Maybe it's pure historical geekery, or maybe it provides some insight into what happened later. Anyway, given the amount of misinformation that abounds about the Bush administration, I think it's worth considering its foreign policy record prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It's a lesson in how fluid history is, and why simplistic black-and-white judgements are never sufficient.

The 2000 election

During the 2000 election campaign, foreign policy was not a major issue. It seems hard to remember now, but by the year two thousand, the U.S. public's concern about foreign policy was at a fifty year low. President Clinton deployed the U.S. military an unprecedented number of times in the 1990s, but most of these wars or missions had little impact on the public. They required no sacrifices, and there was little coherence to them. The Pentagon came up with the term Operations Other Than War to describe the plethora of overseas duties the military assumed in the '90s, a term which broadcasted incoherence. The same could be said of the dominant term used to characterize the new world after the fall of the USSR, which was the "post-Cold War era". We sure as hell knew what it wasn't, but as for what it was... Answers on a postcard, please.

Bush and Cheney campaigned on a platform that was not radically dissimilar from that that of Gore and Lieberman when it came to foreign policy. Both tickets certainly agreed that it wasn't an issue worth giving much time to. Bush was focused on two things: his tax cut, designed to be a supply-side boon to the ailing economy, and education, the issue on which his record in Texas was strongest. The neoconservatives had mostly supported John McCain in the Republican primaries, and The New Republic - which while never entirely neconservative was certainly close at this point - supported the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

Bush and his team emphasized relations with the most powerful countries in the world, such as China and Russia. They said that they would cut back on U.S. commitments abroad - cut back on U.S. interference, liberals might say - and focus on the national defence. They were less interested in using the military for peacekeeping in the Balkans (Kosovo and Bosnia were the top foreign policy issues at this point, remember?) than they were in making it strong and capable in the face of challenges ten or twenty years down the road. They called China a 'strategic competitor', and implied they'd get tough on Beijing - but every administration since Richard Nixon's had done the same thing. Like the others, they soon learned that the two countries needed one another.

Perhaps most surprising to today's ear is the extent to which the Bush team stressed the need for 'humility' before other countries during the election. Bush carried his message of less government interference in people's lives over to the international realm as well, arguing that it wasn't the place of the United States to dictate to other countries how to do business. This argument seemed rooted in the team's opposition to nation-building and militated in favour of a focus on domestic policy. It was, ultimately, predicated on a view of the world where there was no substantial threat to America, and hence the rest of the world could largely be left to get on with its own affairs. This hope would soon be shattered.

The national-security team

I won't bore you with details of the intense battles over the top national-security posts in the Bush administration. Suffice to recount how the cookie eventually crumbled. Staffing in the new administration was decisively not a victory for the neoconservatives. Condeleezza Rice took the position of National Security Advisor. An expert on the former Soviet military and arms control, Rice was the closest to the president and reflected his views most accurately. Her prime concerns were relations with China and Russia, not democratizing the Arab world or overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The same could be said for Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who shared a distrust of what they viewed as the waste of military resources in low-intensity conflicts.

One has to travel to the level of the deputies to find someone who was a true blue neoconservative in the Bush administration in 2000. Had you a time machine, you would find him sat in the office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and his name was Paul Wolfowitz. When the U.S. government's top counter-terrorism official told Wolfowitz about the threat from al-Qaeda, he apparently grew angry and waxed at length about the threat posed by Iraq's intelligence service, which he considered much more dire. Subsequent events would, of course, prove him wrong. Wolfowitz, along with other future lower-level members of the Bush administration such as Robert Zoellick, Elliot Abrams and Richard L. Armitage, had signed a letter in 1998 calling for Clinton to overthrow Saddam Hussein - yet prior to 9/11, all that happened on this front was discussions in the Bush administration about how to create 'smart sanctions'. It would take 9/11 to allow this argument to gain traction.

Foreign policy? What foreign policy?

