Bush’s Legacy: Obama’s Salvation?

February 8, 2013

by Jolanda Thielens

President_George_W._Bush_and_Barack_Obama_meet_in_Oval_OfficeThere once was a president who was convinced that everything his predecessor had done was thoughtless, weak, stupid, and even corrupt. Consequently, this president found it wise to reverse almost every single decision and regulation of his preceding government’s rule. White became black, cautiousness became aggressiveness, and saving became spending. His followers, excited as they were, vigorously applauded the daring decrees of their president. His name was George W. Bush.

After eight years of trying to abolish anything which reminded him of his predecessor Bill Clinton, it became clear just how much Bush’s actions had led his country into ruins. Even his people knew this. Never before in America’s history did a president’s popularity diminish so drastically during his terms in office. Only a week before the presidential elections of 2008, barely a quarter of the American people believed Bush was doing a good job. As a result, America’s new president, Barack Obama, profusely exclaimed to break with his predecessor’s policy and doing so bring forth a new age of hope and change. However, the question arises whether or not Obama should make a 180 degree turn away from Bush’s policies. And if the answer is ‘yes’, is such a clean break the best alternative?

When it comes to foreign policy, the most important thing which needs to change first is America’s attitude towards the rest of the world. The most significant errors of the Bush administrations were made during his first term in office, the years between 2001 and 2005. Those errors include: the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s resistance against international treaties, the many diplomatic mistakes, offending several important allies and the termination of The United States’ collaboration with other countries. However, within the last four years of President Bush’s rule, many of these errors in America’s foreign policy have been either weakened, revoked, or abandoned altogether. The Foreign Policy of the Bush II administration had wised-up and even became more moderate. Although the rhetorics may have remained unchanged, the reality did not. The transformed foreign policy line of Bush’s second term in office was not the result of a new way of thinking. Rather, it was brought into existence because of the recognition of failure.

For example: George W. Bush selected Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank. Wolfowitz, known for his tough neo-conservative attitude, had to resign from this position in June 2007, ending a protracted and tumultuous battle over his stewardship, sparked by a promotion he arranged for his companion. Bush, however, surprised many of his critics when he choose to replace Wolfowitz with American banker and politician Robert Zoellick, who is deeply respected among his colleagues and more importantly has a great deal of experience in the economic domain.

This decision was one of the first to reveal the Bush II administration’s new emphasis on knowledge instead of ideology. The triumph of a more pragmatic attitude within Bush’s foreign policy became most visible when other, more down-to-earth, politicians -like Condoleezza Rice (U.S. Secretary of State), Robert Gates (U.S. Secretary of Defence), safety advisor Stephen Hadley, and Hank Paulson (U.S. Treasury Secretary) -were allowed to take over the political reigns from former Vice-president Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, the 2008 presidential election campaigns adverted most of the public spotlight away from the second Bush administration and this shift towards a more pragmatic internationalism. To quote speechwriter and policy advisor Christian Brose: “It was as if the past four years never happened”.

Nevertheless, they did happen. And although many people eagerly refuse to acknowledge this fact, they fail to see that President Obama has inherited a foreign policy that is a whole lot better than Bush’s critics are willing to admit. As a NBC News / Wall Street Journal survey (June 2007) shockingly revealed, hardly 30% of Republican voters themselves approves of George W. Bush’s course of action. If even his own party members were openly questioning his qualities as a leader, how could one expect the Democratic opposition to bite their tongue?

Inauguration of President Obama 2009

So certainly, Obama is right to point out the need for change. His decision to issue the closing of the detention facility at Guantànamo Bay, Cuba already demonstrated Obama’s willingness to break with his predecessor’s foreign policy. However, the Obama administration will have to find new solutions for old problems in other areas as well. Considering, both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is evident that more clear cut goals have to be set in order to determine a more stable course of action. Moreover, bearing in mind today’s growing concern for the environment, President Obama cannot heed the call for a much needed revision of the old energy and climate change policies that have been gathering dust for too long.Still, despite the obvious necessity for changes such as these, one should not be so naive to expect a radically new foreign policy from Obama. The degree of continuity between both administrations depends less on president Obama’s hesitations to realize some of his more creative campaign promises than with George W. Bush’s final actions as president which have steered key U. S. policies in directions that already were greatly attuned to Obama’s own aspirations.

