Bush’s Legacy: The End of an Error

January 26, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared on cato​.org on January 26, 2009

Defiant till the end, President Bush recently defended his record as president. “The decisions I made as your Commander in Chief have not always been popular,” Bush said at a ceremony at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. “But the cause you have served has always been just and right.”

Once again, the outgoing president demonstrates his talent for using the bravery of the U.S. military to deflect attention from his own disastrous policies, beginning with Iraq and ending with Afghanistan.

The president has been hammering incessantly for years about how much “safer” we are since 9/11, thanks to his leadership. But senior intelligence, diplomatic, and military experts agree that President Bush’s fixation on Iraq has not made us safer.

Despite whatever gains we’ve reaped from the “surge,” the war in Iraq has shaped a new generation of terrorist operatives, increasing both the number and geographic dispersion of global jihadists. It also has deepened mistrust of America around the world, even as our leaders complacently view themselves as being benevolent. Osama bin Laden’s objective was to provoke the United States into an excessive and ill‐​defined retaliatory attack against the Islamic world. The Bush administration’s Iraq policy played into his hands.

Even worse than Bush’s uniting of our enemies was his division of our friends. Abroad, the commander-in-chief’s penchant for us‐​versus‐​them rhetoric led him to snub potential allies and ignore voices of caution. Days after 9/11, NATO and Russia issued an unprecedented joint statement of support for America’s fight against Islamic radicalism. Even Iran offered to provide search‐​and‐​rescue help if U.S. pilots were shot down over Afghanistan. Today, in the waning days of his administration, even America’s NATO allies are divided over troop commitments to a mission they consider Bush has mismanaged. Experts warn about the emergence of a 21st century cold war with Russia. Worst of all, the influence of Tehran’s clerical leadership has spread throughout the Middle East, thanks in part to Bush’s removal of that country’s primary strategic counterweight, Saddam Hussein.

Another aspect of Bush’s “safer since 9/11” claim was undermined by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. In 2007 Pace confirmed, in a classified report to Congress, that the strains of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may prevent America from fully responding to another international crisis. With a thinly stretched military, a shortage of first responders here at home, and a weakened ability to counter international threats, it’s easy to see why only 27% of Americans approve Bush’s handling of foreign policy, according to a December 2008 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The Iraq invasion will certainly be remembered for many things, not the least of which includes falsified documents regarding Nigerian yellow‐​cake uranium and erroneous claims about Saddam’s links to al Qaeda. But more damning than the details was Bush’s big picture blunder: his refusal to consider the costs of diverting our attention and military resources into Iraq and away from Afghanistan. As a result, the Afghan mission is now in peril as security conditions in that region continue to deteriorate. The full adverse impact of Bush’s decision may not be felt for years to come.

2008 was the deadliest year for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban, despite being rife with internal divisions, now has a dominant presence in many of the country’s southern and eastern provinces. Some of those are now “no go” areas for coalition forces. Due to force constraints, the 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops are not enough to keep insurgents from infiltrating previously cleared areas.

Even worse, militants operating across the border in nuclear‐​armed Pakistan have begun attacking NATO supply trucks bound for land‐​locked Afghanistan. Last month, gunmen torched more than 160 vehicles intended for coalition troops near Peshawar, Pakistan, the administrative center for the tribal areas and the capital of North‐​West Frontier Province. This worsening environment along the Afghan‐​Pakistan border creates an ideal setting for al Qaeda and the Taliban to thrive. The al Qaeda threat, which seemed so close to defeat in 2002, has now revived to an alarming extent. That development certainly has not made America “safer.”

President Bush deserves to be remembered for the profound strategic miscalculation of diverting our military campaign away from those who attacked us on 9/11 to invade a country that did not, and, in doing so, leaving the country no safer than before.

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