The True Believer
When President Bush addressed cadets at West Point on December 9, it had a valedictory air both for the future officers and for his presidency. Bush's speech in 1999, where he called for a nimbler military and made it plain that he would like to take out Saddam Hussein, served as a harbinger of his foreign policy after 9/11. Now, at the end of his presidency, Bush painted an almost unblemished record of success in his stewardship of foreign affairs. "These changes will have a direct impact on your military careers," Bush said. "I'm going to give you a report on where we stand in each of these areas, and the challenges that lie ahead." But his rosy depiction couldn't conceal the fact that he is bestowing upon the graduates from West Point a more, not less, dangerous world-and that he is in many ways the culprit.
Bush hailed the changes that are taking place in defense systems, most notably the advances that are taking place in ballistic-missile defense. "One of the most serious dangers facing our people," said Bush, "is the threat of a rogue regime armed with ballistic missiles." But this is nonsense. The administration's obsession with missile defense blinded it to the threat of terrorism before 9/11. No doubt a missile-defense system that worked and wasn't tremendously costly would be useful. But Bush, who touted his withdrawal from the ABM Treaty because it supposedly "constrained our ability to develop the technologies needed to defend ourselves against the threat of blackmail by rogue states," has needlessly antagonized Russia by moving ahead with a system stationed in Eastern Europe that is clearly aimed not at Tehran, but at Moscow. Anyway, does Bush really think that Iran or North Korea could "blackmail" the United States, which possesses an overwhelmingly powerful land, air and sea-based deterrent?
Bush's language is similarly imprecise when it comes to Iraq. Suddenly, the "Decider" retreats to the passive voice. "The battle in Iraq has been longer and more difficult than expected," he said. No, it hasn't. Bush was warned beforehand that entering Baghdad could prove a fools' errand, by everyone from Anthony Zinni to Colin Powell, and chose to ignore the warnings. Yet Bush makes it sound as though after a few hiccups, America "liberated 25 million Iraqis"-to engage in what amounted to a civil war and slaughter each other, while millions of others fled to Syria. Yes, the surge has stabilized Iraq. But whether Iraq is simply enjoying a temporary truce until American troops depart is an open question and, by any rational measure, the costs of occupying Iraq have grossly exceeded the benefits to the United Staets. To cap it all off, Bush even threw in a nod to Donald Rumsfeld, by all accounts the most abysmal Defense Secretary in history, as an "enterprising leader." The graduates at West Point should have howled in protest at this encomium to the man who left the troops to fight without proper body armor in Iraq.
Then there is Pakistan. According to Bush,
One of the most important challenges we will face, and you will face, in the years ahead is helping our partners assert control over ungoverned spaces. This problem is most pronounced in Pakistan, where areas along the Afghanistan border are home to Taliban and to al-Qaeda fighters. The Pakistani government and people understand the threat, because they have been victims of terror themselves. They're working to enforce the law and fight terror in the border areas.
Actually, they aren't. The feeble government of Pakistan has attempted to appease the Taliban and other terrorist groupings rather than to confront them. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban are now estimated to control as much as 70 percent of the country-the International Council on Security and Development reports that the Taliban are "closing a noose" around Kabul: "The inability of domestic and international actors to counter the entrenchment of the insurgency in Afghanistan is deeply troubling, and the failure of NATO's political masters to address the realities of the security situation in Afghanistan has taken the country and the Karzai Government to a precipice."
So much for the record of triumph that Bush sketched out. The sources of his triumphalism are not far to seek. It's common to charge Bush with a crusading evangelism that has endowed him with a certainty that defies mere troubling facts. But it isn't simply or merely evangelistic impulses. At the root of Bush's presidency over the past eight years has been a conviction that the United States isn't simply engaged in confronting terrorism, but waging an ideological war. On Monday, Bush said, "We concluded that we are engaged in an ideological struggle, so we launched an effort to discredit the hateful vision of the extremists and advance the hopeful alternative of freedom." Similarly, in May 2006 Bush declared at West Point that, "Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before-and like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory." It would be hard to think of a credo that is more Wilsonian. Future historians will have to wrestle with the conundrum that Bush, who sought to create a permanent Republican majority, helped bring down his party by embracing traditional Democratic foreign-policy precepts.
Today, the parties have experienced something of a role reversal. It is Obama who sounds like the realist, while Bush continues to indulge in delusions about the advance of freedom even as terrorists around the globe make new encroachments into Pakistan and Afghanistan. After eight years, Bush is indeed leaving behind a transformed world but the transformation has decidedly not been for the better. It has been an abomination.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.