The received wisdom is that President Bush has been a foreign policy disaster, and that America is threatened by the rise of Asia. Both claims are wrong—Bush has successfully rolled back jihadism, and the US will benefit from Asian growth
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That George W Bush’s foreign policy has been a total failure is now taken for granted by so many people that one usually hears it stated as a simple truth that need not be argued at all.
It has happened before. When President Harry S Truman said in March 1952 that he would not seek re-election, most Americans could agree on one thing: that his foreign policy had been a catastrophic failure. In Korea his indecision had invited aggression, and then his incompetence had cost the lives of some 54,000 Americans and millions of Korean civilians in just two years of fighting—on both counts more than ten times the number of casualties in Iraq. Right-wingers reviled Truman for having lost China to communism and for his dismissal of the great General Douglas MacArthur, who had wanted to win it back, with nukes if necessary. Liberals despised Truman because he was the failed shopkeeper who had usurped the patrician Franklin Roosevelt’s White House—liberals always were the snobs of US politics.
Abroad, Truman was widely hated too. The communist accusation that he had waged “bacteriological warfare” to kill Korean children and destroy Chinese crops was believed by many, and was fully endorsed by a 669-page report issued by a commission chaired by the eminent British biochemist Joseph Needham. Even more people believed that Truman was guilty of having started the cold war by trying to intimidate our brave Soviet ally, or at least that he and Stalin were equally to blame.
How did this same Harry Truman come to be universally viewed as a great president, especially for his foreign policy? It is all a question of time perspectives: the Korean war is half forgotten, while everyone now knows that Truman’s strategy of containment was successful and finally ended with the almost peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire.
For Bush to be recognised as a great president in the Truman mould, the Iraq war too must become half forgotten. The swift removal of the murderous Saddam Hussein was followed by years of expensive violence instead of the instant democracy that had been promised. To confuse the imam-ridden Iraqis with Danes or Norwegians under German occupation, ready to return to democracy as soon as they were liberated, was not a forgivable error: before invading a country, a US president is supposed to know if it is in the middle east or Scandinavia.
Yet the costly Iraq war must also be recognised as a sideshow in the Bush global counteroffensive against Islamist militancy, just as the far more costly Korean war was a sideshow to global cold war containment. For the Bush response to 9/11 was precisely that—a global attack against the ideology of Islamic militancy. While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.
Of course, the analogy with Truman is far from perfect: the Soviet Union was a state, not a state of mind. But even so, once Bush’s victory is recognised, the errors of Iraq will be forgiven, just as nobody now blames Truman for having sent mixed signals on whether Korea would be defended. Of course, the Bush victory has not yet been recognised, which is very odd indeed because it has all happened in full view.
Until 9/11, Islamic militants, including violent jihadists of every sort, from al Qaeda to purely local outfits, enjoyed much public support—either overt or tacit—across most of the Muslim world. From Morocco to Indonesia, governments appeased militants at home while encouraging them to focus their violent activities abroad. Some, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded both militant preachers and armed jihadists. The Saudis financed extremist schools in many countries, including the US and Britain, and had thousands of militant preachers on the payroll in addition to writing cheques for jihadists in the Caucasus, Pakistan and a dozen other places (although not to Osama bin Laden himself, their declared enemy). The UAE rulers who now talk only of their airlines and banks are reliably reported to have handed over sackfuls of cash to Osama in person, meeting him at Kandahar’s airfield when flying in to hunt endangered species. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also the only countries that joined Pakistan in recognising the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Other Muslim governments, notably Sudan, Syria and Yemen, helped jihadists by giving them passports and safe havens, while others still, including Indonesia, simply turned a blind eye to Islamist indoctrination and jihadist recruitment.
Other than the Algerian and Egyptian governments, every Muslim state preferred at least to coexist with militant preachers and jihadis in some way. Pakistan did much more than that; its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, funded, armed and trained both the Taliban in Afghanistan and thousands of jihadists dedicated to killing Indian civilians, policemen and soldiers in Kashmir and beyond.
All this came to an abrupt end after 9/11. Sophisticates everywhere ridiculed the uncompromising Bush stance, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” as a cowboy stunt, but it was swiftly successful. Governments across the Muslim world quickly changed their conduct. Some moved energetically to close down local jihadist groups they had long tolerated, to silence extremist preachers and to keep out foreign jihadis they had previously welcomed. Others were initially in denial. The Saudis, in the person of interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, started off by denying that the 9/11 terrorists were Arabs, let alone Saudis, while the UAE princes accused of giving cash to Bin Laden pretended they had never heard of him.
Denial did not last. As they saw American special forces and long-range bombers smashing the Taliban, the Saudis began to admit responsibility for having spread extremism through the thousands of schools and academies they financed at home and abroad. An agonising reappraisal of their own Wahhabi form of Islam continues. The Saudi king has convened an inter-faith conference of Muslims, Christians and Jews—a huge step given the Wahhabi prohibitions of any form of amity with non-Muslims. