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How Bad Was Bush for the World, Really? (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at President Bush’s policy achievements in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Contrary to contemporary conventional wisdom, the Bush foreign policy record was not one of total failure — and in certain cases, such as Colombia and India, it was one of unequivocal and unique success. That résumé of objective geopolitical triumph extends past the European, Asian, and Latin American continents and subcontinents, however.

Africa

Perhaps his most monumental and overlooked achievement, the continent of Africa will never be the same after the Bush presidency. Put bluntly, no single individual, in all of history, has done more for Africans than George W. Bush. That can now be seen as an empirical fact.

Bush’s emergency HIV/AIDS assistance has literally saved millions of people. This is the largest health investment any country has ever lent to any other country (or continent). Due to U.S. aid, malaria has been sliced in half in more than a dozen African countries, which has also saved hundreds of thousands of lives. In addition to tackling HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and without saying much, Bush tripled the amount of U.S. aid sent to Africa’s poorest countries. On his watch, trade has more than doubled between Africa and the United States. Not once did Bush toot his own horn or become highfalutin regarding these humanitarian feats. He helped Africa more than any of his predecessors and was relatively humble about it.

This was never simply charity, either. U.S.-backed NGOs, community-based organizations, and micro-financing programs have helped Africans do the things they need to do to prosper on their own. Like that old adage goes, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” My grandfather loved that saying. Africa’s progress under George Bush shows why.

Over the course of the last eight years, the U.S. helped make possible Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor’s removal from power. The heart of Zimbabwe’s tyrannical ruler, Robert Mugabe, is unfortunately still beating; yet today he is isolated as never before. Violence in Kenya was addressed and to a large extent resolved.

Yes, Uganda and the Congo remain chaotic, Somalia remains destabilized, and the Islamist slaughter in Darfur was never fully halted. But observers should put this in context: we’re talking about Africa here, not a quaint, suburban New England municipality. On nearly all of these issues, George Bush got the international ball rolling, if you will. During his tenure, the United States approached Africa with a moral clarity not seen in, say, Paris, Moscow, or Beijing — where quick profit, weapons dealers, human smugglers, and cheap political gratification overruled.

On the military front, Bush created AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s new unified combatant command responsible for Africa. U.S. commandos have hunted jihadists across the African desert with great efficiency. From Djibouti to Somalia, local governments and tribes have fought al-Qaeda, as well. If you concur with Thomas P.M. Barnett’s hypothesis, as I do, that Africa will supersede the Middle East as radical Islam’s battlefield of preference in fifteen to twenty years, then these encouraging military developments and alliances in Africa must be judged within that context.

Middle East

The one region of the world that earned Bush much criticism and obloquy would be the Mideast. And yet of the two most recent presidents, who has inherited a Middle East with greater promise and hope — Bush or Obama? President Bush came to power amidst the collapse of Clinton’s Camp David talks and Arafat’s second intifada. The so-called peace process was dead. The 9/11 attacks were years into planning. Afghanistan was controlled by Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, backed by the Pakistani government. The al-Qaeda network had run amok, killing and maiming Americans all over the globe. Their training camps were intact and untouched.

The dictatorship in Damascus occupied Lebanon. Secret nuclear production networks proliferated dangerous technology across the region, from Tehran to Tripoli. And Saddam Hussein continued to fire on U.S. planes enforcing the no-fly zone, game the Oil-for-Food Program, subsidize suicide bombers, block weapons inspectors, and enslave an entire people. Aside from Israel and Turkey, no democracies existed across the entire subcontinent. Old-school realism and classic U.S. realpolitik suggested the tyranny that supposedly “loved” us — Egypt and Saudi Arabia come to mind — was preferable to the democracy that perhaps did not.

And today? Afghanistan is no longer domineered by twisted al-Qaedists and the repressive Taliban regime. These two pernicious movements were overthrown in 2001 and have been relegated to the desolate mountains that border Pakistan. As for the Pakistanis, they rejected their allegiance to bin Laden once Deputy Secretary Armitage promised them they’d be bombed into the Stone Age if they continued their support — perhaps the only good thing he did during his time at the State Department.

