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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Rewriting history in real time

The White House's recent policy reversals amount to a stunning repudiation of the first seven years of George W. Bush's presidency. Where allies were previously disrespected, now they're viewed as essential. Where diplomacy was eschewed, now it's pursued with vigor. No longer running the government from his "base," Bush finally tries to lead the entire nation.

The White House’s recent policy reversals amount to a stunning repudiation of the first seven years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Where allies were previously disrespected, now they’re viewed as essential. Where diplomacy was eschewed, now it’s pursued with vigor. No longer running the government from his “base,” Bush finally tries to lead the entire nation.

His political opponents detect weakness and regret and a last-ditch attempt to salvage legacy, while supporters point to a self-professed “dissident” leader extending a “freedom” agenda in his final months. Both perspectives hold much truth.

But as someone who’s worked extensively throughout the national-security community across this administration, both inside and outside government, I am struck by how the world seems to be returning to its pre-9/11 correlation of forces, like a cosmic clock being reset. It’s almost as if the sum total effect of the second Bush term will be to repair the damage caused by the first.

They say time heals all wounds. It similarly muddles all doctrines.

When Bush entered office, transnational terrorism seemed dangerous but manageable — an “over there” challenge. Fast forward to 2008 and tell me what’s different, other than your approach to air travel. Yes, we now know that a 9/11 is eminently possible and we’re keenly aware of its likely engineers and where they reside. When they pull off the next one, probably in Europe, we’ll collectively head to roughly the same spot to roust them out again.

Meanwhile, we’ll make reasonable efforts to bolster networks, both here and there, but the world must go on. Terrorists monopolized America’s attention for a while but nowhere else, either because other regions were used to such travails or because bigger things were happening.

At the beginning of 2001 we sensed that the Middle East was broken, with little chance of peace. Iraq and Iran were clearly dangerous, but both were considered manageable through a mix of economic and military efforts. No doubt we have far many more boots on the ground today, and our sacrifice in blood and treasure is alarmingly large, but back then the Persian Gulf was seen as something primarily left to the U.S. military to handle, and so it is again today.

Bush’s pre-emptive war became Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency becomes Central Command’s enduring challenge, along with Afghanistan and — suddenly –Pakistan. If, in 2001, I described a Pentagon dreaming of brilliant, high-tech war with “rising China” but operationally engrossed by a messy, unstable, low-tech security landscape, today you’d find all the same bureaucratic tensions, exponentially expanded and increasingly fueled by a young generation of ground officers bristling for institutional reform.

The Bush administration entered office complaining that scant attention was being paid to the “big pieces” of international security, like Russia, China, Europe and India. Then 9/11, triggering a fit of unilateralist pique, pushed all those great-power concerns aside as we targeted failed states and rogue regimes.

Fast forward to 2008 and we’re back to focusing on how those “big pieces” help us manage the little ones. It turns out that you’d better ask the neighbors before you start “draining the swamp.”

But no, this whole journey wasn’t merely the result of Bush’s mis-education at the hands of his now-discredited foreign-policy “Vulcans.” In certain instances, like global warming, the mountain came to Mohammad. If, in 2001, the smart money said the Kyoto treaty was doomed because it excluded booming China and India, today’s conventional wisdom admits the same. Thus we now search for more sensibly comprehensive and sustainable strategies for dealing with this global issue.

Is it enough, in the end, for Bush’s second administration to repair — for the most part — the damage to America’s global standing created by his first?

Yes and no.

The reason I supported John Kerry in 2004 was because I felt the Bush team, while being more than up to the necessary task of resetting the rules in the wake of 9/11, was distinctly incapable of subsequently gaining much buy-in from the rest of the world. Generating such buy-in always involves tradeoffs: winning most means compromising some.

I remain convinced that a Kerry administration would have propelled America far faster toward that inevitable adjustment, the very same realignment the Bush White House finally undertakes today.

So what’s been lost?

Merely time and opportunity, our two most precious assets.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)

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