What Went Right for Bush

What Went Right for Bush

By Greg Sheridan - January 17, 2009

australianlogo.gifTHE final word on George W. Bush's foreign policy belongs, perhaps, to his successor, Barack Obama, who will be inaugurated as president of the US next week. In his most wide-ranging television interview on foreign policy, Obama was asked last week whether he stood by a remark he made in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been constantly shelled by Hamas rockets from the Gaza Strip. Obama said that if his town, where his daughters slept each night, was constantly being attacked by rockets he would want to do something about it.

In the light of Israel's military campaign in Gaza, the TV interviewer asked if Obama still felt that way?

He replied: "That's a basic principle of any country: that they've got to protect their citizens."

Obama was further asked to differentiate himself as strongly as possible from the Bush administration's policy of supporting Israel. Would he instead be ushering in a bold new policy?

Obama replied: "If you look not just at the Bush administration but what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach."

Good grief! These words should shock every true Bush hater in the world. But wait, there's more.

Obama's nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that the Obama administration would put more emphasis on diplomacy and try to engage Syria and Iran in dialogue. (Just, indeed, as the Bush administration has tried to do.)

But, just like Bush, she and the new administration would not take the military option off the table in dealing with Iran.

On Hamas, she said: "You cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements. That is an absolute. That is my position and the president-elect's position." It is also one of the most contentious positions of President Bush, Democrat Obama's Republican predecessor.

Then there is the US prison in Guantanamo for terror suspects. Obama has pledged to shut it. Indeed, Bush wanted to shut it, too. But Obama's people now say that doing so might take a year or more, because, like Bush, Obama will face the dilemma of what to do with intractably dangerous people whose countries of origin either won't have them back under any circumstances or would be likely to torture or kill them if they did take them back.

It would be wrong to suggest there is no difference between Obama and Bush in foreign policy. But from the moment that Obama's hawkish, almost neo-conservative foreign policy essay appeared in the US journal Foreign Affairs in July 2007, it has been clear that the continuity in US foreign policy from Bush under Obama would vastly outweigh the change.

Indeed, Obama is the American Kevin Rudd, though, with no disrespect to our Prime Minister, Obama is more glamorous and better looking.

But, like Rudd, Obama is likely to engage in some powerful symbolic gestures while keeping much of his predecessor's policies in substance.

Obama is even keeping some of Bush's key personnel, most remarkably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and some key Bush administration figures in the National Security Council.

Obama acknowledges the success of the Bush troop surge in Iraq and wants to imitate it in Afghanistan.

In truth, there is no greater compliment in political life than for a political opponent to adopt his predecessor's policies once he gains office.

All this is the opposite of the popular stereotype - parroted nowhere more faithfully than in the Australian media - of a bumbling, incompetent Bush producing a train wreck of a foreign policy requiring profound remedial action. So great is the emotional prejudice against Bush - on display again in a remarkably silly essay by Don Watson in the January issue of The Monthly magazine - that it is almost impossible to get a serious, rational, dispassionate discussion of the Bush foreign policy legacy.

But it is time to take serious stock of what Bush has meant for foreign policy. From an Australian perspective, it is necessary to distinguish different parts of the Bush time in office.

There is Bush's record on issues of special concern to Australia, such as Asia and trade policy, and Bush's incredible increase in aid for Africa. But there is the big question mark over the Middle East and the lack of action on global warming.

It is necessary to distinguish, too, between Bush before 9/11 from Bush after 9/11, also to distinguish the first George W. Bush term from the second, for they were very different.

None of these complexities normally figures in the celebratory denunciations of Bush constantly emanating from pundits and opinion panjandrums across the world.

One important reality check came from Walter Russell Mead, the Henry Kissinger fellow at the US Council for Foreign Relations, in a recent lecture to the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne.

Mead is in no sense a Bush partisan or neo-con. He is a non-partisan voice of great elegance and sophistication in US foreign policy. Speaking just after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and in the midst of the global financial crisis, He asserted that he was an optimist about the international scene. He advanced five reasons for his optimism.

One: Financial and banking crises are a regular and perhaps inevitable part of the capitalist system. But the US and the world always recovers from them and life goes on, generally with a better understanding of the way economies work and often, therefore, a better regulatory system.

Two: The failure of Osama bin Laden and his project throughout the Islamic world. This is most evident in Iraq. The Sunni Arabs there saw the US in a sense at its worst - given the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the mismanagement of the early part of the occupation - and al-Qa'ida potentially at its most appealing as the leader of resistance against Western domination. And yet in the Iraqi Sunni awakening, they rejected al-Qa'ida and chose partnership with the West.

Three: The rise of Asia. Mead rejects the intellectually constipated notion that China's rise equals America's decline. Instead he thinks that Asia is producing numerous big powers - China, Japan, India - that will naturally balance each other and always seek the involvement of the US as a further balancing and stabilising force.

Four: The enduring strength of American soft power. But how can this be? Surely Bush's global unpopularity has permanently ruined America's standing in the world? Not at all, Mead argues. One election, the triumph of Obama, and suddenly the world loves the US again.

European magazines recently at the center of anti-Americanism declare that we are all Americans now and that Obama is the president of the world.

