Center for American Progress

The Bush Legacy: Flailing and Failing the World Over

The Bush Legacy: Flailing and Failing the World Over

It's hard to find one area of the world where the Bush administration's foreign policies have been successful.

Part of a Series

When Cuban leader Fidel Castro officially stepped aside Tuesday and handed power over to his brother, an extraordinary opportunity arose to inject a dose of rationality into U.S. relations with that tortured island. Will the Bush administration seize the day? A look at its foreign policy record so far can only lead to one conclusion: not a snowball’s chance in Havana.

Take a look around the world and see if you can find one area of the world where the Bush administration’s policies have been successful. Just this week in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf—who the Bush administration has embraced as a cornerstone of its anti-terrorism policy—was repudiated and weakened by Pakistani voters. Castro stepped aside, not involuntarily or under the weight of a U.S. embargo, but peacefully, and while preserving his family’s dictatorial rule over Cuba.

The president was meanwhile traveling around Africa, where he likes to claim success, but it’s hard to see how or where. Genocide in Darfur continues and much of the Horn of Africa is approaching a crisis point, but Bush is at least viewed relatively favorably on the continent. He has invested a good deal of aid money there, even if some of it comes with abstinence-education-only qualification that makes it useless, and even if much of it was simply lifted from other parts of the aid budget, robbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were. But if Africa is not a complete catastrophe for the Bush foreign policy, it may be the only place on Earth where one can say as much. Take a look and see if you agree:

Iraq: The occupation of Iraq is obviously a crucial benchmark to consider, as it established the central ideological notion of the Bush Doctrine: The invasion asserted that the United States can act unilaterally, pre-emptively, and with military force to preserve its interests. Even noted Iraq cheerleader William Kristol has said that Bush needs to win Iraq in order to be viewed as a successful president. Even a simple enumeration of the administration’s various failures would take up more time than you, dear reader, have to read this piece. Let’s just say that if anyone had warned either Congress or the American people of what lay in store for them, it’s hardly imaginable that Bush would have received the approval he did, even based as it was on false claims in virtually every respect. Now in its sixth year, casualties mount, and there is little to no political progress in Baghdad; the critical issue of how Iraqi oil revenues will be shared, for example, is at an impasse with no end in sight.

Iran: Famously identified by the president as a founding member of the axis-of-evil during his first term, Iran has become more of a problem ever since. The administration’s strategy of isolating the regime through tough talk and thinly veiled threats has failed. Sunni Arab states aren’t confronting Shi’a Iran, as Bush had hoped, but rather cozying up to it, partly because of the U.S. hard-line approach, according to Mohamad Bazzi of the Council on Foreign Relations. When President Bush visited the Middle East recently to round up support for his hard-line policies towards Iran, the Arab News, a Saudi paper that often reflects the government’s position, wrote that “in his confrontational remarks about Iran, he offers no carrot, no inducement, no compromise—only the big U.S. stick. This is not diplomacy in search of peace. It is madness in search of war.” Needless to say, the country hasn’t aligned itself with our current strategy.

Afghanistan: This week also saw the deadliest bombing in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and violence is on the rise. The country has never been completely stable since the U.S.-led invasion, and the prospects for military victory there are beginning to appear shakier. Experts like Juan Cole of the University of Michigan are now beginning to question “whether Pushtuns in the country’s south are ever going to put up with a foreign military occupation of their territory.”

Israel and Palestine: First there was the “roadmap to peace”; a road that, alas, went nowhere. Next came Hamas’s election victory and the administration’s refusal to recognize or have a dialogue with the new government or recognize the results of the democratic election it demanded. The administration then re-launched its alleged “roadmap” strategy in November at a conference in Annapolis, but talks have been slow and Palestinian officials call Bush’s plan “not realistic." He could not even convince the U.S.-underwritten Iraqi government to attend.

Pakistan: We noted above that President Musharraf’s repudiation in this week’s elections, in the wake of the still murky assassination of Benazir Bhutto, puts a real dent in a strategy that terms this strongman “indispensable.” The United States has given Musharraf quite a bit of military aid—$10 billion or more—but not much in the way of economic aid. The problem with that, as William Hartung writes, is that “democracy promotion”—that is, imposed democracy—isn’t nearly as effective as “democracy support,” or giving non-military assistance to pro-democracy forces. But Musharraf is weakened and the United States, which did not plan for this eventuality, has nowhere to turn.

North Korea: The recent deal the Bush administration struck with Kim Jong-il to freeze his country’s nuclear program may actually be an area that Bush can claim success. The deal is only a first step, but it is considered by experts to be a good one. But what is important to note is that the deal was struck only after the “realists” in the Bush administration prevailed over the hard-liners. As Andrew Grotto wrote for the Center for American Progress, “For more than six years, the Bush administration has been divided between ideologues who think the best way to deal with nuclear weapons proliferation is to overthrow regimes or squeeze them into collapse, and pragmatists who think this approach backfires.” It was the realists who succeeded by having a dialogue with North Korea and ultimately securing a promise to cease nuclear production.

The lesson of North Korea is an important one—old-fashioned diplomatic engagement succeeded where the administration’s one-size-fits-all, tough-guy approach failed miserably. What one sees in looking at the failures in foreign policy these past seven years is not a remarkable string of poor implementation and bad luck, but the failure of an ideology—an ideology that asserted the United States stands alone atop a unipolar world, and that military might is the preferred solution in virtually every case. It has been a recipe for failure for our friends and victory for our foes. America may not miss this administration when it finally passes into history. But its adversaries sure will.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America , will be published in March.

George Zornick is a New York based writer.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series


Just released!

Interactive: Mapping access to abortion by congressional district

Click here