The Bush team was hence lacking a coherent vision of foreign affairs when it took office. The administration was dominated by people who thought America's prime task was to batten down the hatches and remain strong. Bush was certainly no isolationist, but he wasn't about to go galivanting about the world looking for places the U.S. might stick its oar in. In his first eight months in office, he preferred to pursue his tax cut than invest any substantial level of money in either foreign policy or defence. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's repeated requests for more funding, which would benefit those contractors so often accused of pulling administration strings, were repeatedly rebuffed. After not too long, the neoconservative's flagship publication, The Weekly Standard, was suggesting Rumsfeld resign in protest.

If you look at the published comments of President Bush in the year 2000, you'll find he mentioned baseball and football more times than he mentioned the Balkans, which was the most controversial place U.S. troops were committed to. The vast majority of his addresses were on education. Foreign policy just wasn't on the agenda. The only time it was really put there was when a U.S. surveillence plane was rammed by a Chinese jet in late March, causing it to violate Chinese airspace to land safely on Hainan. The president resolved the crisis through careful diplomacy, and was rewarded by a barrage of criticism from the neoconservatives, who wanted him to be tough on China. He responded by agreeing unprecedented arms sales to Taiwan - China's enemy - in April, but this was the action of a man scrambling to protect himself, not of an implacable foe of the People's Republic.


If Bush's foreign policy seemed to have a defining feature before 9/11 - apart from its ad hoc nature - then it was widely viewed as being its "unilateralism". This, however, is a slightly inappropriate word for it. Bush did not take any action which was substantively different from what Clinton had done. Clinton's approach to many international agreements was to be his usual charming (some might say mendacious) self and address them in a collegial spirit, while in effect doing nothing about them. He signed the Kyoto Protocol and refused to submit it to the Senate for ratification; he rejected the International Criminal Court for a long time, and then eventually treated it the same way as Kyoto. This was a fudge, if ever there was one.

If there was one thing Bush didn't do, it was fudge. Nothing could be further from the man's character. Kyoto? Out the window. The International Criminal Court? No way. Bush rejected a whole series of agreements that Clinton had at least made a pretense to consider, even though his efforts had in reality merely been an attempt to find a compromise between the demands of domestic constituencies and of America's allies. Bush apparently didn't see the point in diplomatic nicety. If he didn't like something, he said as much. The allies were, predictably, enraged. The administation should have seen this coming. What we were witnessing here, then, was a cultural insensitivity: it's not as if the administration proposed alternative solutions to these problems which might be pleasing for all. Clinton was too sleazy in his attempt to please everyone, by far; but Bush was entirely absent from this task.

This trend was most obvious in the administration's view of the Americo-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. Its view was that the Treaty ought to be in the same dustbin of history which had accommodated the Soviet Union. This view made sense, in a way: an agreement negotiated so long ago about an issue so important was surely due revision. And, Bush knew, Russia had nothing to fear from an American missile defence shield: it wasn't as if anyone in the U.S. was chomping at the bit to nuke the Russkies anymore. Yet, it was inevitable that this would be viewed unfavourably in Moscow, and more might have been done to change this.


9/11 changed everything. The strategic drift which had characterized America's approach to foreign relations since the end of the Cold War was no longer sufficient. Everything was suddenly defined in relation to the terrorist threat, and the Bush administration to some extent adopted the philosophy of neoconservatives. Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol suddenly found themselves in agreement with the administration's actions.

Bush didn't adopt their cause because he was in bed with defence contractors, or the oil industry - he would have adopted it before 9/11 if this were the case. Nor did he do it because he was misled by his close advisors. His closest advisor, Rice, was no neoconservative. He adopted their cause because he believed in it strongly, because it fit with his religious faith in the universality of freedom. He adopted it because he believed that the democratization of the Middle East, however quixotic a goal, promised, if it succeeded, an end to Islamist terrorism. This may have been so naive and negligent an expectation as to have been criminal. But it was not ill-intended. Judge him, but judge him on this; the straight-talking Texan would want you to do nothing less.

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