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The Bush Legacy: The next President will have a better hand than expected

Commentary, 6 November 2008
President Obama has promised to learn from his predecessor’s failures. But he may also end up benefiting from some of Bush’s foreign policy achievements, however meagre these may be.

President Obama has promised to learn from his predecessor’s failures. But he may also end up benefiting from some of Bush’s foreign policy achievements, however meagre these may be.

By Kate Clouston, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

Although President Bush remains in office until January 2009, he is generally acknowledged to be more lame duck than any other lame duck President in recent history: his popularity is at rock bottom and Barack Obama’s electoral triumph is widely interpreted as a wholesale repudiation of Bush’s presidency.

It is undeniable that the incumbent US president should be accused of some notable foreign and security policy failures. The Iraq war is one of them, however well-meaning Mr Bush’s intentions may have been. The deep political gulf which this created in Europe’s relations with the US has still not healed. And the image of a trigger-happy America has done great harm to the country’s diplomats.

But not everything is negative about the Bush legacy, and not everything which was wrong can be ascribed to Bush alone. Here is a list of issues on which Bush either fared better than the received wisdom imparted by foreign policy punters, or at least not as bad as people claim.


The Bush Administration is accused of having little interest in development issues. But it is precisely Africa which represents one of its most important achievements. The US increased its core development assistance by 50 per cent between 2001 and 2006, a steady $5 billion annual increase in value terms. The Administration’s policies on development in Africa have been grudgingly recognised as a success, even by its critics. Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington recently stated, ‘As sharply as I and others have disagreed with many facets of Bush foreign policy, there has been much more continuity than discontinuity of Bush administration African policies and initiatives with the previous Clinton administration policy and initiatives.’

Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of HIV/AIDS retroviral treatments have been made available through President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). In July this year, President Bush reaffirmed the US commitment to the PEPFAR programme for a further five years, from 2009 through to 2013. Through this arrangement, the US has been working with international, national and local leaders worldwide to support integrated prevention, treatment and care programmes. This reinforces the commitments President Bush made at two G8 summits during his presidency at Monterey 2002 and Gleneagles 2005. The success of the PEPFAR means that President Bush actually does enjoy a bit of popularity in Africa – not nearly as much as president-elect Obama does, but still impressive by Bush’s current standards.


It is also generally acknowledged that the US has made constructive progress in its relations with India. President Bush has made efforts to engage Delhi through trade (the US is India’s largest trade partner) and through the signing of the United States-India Energy Security Act 2006, also known as the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement. Through this agreement India split its civilian and military nuclear facilities and placed those civilian facilities under IAEA safeguards. After the House and Senate approval was obtained earlier this year, President Bush signed the legislation into law as the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Nonproliferation Enhancement Act on October 8, 2008. Mr Obama has stated that he would support a permanent seat on the UN the Security Council for India. Given the importance of rising powers like India, the US is now well placed to have the largest democracy in the world as an ally.


President Bush has maintained the status quo on China as neither enemy nor ally, and will leave behind a solid platform of Sino-US relations upon which to build. The Bush Administration and the Peoples Republic of China built solid personal relationships, and Bush’s China policy received broad consensus in Congress. The PRC supported the coalition campaign in Afghanistan and contributed millions of dollars of bilateral aid to the reconstruction efforts, demonstrating that the US and China can co-operate on more than economic terms.


According to some critics, President Bush drove relations with Iran into the ground, to the very brink of violence. While it is true that President Bush missed an opportunity via-à-vis Iran with the disintegration of the ‘six-plus-two’ talks (Afghanistan’s neighbours plus Russia and America), it is also true that he began on the back foot by inheriting deteriorating relations with Iran from the Clinton Administration. He miscalculated in his now notorious ‘axis of evil’ speech, from which a leap to diplomatic relations was impossible. Some argue that President Bush threw away the potential for a strong supporter in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as Iran was very much originally in favour of an Anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Iran now has a much greater influence in the region, including particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that President Bush has amended his policy this year, including potentially setting up an American diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time in almost thirty years. He has done well to keep all options on the table though. Both presidential candidates in the recently concluded elections insisted - like President Bush - that the military option must remain on the table, and both have called for tougher sanctions on Iran while it continues to pursue a uranium enrichment programme.


EU-US relations remained delicate during the Bush presidency, but they were not irreparably damaged and have improved significantly since 2004. This may be more because of the election of pro-Atlanticist leaders such as President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel, rather than strides made by the Bush Administration itself. However, there are factors which have continued to tie Europe and America together despite the row over the Iraq war. Defence budgets are squeezed all over Europe and throughout the Alliance; the economic crisis, the rise of countries such as India and China and the resurgence of Russia mean that Europe and the US depend on each other more than ever. Even if security relations were sometimes frosty, at the very least President Bush has maintained trade links with Europe; Europe and the US are economically dependent on each other, forming the largest bilateral trade partnership in the world – goods alone accounted for over €440bn in trade in 2007. They are also each other’s largest foreign investor. In 2006, EU Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) totalled $1.11 trillion, almost half of total FDI in the US; likewise, in 2006 US FDI in the EU totalled $1.12 trillion. Needless to say, Europe and America depend on each other.


None of these arguments absolves President Bush of responsibility for some grave mistakes. But it is worth noting that the picture is much more mixed; for example, everyone pointed with certainty to a nuclear showdown with North Korea, when in fact the Bush Administration has bent over backwards to mend relations with that country.

President Obama has promised to learn from his predecessor’s failures. But he may also end up benefiting from some of Bush’s foreign policy achievements, however meagre these may be.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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