But if anti-Americanism is so easily banished, was it really such a powerful force? Another possible explanation (and here I am not quoting Mead) is that much anti-Americanism is exported from the US itself and reflects not much more than the visceral hatred of Bush by The New York Times class.

The New York Times itself is reprinted all over the world and its attitudes and disdains aped by faux sophisticates from Brussels to Balmain.

Five: The enduring dynamism of US society. No candidate ran in the US presidential election in 2008 as the status quo candidate.

I find Mead's arguments pretty convincing. If there is even a glimmer of truth to them, they suggest that the world Bush created was not altogether and entirely as evil as contemporary reviews suggest.

From Australia's point of view, at any rate, the Bush presidency was overwhelmingly successful.

What are the core Australian national interests that Canberra would always want a US administration to protect? Surely three would be: a stable security order in the Asia Pacific; the integrity of the international trading system; and the health of the US-Australian alliance.

On all three, Bush was outstandingly good for Australia. Bush's success in Asia is simply undeniable, and Rudd, among many others, has often acknowledged it. Michael Green, the former Asia director at the NSC under Bush, has in several important articles collated opinion poll data about the US in Asia. It turns out that Asia is the one region in the world where the US's poll ratings are higher at the end of the Bush administration than they were at the beginning.

This was anything but inevitable. When Bush was first elected, the fear du jour of the international know-alls was that Washington and Beijing would find themselves in confrontation.

Then in April 2001 a US reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet collided and the US plane had to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The world held its breath. Here was the confrontation all had feared.

In fact, the Bush team handled the ensuing days of tension, while the Chinese temporarily held the American air crew hostage, with great sophistication, calm and restraint.

It was a sign of things to come. The US-China relationship has never been better managed than over the past eight years. China has grown wealthy as a result of the good relationship. At the same time, Washington's management of Taiwan has been masterful. It has maintained its security guarantee for Taiwan but consciously and effectively reined in its independence aspirations and managed downwards its independence vote.

The biggest success for the US was India, where it negotiated a new nuclear co-operation agreement that will help the transformation of Indian industry, and incidentally do more than almost any single act of government policy anywhere to counter greenhouse gas emissions. But most importantly it cements the new strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.

The US also reinvigorated its alliances with Japan and South Korea. Both contributed substantial troop contingents to Iraq. At Australian urging the Bush administration also revived its relationship with Indonesia. All of this is of the greatest possible benefit to Australia and is a powerfully positive framework for the Obama administration to inherit.

On trade, it is true that the Bush administration was unable to complete the Doha round of trade liberalization. But it never walked down the path of renewed tariff protectionism. It never played the protectionist card against China; will Obama be as good on this score? And it negotiated free-trade agreements with Australia, South Korea, Singapore and a slew of South American countries.

On the US-Australia alliance, the Howard government got everything it wanted from Washington, from profoundly important new intelligence-sharing arrangements to unrivalled technological access. These arrangements have been institutionalized and act as great force multipliers for Australia. The Rudd Government has sensibly consolidated them and they will be in place for the Obama administration.

Undoubtedly the hinge point of the Bush administration was the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many of those who now oppose the military aspects of the US's response supported them at the time. Indeed, The New York Times's Maureen Dowd, admittedly the most air-headed of all significant North American columnists, once wrote of then US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he was sexy and charismatic.

Bush's mainstream opponents agreed with his decision to intervene in Afghanistan, and Obama is pledged to stay the distance there. Iraq remains the great divider of opinion.

This is no place to rehash all the Iraq arguments but what is absolutely clear is that everyone involved in Iraq policy, in every relevant nation, believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. They believed this partly because Saddam wanted them to, and partly because no other explanation of the facts made sense. But it is legitimate to criticize Bush for a wrong judgment on Iraq; it is not legitimate to say he lied his way into war, as Bush critics have to acknowledge that the WMD beliefs were nearly universally held.

The greatest and most justified criticism of Bush arises from the mismanagement of the early years of the Iraq occupation and the dreadful scandal of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. On the flipside, Bush gets all the credit for the subsequent troop surge, which was opposed by his key advisers and which has given Iraq a chance to emerge independent and semi-democratic.

The other great criticism of Bush is that he failed to wield the brilliant and powerful individuals of his national security team - Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Rich Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice - into a coherent team.

The second Bush administration was much less internally divided than the first and ran a consultative, cautious, centrist policy, concentrating on winning the wars it was involved in.

If you believe that global warming is the surpassing issue of the day, then Bush did not do enough to combat it, though it is clear the Kyoto Protocol was a flawed instrument for attacking this problem and there was never support for it in the US (remember Bill Clinton had recommended against its ratification).

Bush did neither significant harm nor significant good to the UN. That body's impotence and fatal moral confusion long predate him. But consider Africa. In his first term, Bush tripled US aid to sub-Saharan Africa. That's right, the US under Bush was giving three times more to Africa than it was under Clinton. And the increases kept coming during Bush's second term, so that if Obama continues the rate of increase, US aid will again be doubled by 2010.

Now how does that fit into the conspiracy theories about Bush? Was he pandering to the African-American vote? Was there a secret neo-con objective? Does Cheney have relatives there? Or could it be that Bush was trying to do some good?

It's too early to judge the Bush project in Iraq. But I am sure that, overall, history will judge Bush much more kindly than today's commentators do.

Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of The Australian.

Greg Sheridan

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