Elsewhere, the Syrians were kicked out of Lebanon. Libya’s nuclear antics were exposed and ended. Dr. A.Q. Khan’s black-market nuclear proliferation ring was discovered and destroyed. And the psychopath Saddam Hussein, a man who had used chemical weapons, attacked at least four of his neighbors, violated seventeen ceasefires, and attempted to kill at least one previous U.S. head of state, was ousted, found, and introduced to the gallows — his sadistic sons were mowed down, too. (I know there are many who do not take comfort in this fact, but I can say that I do.)

And in their place? The Arab world’s only constitutional democracy.

At the beginning, the war was bipartisan, having been supported and authorized by Congress. As things in Iraq soured, however, it took strong executive leadership to remain levelheaded and not cave to domestic, international, or political pressures. Iraq was a great cost and sacrifice, certainly longer and bloodier than anticipated. Many mistakes were made with deadly and terrifying consequences. These realities cannot be denied and President Bush deserved, and deserves, much of the blame.

Yet when push came to shove, Bush ignored the faux brilliance of the Iraq Study Group. He pressed on by promoting General Petraeus and implementing the surge. He changed strategies to win and pacify Iraq, not to withdraw to placate his own political ambitions. He rejected capitulation and pursued victory, despite reservations from his own Pentagon and Joint Chiefs of Staff, and despite nearly all of Congress — Republican and Democrat alike — opposing him. His was a policy of conviction and principle, despite what one thinks about the righteousness of the war itself.

Somewhere between December 2006 and January 2009, Iraq became a success story. As he leaves office, the war in Iraq, as we once knew it, is effectively over: Zarqawi was killed, the Anbari tribes flipped, al-Qaeda was liquidated, Iranian proxies were rounded up, and the United States military — with the help of the Iraqi population — won. Like all counterinsurgencies, this victory required the assistance of the local populace; like most counterinsurgencies, this preferable ending at one time seemed hopeless.

Today, President Obama inherits an Iraq that is now an ally and on the verge of normalcy, an Iraq that holds regular elections, respects its citizens, and abides by the rule of law. Mr. Obama is bound by treaty to protect our Iraqi friends from their devious neighbors until at least 2012. This would not have been the case had President Bush listened to his critics, Obama chief among them.

Had Bush listened to then-Senator Obama in 2006 and surrendered in Iraq before pacifying it, 25 million people would have plunged into confessional and perpetual violence of genocidal magnitude, the U.S. military would have come home defeated and dejected, and Iraq would have collapsed under the weight of Iranian-stoked sectarianism and al-Qaeda-sparked civil war. Had Bush listened to Obama in 2002, a Chicago street activist at the time, President Obama, today, would still have had Saddam Hussein to deal with.

As previously acknowledged, President Bush had plenty of foreign policy failures and oversights. Mexico has become the Wild West incarnate; drug lords and militias rule the streets. Our border with the Mexicans remains porous. Overseas, the Russians shifted in the direction of autocracy on Bush’s watch. The North Koreans nuclearized their arsenal. The Iranian problem has been left unaddressed. Bush was at many times incompetent — and at all times inarticulate and incapable of explaining himself or his views. Yes, in retrospect, Senator McCain might have been the better candidate in 2000. All this and more is true.

But to claim Bush was a foreign policy disaster on some unprecedented level is simply untrue. It is an anti-academic accusation and entirely inaccurate, despite what feisty foreign op-eds, YouTube hate videos, late-night wisecracks, and nightclub one-liners would have you believe. President Bush, in fact, did much good internationally.

President Obama has said we must defend ourselves and not undermine our ideals at the same time — a critique of the Bush era, implying his predecessor thought otherwise. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of everything President Bush’s foreign policy was. Not only could we simultaneously uphold our ideals and protect ourselves, Bush believed, but we must also promote those ideals in order to protect ourselves. This was, in effect, the Bush Doctrine: that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

George Bush made the promotion of democratic principles the cornerstone of American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. While this has been our traditional role throughout history, we have at times strayed away from this democratic calling, especially in the Mideast. Bush changed that with an emphatic defense of Arab liberty. He also tackled HIV/AIDS and African poverty, Latin American narcotics, the Asian sex slave trade, and Islamist state sponsorship of terrorism unlike any leader we have ever had. Oh, and lest we forget, his administration prevented another 9/11 — a feather in the cap that was thought to be impossible on the morning of September 12, 2001.

Despite what you may feel about George W. Bush, this is not a record to scoff at.