History Through a Bush Lens
President George W. Bush (WDCpix)
If your legacy consisted of two draining wars, close to 5,000 U.S. fatalities, the spread of anti-Americanism around the globe, the alienation of traditional allies and general discredit, you might attempt revisionist history yourself.
Over the last few weeks, prominent members of President George W. Bush’s foreign-policy team — some speaking for themselves, others speaking to leading journalists — have sought a reconsideration of the administration’s reputation. At stake is whether history will record something valuable out of a foreign policy now considered something of a disaster, even by many on the right.
Contending that the administration has left a record worth building on, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took to the august pages of Foreign Affairs for a wide-ranging geopolitical meditation. A new article by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic magazine paints the much-maligned Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a less-negative light than has been typical. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush’s fare-thee-well tour of Europe last week seemed designed to ask: Was it really so bad?
Some diplomatic historians and former Army officers answer: Yes, it really was.
Lloyd C. Gardner, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, had a gloomy assessment. “Even after several years,” said Gardner, “it remains hard to understand how such an ahistorical judgment [as the Iraq war] convinced policy-makers they were right.” A retired Army officer compared Rumsfeld’s style of dealing with the Army to a child torturing small animals.
Rice’s article tacitly affirms Gardner’s point. Her Foreign Affairs article tours the global horizon as the sun sets on the Bush administration. She elides Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring to focus on great-power management. Befitting Rice’s background as a Soviet expert, she argues early in her piece that Russia poses little threat to the international order. China, India and Brazil all should be cheered into the family of great powers.
“And as these emerging powers change the geopolitical landscape,” she writes, “it will be important that international institutions also change to reflect this reality. This is why President Bush has made clear his support for a reasonable expansion of the U.N. Security Council.” Yet few will think of “expansion of the U.N. Security Council” when they think of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. In any event, the council has the same five members it did in January 2001.
She becomes incoherent when describing the virtues of democracy. “Democratic development is a unified political-economic model, and it offers the mix of flexibility and stability that best enables states to seize globalization’s opportunities and manage its challenges,” Rice argues. “And for those who think otherwise: What real alternative worthy of America is there?” Those who “think otherwise” include Rice, in her almost fawning descriptions of authoritarian Russia and China. Were Rice consistent, she would be arguing for aggressive U.S. democratization efforts in both great powers. The fact that she doesn’t leads to the cynical interpretation that democracy is only a ruse for the Bush administration to confront its weaker adversaries.
Similar problems arise when Rice finally deals with the Muslim world. Arguing on behalf of the Bush Doctrine of democracy imposed abroad through military force, she essentially claims that alternative courses of action fail to address the real roots of terrorism. In the past, “we supported authoritarian regimes, and they supported our shared interest in regional stability,” she writes. “After Sept. 11, it became increasingly clear that this old bargain had produced false stability.”
Yet the administration still supports authoritarian Mideast regimes, like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and the Gulf states that offer the U.S. discounted oil and military bases. Rice does not deal with the alternative contention that the feeding trough for Mideast radicalism and instability might have something to do with the Arab sense of outrage over the U.S. occupation of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Rice’s discussion of Iraq comes late in the article. She defends the invasion, and stretches the truth to do so. “The Iraq Survey Group showed [that] Saddam was ready and willing to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction programs as soon as international pressure had dissipated,” Rice writes. In fact, the Iraq Survey Group also showed that Iraq’s WMD programs were in a pitiful state of disrepair, meaning that Rice is neglecting the actual question of what Saddam Hussein could have done with the chimerical one of what he wanted to do. Ultimately, Rice punts on the Iraq war: “This story is still being written, and will be for many years to come.” (Interestingly, the word “Afghanistan” appears only three times.)
In response, Michael Hirsch of Newsweek observed, “If she’s not sure that things are better, why should the rest of us be?”
Rice’s elevation of peripheral aspects of Bush’s foreign policy to a place of centrality underscore the administration’s mistakes, Gardner said. “Bush certainly was not unique among either American or world leaders in miscalculating the fruits of war,” Gardner said, contending that Bush’s mistakes come from a broader, technology-stoked perception of American omnipotence. “Americans, however, have been seduced for a long time by the supposed charms of technology.”
If Rice’s essay is evasive, so is Kaplan’s defense of Rumsfeld in The Atlantic. The two pieces contain a similar element: both portray peripheral policy choices as the criteria by which the administration should be judged.
“Thanks to his long tenure and personal dynamism,” Kaplan writes, “Rumsfeld has had an impact that will go far beyond Iraq in shaping the actions of future administrations. Obsessed with what could go wrong, Rumsfeld was a brilliant worrier. It is in his… pessimism where we might find some saving graces to his legacy.”
