously served on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration and the Clinton administration.
William Inboden is Executive Director and William Powers, Jr. Chair at the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Editor-in-Chief of the Texas National Security Review. He previously served on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration.
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