Let us take a look at the three states, labelled by George W. Bush as the “axis of evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. After forcing a drastic change of regime in Baghdad, the second Bush administration took it as their own responsibility to try and alter the behaviour and temperaments of governmental officials seated in Pyongyang and Tehran. Although setting up the debate between the new administration and these assemblies remains a hazardous and undoubtedly frustrating undertaking, Obama is very likely to benefit from the multilateral strand of negotiations his forerunners have created. In this sense, picking up the baton where Bush left it is clearly the best way to go simply because there exist no better practical alternatives.

On Iran then, Obama is best off continuing Bush’s policy of ‘sticks and carrots’, as policy advisor Christian Brose has phrased it. Besides either passively condoning the state’s behaviour or attacking Iran in order to make them comply, the sticks and carrots policy offers a third, much more diplomatic, and likely more successful solution. Nevertheless, for such a policy to work, Obama will firstly need to engage himself as directly as he claimed to advocate. Furthermore, he has to be willing and able to offer even sweeter carrots or make use of sharper sticks if he wishes to maintain his respected place in the debate. Finally, if all previous measures fail, as president Obama himself proclaimed, he will weigh his options carefully and keep an open mind for new ones.

Then there is Iraq. Although the pace and sheer number of soldiers in Iraq will continue to be hotly debated, few in Washington or Baghdad would disagree these days that the U. S. troop reduction in the country (or maybe even a full withdrawal?) is inappropriate. Furthermore, many correspondents and political advisers seem to believe that president Obama has inherited a war which the people of Iraq are already ending for him. These more general efforts to wrap up the war in Iraq in turn could enable Obama to spend more time on Afghanistan. Obama has proclaimed several times before he is more than willing to learn from the mistakes made in Iraq and employ some of these lessons in order to save the war in Afghanistan.

A bigger challenge for America’s new president, however, will be to knit the final stages of the war in Iraq into the larger framework of America’s relation with the Middle East. However, in this case too, it seems unlikely that Obama’s main ambitions will depart radically from Bush’s. For example, the Obama administration has already made it clear that they will make great efforts to haul out a more responsible and respectful attitude from Syria -a firm standpoint previously implemented by Bush. Moreover, the new U.S. foreign policy also directly states to continue the support of their predecessor for an independent Lebanon. And finally, like the second Bush administration, it can be expected that Obama will work out a security cooperation with those Sunni Arab regimes that may not share the new president’s interests in freedom and change, but are nevertheless frustrated greatly by Iran and Al-Qaeda’s influence on the region.

Another part of Obama’s foreign policy plan will be to carry on Bush’s commitment to maintain an open debate between all parties of the Middle East. A particularly enriching insight of George W. Bush’s team in their first term in office was their realization that the Israel-Palestinian conflict did not merely arise from a quarrel over borders. As Bush rightfully claimed back then, a strong Palestinian state and stable economy are required in order to have even the slightest chance of peace. The solution to this problem during Bush’s first term didn’t reach much further then the advice for Palestinians to get their houses in check. The U.S. would only consider setting up a negotiation with Israel to end their occupation after this was done. Fortunately, the second Bush administration came to their senses and understood the need to explore both pathways simultaneously. Because of this, president Obama has inherited a Middle East process well on the way of making progress on these two important issues, i.e. state-building and peace-making.

On a more global scale as well, it is doubtful that much changes will take place. One of president Obama’s heavily repeated issues during his campaign was his insistence on the need to rebuild broken ties with America’s allies. However, many of those ties – in Asia, Europe, and Latin America – have already been secured again. Take a look, for example, at Bush’s victorious attempt to secure a stabile relationship with India. By openly supporting India’s rise as a new superpower, as opposed to China, President Bush was able to convince the people of India to share the American ideal of freedom. In September of 2008, during a visit to the United States India’s Prime Minister, the soft-spoken Manmohan Singh exclaimed: “This may be my last visit to you during your presidency, and let me say, thank you very much. The people of India deeply love you”. That wasn’t mere politeness.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement, like real action on the issue of climate change. But possibly the biggest challenge for Obama will be managing – what one political adviser has lyrically described – “the bubbles of overinflated expectations for his presidency that will soon begin bursting in allied capitals”.

Another successful strategy that president Obama is likely to adopt from Bush is his approach when dealing with the rise of great powers. By challenging China, Brazil, India, Japan, and others to handle their shares responsibly, the second Bush administration has suggested openly that “the rise of the rest” need not necessarily lead to the decline of America. To the contrary, the welfare of other (super)states might even enhance the United States’ own influence in the world. Take, for example, a closer look at Asia, one of the most geopolitically dynamic places in the world. The U. S. has established better and more stable relations with several Asian states that the latter have with each other. President Obama’s task at hand will be to remind these rising powers to share the burden of meeting an entirely new range of global challenges that no country (including the U.S.) can handle on its own.

Contrary to what most people would think, one such a surging power that the U.S. should keep a watchful eye on would be Russia (rather than China). And here again, too, one can safely assume that the Obama administration will carry on the strategy that Bush laid out in his second term. This policy includes neither pushing Russia into isolation (which is nearly impossible), nor looking the other way and give Russia the green light to use their former imperial stomping grounds as they please. Especially this latter option would be a terribly irresponsible move, for the obvious reason that it would give Russia the upper hand in power and render its smaller neighbouring states defenceless. What this policy does aim to create is a balance in, on the one hand, the cooperation between both Russia and the U.S. when their interests are shared with, on the other hand, a healthy competition whenever they diverge.

Considering the ongoing and troublesome fight against Al-Qaeda and even terrorism in general, one can once more expect a great deal of continuity. Whereas in Bush’s first term in office the primary goals of the United States consisted solely of combating terrorism with all means necessary and literally ‘kill their way towards victory’; the second Bush administration placed a much greater emphasis on other important aspects to overcome terrorism. Creating an environment in which states would enjoy more security, justice, and opportunities was considered to offer the best chances of success in preventing a possible terrorist radicalism to wash over these vulnerable states. Furthermore, which can take some by surprise, it was even largely accepted that the U.S. might be left with no other option then to reconcile with some terrorists. Although president Obama has chosen not to refer to a ‘war on terror’ as the classifying principle of the United States’ foreign policy, by keeping all the above in mind, it can be safely assumed that he will still approach the struggle against terrorism in much the same way as his predecessor.

The pragmatic nationalism that president Obama will inherit from Bush was largely formed by changes made in the United States’ foreign policy throughout the past four years. Because of this, there could very well exist more continuity between Bush’s second run and Obama’s first term in office than between the Bush I and Bush II administration. It should be without a doubt that this foreign policy is a valuable asset. It is now up to president Obama to avoid spending his early years at the White House forcing changes just for the sake of change. Trying to distance himself from his forerunners by any means necessary would be a mistake that both Clinton and Bush have made all too often. Should Obama, however, manage to evade this pitfall, chances are good that he can truly bring about a new dawn by the creation of a fresh bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.

Although president Obama may come to realize all this, the odds that the Democratic and Republican parties of the U.S. will are slim. Each could go on pretending that the changes on foreign policy the second Bush administration carried out did not happen. Republicans could comfort themselves with the illusion that they lost the 2008 presidential elections because Bush traded his strong conservative foreign policy in for a weaker, and more moderate one. For their part, Democrats could strut into the White House, convinced of their predecessors’ corruptness, and believe they will be the ones to make things right again. Whichever scenario these parties decide to cling to, the United States would be better off if its people and notable officials were to recognize that it was the second Bush administration which already steered the U.S.’s foreign policy towards the right path.