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Bush and the Bankruptcy of Republican Foreign Policy Thinking

While he rejects pro-Bush revisionism, Dan Drezner nonetheless tries to give George W. Bush a little bit of credit:

Second, ironically, Bush’s legacy will be a bit more buoyant because the quality of post-Bush GOP thinking on foreign policy has been so piss-poor that Bush really does look good by comparison. It is worth remembering that, for all of the criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy rhetoric, he kept anti-Muslim hysteria somewhat in check. He boosted foreign aid through PEPFAR, which might be his most significant foreign policy legacy. And the Bush foreign policy of 2008 looked dramatically different from the Bush foreign policy of 2003, which suggests some degree of adaptation and learning.

Bush’s record in Africa and his work to improve relations with India are among the very few redeeming features of his tenure, which is why I suspect the current very negative assessment of his foreign policy record will withstand the scrutiny of later generations. Even when we take genuine Bush successes into account, the record of failure on Bush’s own terms speaks for itself. Is Bush “the most disastrous foreign policy president of the post-1945 era,” as Drezner describes him? Possibly not, but he has a very strong claim to that title, and the arguments against describing him that way are exceptionally weak. These arguments usually focus on the fact that his successor didn’t reverse Bush’s entire approach to national security and foreign policy, and Bush loyalists conclude that this must mean that Bush was right on the issues where there was continuity. That’s not necessarily true, but the bigger problem for pro-Bush revisionists is that the Bush years were marred by foreign policy incompetence that went far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The “freedom agenda” was ill-conceived and ended in failure in virtually every place it was tried. Relations with Russia sank to a post-Cold War low in no small part because of administration bungling and needless provocation in the form of continued NATO expansion and proposed missile defense installations. The awful handling of relations with major European states and with Turkey during most of Bush’s tenure serves as a cautionary tale of how a great power should not treat its allies.

I suppose it’s true that that “the Bush foreign policy of 2008 looked dramatically different from the Bush foreign policy of 2003” in that the grand ambitions and ideological delusions of 2003 had all been exposed as the nonsense they always were, but most of the differences between 2003 and 2008 were changes forced on the administration by events and by the manifest failures of its earlier decisions. It’s obviously true that Bush wasn’t launching any new preventive wars in 2008, but the “adaptation and learning” that did take place came grudgingly. What few changes occurred during Bush’s second term came about in large part because the preventive war Bush launched in 2003 had turned into such a debacle for Iraq and America that “staying the course” was no longer feasible.

Republican foreign policy thinking since Bush left office has indeed been very poor, but Drezner is mistaken to say that this makes Bush look better by comparison. The experience of the Bush presidency inflicted enormous damage on the GOP’s reputation for competence in conducting foreign policy, but the greater damage to Republican foreign policy thinking happened earlier. The lockstep support for the administration’s preferred policies that was expected on the right contributed mightily to the intellectual bankruptcy that has been on display in the last four years. Bush’s second term was in some ways worse than the first in this regard, because at that point support for Bush and the Iraq war had been reduced mostly to those inside the Republican coalition and the need to try to justify and vindicate Bush’s Iraq decision became proof of Republican and conservative bona fides. The “surge” debate served as the venue for expressing support for Bush and the Iraq war, and the same enforcement of mindless litmus tests on politicians and pundits that we saw in the early part of the decade happened all over again.

If you want to know how Republican foreign policy thinking reached its present sorry state, just review the record of pro-war and pro-Bush conformism on the right from 2002 on. Instead of rigorous and critical thinking on policy, conservatives became accustomed to inventing defenses for administration positions and serving as enforcers against critics from the center and left and against dissenters in their own ranks. Having becoming used to shaping their foreign policy views around what “their” president did and said, many on the right were left adrift when Bush left office. Bush was extremely unpopular, so conservatives didn’t want to identify openly with him for political reasons, but on policy many of them were so used to endorsing whatever he had done that they couldn’t design a distinctive and relevant agenda of their own. Most Republicans defaulted to opposing almost anything Obama did, partly because they believed that this is how the other party had treated Bush and partly for lack of any other ideas. To some extent, Republicans and conservatives did that to themselves, but Bush was the one they were following and he is partly responsible for the results.

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.

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