Those saving graces, Kaplan writes, are the former defense secretary’s fears that terrorist groups can’t be deterred from using weapons of mass destruction, and that Gen. Colin L. Powell’s doctrine of using overwhelming military force — or none at all — in response to aggression was an outdated relic of the Cold War. “Rumsfeld worried that the world was too messy, too fluid—with one crisis flowing into the next across geographical regions—and the dangers facing America too complex and varied for such a cut-and-dried approach,” Kaplan writes.
Such an approach led Rumsfeld to embrace preventive war, and to wage it using smaller ground-force components than Army officials thought prudent, supplementing their use with on-battlefield information technology for greater surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence work. His theory — which he called “transformation” — was that getting soldiers “networked” to each other was more important than having many of them.
But Kaplan’s revisionism whitewashes the actual policy choices Rumsfeld adopted. For a defense secretary allegedly eager to transcend Cold War paradigms, Rumsfeld’s theological commitment to the decades-old right-wing dream of a ballistic missile defense system is, at least, puzzling.
At the same time, his tech-heavy “transformation” project intended to replace the Powell Doctrine, even Kaplan has to admit, failed its most important tests. “[B]y violating aspects of the Powell doctrine in Iraq,” he writes, “Rumsfeld and his subordinates arguably showed themselves to be precisely the stupid civilians the doctrine was meant to guard against.”
Army soldiers, and particularly veterans of the wars, aren’t as eager as Kaplan to turn the page on Rumsfeld. “There’s an argument out there contending Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t a complete disaster as a secretary of defense if for no other reason than he helped re-establish strong civilian control over the military — a prerequisite for any kind of transformation agenda,” said Andrew Exum, an Army veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. “After all, the argument goes, the generals aren’t going to reform themselves. This argument, I feel, isn’t as persuasive now that we have seen the effect of Secretary [Robert] Gates, who has managed to both be firm with the generals while at the same time earning their respect — and the respect of the Congress — with his quiet competence and less confrontational demeanor.”
One retired Army officer who saw Iraq planning up close also finds these recent efforts to whitewash Rumsfeld unpersuasive. He saw how Rumsfeld considered testing his pet theories more important than meticulous planning. “Detailed war planning for Iraq began in the fall of 2002,” this officer, who requested anonymity, remembered. “I asked a fellow planner, one very late night in Kuwait, ‘Dude, why are we doing this?’ His response [was] ‘I have no fucking idea.’ He was the lead planner for the ground war.”
But Rumsfeld had little patience with what he considered quotidian concerns. This ex-officer recalled briefing Rumsfeld as being an aggravating experience. “He took perverse joy in humiliating officers, usually majors-colonel level. We always called it ‘kicking puppies,’” the officer said. “Officers had to appear in full dress uniform, and usually stood at attention while doing a ‘desk side’ brief to [Rumsfeld]. Rummy would wear a sweater — think of a warped Mr. Rogers — put his feet on the desk, and start flipping through slides. Some poor guy, who put two years of his life into whatever he was pitching, would be told things like ‘this isn’t very detailed.’ Well, no, Mr. Dumbass. what you are reading is a 10-slide synopsis of a 400-page operations plan.”
Not every member of the defense establishment agrees. One former civilian Pentagon analyst viewed Rumsfeld more favorably, and unlike Kaplan, defended Rumsfeld and the administration on the decision to invade Iraq. “The fact of the matter is that the Bush administration agreed on the need to topple Saddam without agreeing on precisely why they needed to do that,” said the analyst, who also requested anonymity. “If the intel had been more inconclusive and fragmentary and ambivalent, you would have lost [then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard] Armitage and Powell maybe, but not me or [Undersecretary of Defense Douglas] Feith or Rumsfeld.
“For me,” the analyst continued, “it was the uncertainty and lack of transparency that constituted the threat [from Saddam] all along — so the intel on stockpiles was irrelevant to me — but of course, we might not have been able to generate the necessary political support for the action on that basis. And certainly not without laying down a lot of groundwork first.”
Bush’s own attempt at making nice with history was evident last week in Europe. In a valedictory interview with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times of London, Bush regretted using bellicose language early in his administration and said it led to the U.S.-European divisions that plagued his first term. Telling Iraqi insurgents about to attack U.S. troops to “bring them on,” he said, “indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace.”
What he didn’t say — and neither do his subordinates — was that the Europeans’ impression might have had less to do with his language than with his unprovoked invasion of another country. That invasion, more than anything else, will be the administration’s legacy.
And that invasion may have hastened American decline. “Bush is the worst” president in recent history, Gardner said, “only because he is caught at the end of the empire — and will forever be associated with it.”