Today is the last full day of the presidency of George W. Bush. Tomorrow, at noon Eastern time, Barack Obama will take the reins of power, inaugurating a new era filled with Hope and Change and Renewing America’s Promise. It is, therefore, a fitting time to look back at the last eight years and ahead to the future.
To do that, I’m going to begin a week-long series based on Thomas Barnett‘s forthcoming book, Great Powers: America and the World After Bush.
The book, by the author of the bestsellers The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action, will be available at bookstores everywhere on February 5. I have had the opportunity to read an uncorrected proof, however, and will share some of its insights with you a bit early.
And where better to begin than with Chapter One: The Seven Deadly Sins of Bush-Cheney?
Having read Barnett’s previous books, as well has his eponymous weblog, over the years, I was somewhat surprised at how generous he was to the outgoing administration.
- The administration “deserves some real credit” for their efforts at steering the creation of new rules and institutions after the 9/11 attacks “exposed America’s vulnerabilities in this network age.”
- Don Rumsfeld’s unfortunate coinage of Old Europe and New Europe “contained an essential truth: Those states that most recently joined our international liberal trade order are logically more willing to defend it.”
- Faced with a “provocatively nationalistic” government in Taipei, they reacted with “great restraint and wisdom.” Ditto “refusing to go off the deep in in response to various missteps and gaffes by Beijing,” instead “providing “a calm, steady hand at the wheel of our bilateral relations.” Keeping this confrontation at bay was, ” In the grand sweep of history . . . arguably George W. Bush’s greatest legacy.”
- Similarly, the team did a good job “handling Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in Russia and that country’s reemergence as a player to be reckoned with in international affairs.”
- While not much advancing the ball, Bush “steered the nation through plenty of rought waters without ever succumbing to congressional or popular measures for trade protectionism.”
- The tremendous investment in global AIDS prevention and the creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation demonstrated “real strategic imagination regarding development issues.”
- Even Bush’s biggest failure earns him some left-handed praise for his “display of audacity and hope in launching his Big Bang strategy in the Persian Gulf.”
So, Bush was like the greatest foreign policy president ever! Well . . . not so fast.
Even in the part of the chapter praising the administration, Barnett observed that the Bush-Cheney hubris in flouting international rules to reassert American leadership helped precipitate Russia’s doing likewise in Georgia: “America’s modeled behavior inevitably spawns the worst sort of imitation.”
But there’s more. Bush, it seems, fell victim to each and every one of the seven deadly sins.
Lust, Leading to the Quest for Primacy. The administration relied too heavily on the Defense Planning Guidance white paper Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby wrote way back in 1992 and that was widely regarded as a fantasy even then. In this view, the 9/11 attacks provided an excuse to assert America’s global hegemony, not merely strike those who had done us harm. The combination of that goal and the decision to “keep our old Cold War targets (Russia, China) on our strategic vision screen” ultimately hindered our ability to achieve our more realistic goals.
Anger, Leading to the Demonization of the Enemies. Bush made the classic mistake of casting our foes as evil, thus forcing us to “focus on bad outcomes to be prevented rather than good ones to be promoted” and setting “the bar on good outcomes far too high.”
Thus, “if Iran is part of an ‘Axis of Evil,’ then any economic connectivity with Iran sought by Russia, India, and China is also inherently evil.” This, in turn, made it impossible to leverage Iran’s interests in seeing the Shia majority government do well or Russia, India, and China’s natural interest in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.
It also, sadly, “created the Manichean atmosphere that encouraged the torture of prisoners in facilities like Abu Ghraib.”
Greed, Leading to the Concentration of War Powers. The combination of an evil enemy and a state of war maximizes presidential power and makes any who gets in the way of the president’s goals an obstacle that must be rolled over. Outsiders can’t be trusted and secrets must be kept. The public must therefore guess at what our policy is and then choose sides: believers and unbelievers. The result of this dangerous mindset was that criticism, even from friends, was ignored or considered a sign of treachery.
Pride, Leading to Avoidable Postwar Failures. Because of the above problems, the administration ignored advice that would have been greatly useful in achieving their stated objectives. The interagency process was a mess, making it nearly impossible for competing ideas — even from those on his own team — to reach the president.
Thus, the Bush team failed to adequately plan for postwar occupation in Iraq, not because they were stupid or incompetent but because “They simply chose to ignore the responsibility for the reasons already cited: America’s primacy must be preserved, presidential prerogatives must be protected, and any accommodation of evil must be avoided at all costs.”
Envy, Leading to the Misguided Redirect on Iran. Toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime and replacing it with a democratic government was naturally going to create a majority Shia government which, in turn, would naturally lead to “reelevating Shiite Iran back to the role of regional kingpin.” The administration “seemed aghast” when this happened, having previously demonized Iran as “evil.” Barnett notes that toppling the Taliban and ousting Saddam, “its two neighboring enemies,” was tremendously beneficial to Iran and “what truly amazes me to this day is that the Bush administration somehow managed to get nothing in return from Tehran for these favors.”
Instead of working with Iran to our mutual benefit, we instead antagonized them and made them even more determined to get the security of a nuclear deterrent. In so doing, “Bush-Cheney stalled in their own grand strategy of reshaping the Middle East.”
Sloth, Leading to the U.S. Military Finally Asserting Command. The foregoing meant that we occupied Iraq and Afghanistan with too few troops to get the job done and while simultaneously botching “effective regionalization of the solution.” Barnett believes that the Katrina debacle and the 2006 midterm defeat effectively ended the Bush presidency and the military responded by taking the problems in house, learning from the failures to date and revitalizing its capability for counterinsurgency operations. Rather than adjusting tactics to achieve the strategy demanded by their civilian masters, the new COIN manual essentially gives the public a choice: adopt more modest and achievable war aims or go home.
Gluttony: Leading to Strategic Overhang Cynically Foisted upon the Next President. Despite the rhetoric of existential war, U.S. defense spending as a fraction of GDP is at its lowest point since WWII and only one out of every 800 Americans is in uniform, compared to one of 200 at the height of the Vietnam war. Furthermore, our volunteer military is “at once older, more educated, more married, and more burdened with children” than any in our past, radically limiting its ability to sustain endless combat rotations.
The result of this is twofold. First, we have the opportunity cost of being unable to respond to genuine international crises such as the Darfur genocide because our capacity to engage them does not exist. Second, there’s “strategic overhang,” problems that we’ve ignored or dealt with by less effective means and therefore left to fester for another day.
Because of the wear and tear on our force, Bush has left his successor to “four to eight lean years” during which major military force will be harder to implement and “ingenuity and inventiveness will be at a premium” to compensate for this fact.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.