This time next week, the U.S. presidential election will be over, and
we will know the name of the next commander in chief. (This is barring
the possibility of the courts getting involved in the electoral process
again, of course.) Whether we will be looking at a McCain or Obama
presidency, the world will be watching expectantly for new
foreign-policy directions to come.
Nov. 6 will also mark the end of the George W. Bush
era in foreign-policy. Little attention has been paid to the Bush
administration in recent months, the cold reality of power changing
hands. This has been exacerbated by the fact that both candidates are
running against him. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has
successfully tagged his opponent with representing a "third Bush term,"
which has caused Republican candidate John McCain to redouble his
efforts to put daylight between him and Mr. Bush.
It is clear, however, that Mr. Bush's foreign policy legacy will be
a more nuanced legacy than any of Mr. Bush's critics at home or abroad
are willing to acknowledge. Over the past eight years there have been
extraordinary highs and lows, and a good deal in between.
The global war on terror will inevitably frame the Bush presidency
in history's eyes. Following September 11, preventing another attack on
American soil became the overriding priority for Mr. Bush. Though it
meant following a course that was derided abroad and often criticized
at home, Mr. Bush was steadfast in the most important trust any
president has, the safety of his citizens. That safety came at the
price of the invasion of two foreign countries, Afghanistan and Iraq,
and unpopular and contentious political decisions such as opening
Guantanamo Bay or passing the Patriot Act.
Whether Mr. Bush succeeded in his vastly ambitious second major
foreign-policy goal, remaking the Middle East, is more doubtful. If
Iraq continues on a positive path, it could have transformational
consequences as a major Middle Eastern, oil-producing democracy. If
Iraq fails, possibly because a President Obama disengages prematurely,
there will be little to show for the Bush legacy in the Middle East. In
Afghanistan, that legacy is already in doubt, and America's troubled
ally Pakistan has experienced only the most halting progress in rooting
out terrorist breeding grounds.
In the field of foreign aid and HIV/AIDS prevention, the Bush
administration has made a major mark - though these are not
traditionally Republican causes, and Mr. Bush is rarely given credit
for them. Foreign aid to Africa has grown by leaps and bounds under Mr.
Bush, to the extent that it is in Africa he registers his most positive
And Mr. Bush has succeeded in repairing relations with European
leaders in his second term, something he is also not usually given
credit for. With leaders of Germany and France of a friendly political
stripe, the trans-Atlantic relationship at least on the leadership
level has come a very long way.
The last two lame-duck months of a presidency carry little potential
for any constructive policy making, though occasionally surprise acts
are possible. One recalls President Clinton's signing onto the Kyoto
treaty in the last days of his presidency, knowing full well that it
would never be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Or President George H.W Bush's humanitarian invasion of Somalia, which was well intentioned but turned out to be a major poisoned pill for Mr. Clinton.
As for the outgoing Bush administration, there has been much discussion
of whether Mr. Bush would launch a surprise attack on Iran to deal with
the country's nuclear program, a favorite theory of conspiracy-mongers
in Europe, fuelled periodically by the reporting of Seymor Hersch. Were
this unlikely scenario to unfold, it would produce the mother of all
headaches for his successor.
Mr. Bush, however, has talked confidently of expecting major foreign
policy accomplishments in his last few months in office, the completion
of the WTO Doha Round of trade negotiations and of achieving a
negotiated Middle East peace. Sad to say, both are unlikely in the
Time is closing in on the end of the Bush foreign-policy record.
When all is said and done, his most important achievement, his
essential legacy, was to keep the United States safe from any further
terrorist attacks after September 11, despite the terrorists'
determined efforts. This legacy Mr. Bush can truly be proud of and
those who desire to succeed him in the Oval Office should be proud to
do as well.