Home/Daniel Larison/A Failed Attempt to Rehabilitate Bush’s Disastrous Foreign Policy

A Failed Attempt to Rehabilitate Bush’s Disastrous Foreign Policy

DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby / Released

Peter Feaver and Will Inboden try to make the case that George W. Bush did not undermine American power and international order when his entire record is taken into account:

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.

Feaver and Inboden fail to prove their case, because no amount of revisionism will get around the fact that Bush committed one of the greatest, most destructive blunders and crimes in the history of our foreign policy when he ordered the illegal invasion of Iraq. Claiming that Bush somehow made up for the damage done by the Iraq war and ended up “bolstering” and “preserving” both American power and the international order is simply not credible. This is akin to saying that a demolitionist “bolstered and preserved” all of the buildings that he didn’t destroy with the one massive explosion that he set off. “Look at all the countries he didn’t invade” is not exactly a winning argument for pro-Bush revisionism. Feaver and Inboden go so far as to acknowledge that the Iraq war was a “mistake,” but they minimize the damage that it did to the U.S. and to international order to rally to the defense of the worst president in my lifetime.

We need to distinguish between the harm that Bush did to American power on the one hand and the major violations of international law that he committed on the other. Bush was a great believer in the use of American power, and because of this he approved of some of the worst abuses of power by our government in decades. Waging illegal war and endorsing the use of torture in violation of international law aren’t minor infractions. They are among the most serious and outrageous things that any government can do. There is nothing that Bush did or could have done that would make up for these attacks on international order. On that point, Feaver and Inboden are just whistling past the graveyard.

Maybe Bush was “committed to preserving and strengthening American power and international leadership,” but in practice he wasted and abused American power and caused many of our allies to lose confidence and trust in the U.S. In some cases, that confidence and trust have never recovered. That weakened the U.S. in the world and made much of the world question or reject “leadership” that came in the form of regime change and war. Bush waged an unjust, unnecessary war that severely harmed America’s standing in the world, weakened our relationships with most of our allies, empowered jihadists, cost the U.S. thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, wrecked Iraq, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Iraq and Syria are both living with the aftermath of the Iraq war, and the entire region has been changed almost entirely for the worse as a result. More than 16 years after the invasion, the U.S. and the region are living with the negative consequences of the Iraq debacle. The full cost of the Iraq war is not yet known, so it is a bit premature to shrug it off as a “mistake” and then move on to the rest of Bush’s record as if the latter could ever balance out the books.

The authors never really back up their assertion that Bush contributed more to “the bolstering and preservation” of international order and American power than he did to undermining and harming both. It’s true that Bush refused to attack Iran, North Korea, and Syria during his presidency. It’s also not clear how this advances the argument Feaver and Inboden want to make. If they want to argue that Bush wasn’t psychotic enough to start three additional illegal wars beyond Iraq, these would be solid points. The problem is that they are trying to make a much more positive claim for Bush’s record that simply isn’t supported by the facts. Since they bring up North Korea, it might be worth recalling that it was the Bush administration that blew up the Agreed Framework and set North Korea on the fast track to acquiring nuclear weapons. As costly foreign policy screw-ups go, goading North Korea to become the nuclear weapons state that it is today has to rank right up there. It is no coincidence that they don’t mention this part of the Bush record.

George W. Bush has enjoyed a wholly undeserved rehabilitation in recent years thanks in no small part to disgust with Trump, and Feaver and Inboden are doing what they can to contribute to that rehabilitation. Their effort is not persuasive. Pro-Bush revisionism will always fall apart under scrutiny because at its core it is based, like the case for invading Iraq, on false claims and faulty assumptions.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment