By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, September 15, 2008
It's an article of faith at the White House that history eventually will look kindly on President Bush for his decision to take the country to war in Iraq, his handling of terrorism and other elements of a foreign policy that have been roundly criticized by most Democrats, many in the foreign policy establishment and some in his own party.
But with four months still to go in his administration, Bush revisionism already is creeping in -- and not necessarily from traditional Bush loyalists.
The past several months have brought several articles from prominent writers and intellectuals questioning the received wisdom that Bush's foreign policy has been a disaster. Whether they overturn that notion won't be known for years, but the essays do suggest there's more ferment about the Bush legacy than is sometimes acknowledged.
One theme is that Bush changed course in the second term, pursuing more pragmatic policies on North Korea, Iran, Middle East peace and global warming. This sentiment was captured by Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria in a cover story -- "What Bush Got Right" -- that argues that although Bush made serious mistakes, the next president should not abandon all Bush's approaches to foreign policy.
"The administration that became the target of so much passion and anger -- from Democrats, Republicans, independents, foreigners, Martians, everyone -- is not quite the one in place today," Zakaria wrote last month. "For whatever reasons, and through whichever path, the foreign policies in place now are more sensible, moderate and mainstream."
David Frum, the onetime Bush speechwriter turned sometime-critic, offered a variation of this theme in the cover story of the latest issue of Foreign Policy: "Lonesome Cowboy: Why You'll Miss Him When He's Gone."
Frum sought to debunk many of the traditional criticisms of Bush's foreign policy, including the claim that the next president will "radically revise" Bush's policies.
"Unlikely," he asserts. "Granted the next president will feel the need to create an appearance of distance between himself and the unpopular Bush. Yet the continuity between Bush and his successor will be strong. A U.S. drawdown from Iraq will proceed more slowly than most expect. Relationships with India, Japan, and Vietnam will continue to grow. The United States will continue to spend much more on military power than all other major countries combined."
Edward Luttwak, an iconoclastic writer on military and national security affairs, has been a sharp critic of the Iraq war. Yet he, too, finds other, more positive attributes in the Bush foreign policy, including what he asserts to be the successful rollback of jihadism around the world.
In an essay for Prospect magazine in Britain, Luttwak calls Bush a "Truman for our times," holding out the prospect that some of his policies, like the 33rd president, will eventually be seen as wise despite his current unpopularity.
Luttwak notes that "one hears well-informed people casually remark that Bush's war on terror has been a total failure" but adds that "one need not be Sherlock Holmes to recall that 11th September was meant to be the beginning of a global jihad."
Instead, Luttwak says, "the global jihadi mobilization, triggered by post 9/11 enthusiasm for Osama bin Laden, was stopped before it could gain any momentum by all that Bush set in motion: the destruction of al-Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan, the killing or capture of most of its operatives, and, most importantly, the conversion of Muslim governments from the support of jihad to its repression."
The Truman comparison (which the White House obviously likes) is dismissed by Amy Zegart, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Writing in the National Interest this month, Zegart says that Truman's greatest Cold War policies -- his economic recovery plan for Europe, for example -- were recognized as triumphs from the start, even as Truman himself was unpopular. In contrast, she believes that harsh judgments of Bush will endure over time.
But Zegart predicts that Bush's second-term "Freedom Agenda," the notion that a mission of the United States is to help spread democracy abroad, will have a long shelf life. She notes that both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have embraced democratization in their foreign policy planks. Obama, for instance, has written that the security and well-being of every American depends on the security and well-being of those beyond our borders -- a point similar to one Bush made in his second inaugural address.
"George W. Bush will not be judged kindly by history," Zegart concludes. "But make no mistake: his freedom agenda will endure in the next administration and beyond."Naming Names
In our last column, we took note of Bush's recent trip to Gettysburg with some unnamed friends. It turns out that an interesting foursome accompanied Bush on his tour of the battlefield and its new visitor center: onetime senior adviser Karl Rove, former White House counselor Karen Hughes, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales.
You might call it the original Texas Bush mafia.Drilling for Priorities
There now appears a good chance that Bush will achieve one of his final domestic priorities, some form of offshore oil drilling, in the next couple of weeks.
But with two weeks left before Congress heads out on recess, a number of Bush initiatives are still unapproved. Most notable are three free trade pacts (Panama, South Korea and Colombia) and the civil nuclear deal with India that has been a linchpin of the administration's hopes of forging even closer ties with the world's largest democracy.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been lobbying furiously for the India deal, which appears to hinge on whether the White House can persuade Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, to agree to waive a 30-day waiting period before Congress can vote on it.
The only way any of the free trade pacts could be approved is if Congress holds a lame-duck session after the election, something that Democratic leaders have been reluctant to do but that White House officials remain hopeful could happen.
The White House also has made clear that it does not intend to submit a new supplemental spending bill for the Iraq war, leaving it to the next president to decide how to proceed after current funding runs out, sometime around March. Some officials in the Pentagon, particularly in the Army, are said to be unhappy with this approach.The Candidates' Briefings
At the CIA, as with most federal agencies, officials are beginning to prepare for the first new president in eight years. During a "town meeting" with agency employees last Wednesday, Director Michael V. Hayden discussed the upcoming transition, describing it as an opportunity for the agency to demonstrate its skill and agility to new "customers."
Hayden told employees that Obama had his first intelligence briefing last week (McCain will get one soon), and among the subjects covered was terrorism. After the Nov. 4 election, the process will become even more active, with the president-elect offered the daily briefing received by the president, Hayden told the group.