Thursday, November 20, 2008

George W. Bush: good, bad, and ugly

A large part of the hope accompanying the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has been relief at the departure of George W. Bush. While by no means an outstanding figure, Bush is today so abhorred that an evenhanded reading of his legacy seems impossible. Yet the reality is that, when it comes to foreign policy, his administration has been just about as good, and as bad, as its predecessors.

There are dark spots to be sure. The Guantanamo prison along with the more discriminatory aspects of the USA Patriot Act, the Bush administration's creepy legal effort to justify torture in its "war on terror," the Abu Ghraib outrage, the extraordinary rendition program sending individuals back to their countries of origin to be mistreated, are all blights on a country claiming to support human rights and the rule of law. The Obama administration's intention to close down Guantanamo comes not a moment too soon. To a large extent, Bush's claims about spreading democracy to the Middle East were undermined by such behavior, even if the American legal system and media, it must be recognized, were in the forefront in limiting or highlighting the administration's abuses.

When it comes to its traditional global partners - Europe, China, and Russia - the US has in the past five years, after the Iraq invasion, returned to the humdrum consensual equilibrium of the past, if it ever fully abandoned this. There have been normal ups and downs, as when Russia recently invaded parts of Georgia, but mostly the Bush administration has acted like any other administration. If "unilateralist neocons" have been pulling the strings, they did little during the second Bush term to prove this. Bush, just like Bill Clinton before him and Barack Obama after him, sits atop an administration that makes policy through a blend of self-interest, ideology, opportunism, and an affinity for the status quo.

What about the Middle East, where Bush supposedly revolutionized Washington's dealings with the region? The Iraq war has become the benchmark by which everyone judges the US president. Certainly, the political preparations for the war, like the planning for the postwar situation, were a disaster, the result of manipulation, negligence, incompetence, and hubris. But in repeating this, critics of the US never acknowledge an essential truth: Bush removed from power a mass murderer of historical proportions, who would have only perpetuated his vicious, kleptomaniacal rule to the detriment of his people had he not been ousted. Nothing but military force could rid us of Saddam Hussein.

By the same token, few of the critics acknowledge that Bush, and here the president can take personal credit, pushed through a change of strategy in Iraq that proved successful in lowering the levels of violence, the so-called "surge." Since Vietnam and the days of Lyndon Johnson, there had been a perception that losing American wars will remain losing wars. Bush, along with his field commander General David Petraeus, showed that this was not the case. Blame Bush for overseeing a postwar plan for Iraq that was a shambles, but also accept that he believed in a more positive outcome there when most of those around him hadn't a clue what to do.
Ironically, Iraq would prove to be the exception confirming the rule that the Bush administration, like most other administrations, perhaps more than many, largely worked through a multilateral consensus in the region. Even in Iraq, this impulse was evident soon after the end of the invasion, when the US sought international cover for its military presence through a United Nations resolution.

The attack on UN headquarters, far from pleasing Washington unilateralists, was a powerful blow to the Americans because it denied them effective UN assistance on the ground, where the international body had set up humanitarian aid networks.
Long before the Iraq conflict even began multilateralism was also on display in Afghanistan, where the US deployed troops with its NATO partners under UN authority. The same consensus has shaped the way the US has dealt with the Iranian nuclear program. As early as December of last year, when a US intelligence estimate expressed "high confidence" that Tehran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the Bush administration virtually took its military option off the table, and later prevented Israel from attacking Iran. Instead, it has worked through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the so-called "5+1" group of nations, which have otherwise proven splendidly futile in convincing Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

On the Palestinian-Israeli track, the Bush administration has been roundly condemned "for not doing enough." But what does that mean? There is much about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that the Americans can do little about. Bush foolishly endorsed Israeli negotiating positions that helped undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization. The isolation of Yasser Arafat backfired, allowing Hamas to gain ground in Palestinian institutions after it won the legislative elections of January 2006. But those self-defeating choices were not a complete break with the past. Bill Clinton laid the groundwork for Arafat's isolation by blaming him alone for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit, just as the Clinton administration allowed Israel to build new settlements and create facts on the ground in the midst of the Oslo process.

Since last year, the Bush administration has shown lethargic interest in Palestinian-Israeli talks, but lethargy is about the only sentiment those talks deserve to produce. The dynamics of the negotiations have turned against any resolution. Hamas is not interested in a final two-state deal, while Israel's political system is constitutionally incapable of creating the kind of government coalitions that could order Israeli withdrawals from occupied Arab lands. The US can only do so much in this context (and has tried to do so multilaterally, through the hollow Quartet), so here is a prediction: Barack Obama will hit up against the same obstacles as Bush did on Palestine, and will soon become the target of Bush's critics.

Finally, in Lebanon Bush also worked through the United Nations and with France to produce Resolution 1559, the basis for Syria's long-awaited withdrawal in April 2005. Later, Washington helped establish the international investigation and trial framework following Rafik Hariri's assassination, a rare and laudable instance when international law was applied to a political crime. The US was taken to task for supporting Israel during the summer war of 2006, but to be cynical about that, it did so in the context of a regional and international consensus. Bush acted little differently than Clinton did in April 1996, during the Grapes of Wrath operation, when Israel killed over 100 civilians at Qana alone.

With time, Bush's performance in the Middle East will be judged with a cooler eye. People will see merit where they refuse to see it now, and will be harsher in concluding that what made Bush more acceptable internationally - his surprising willingness to water down US behavior in a pool of international unanimity after Iraq turned sour, like his unwillingness to vigorously challenge Arab dictatorships - were steps that actually made the US less effective. That reassessment will come once people hear echoes of Bush's limitations in Barack Obama, who has been, unreasonably, transformed into the avatar of our every desire.

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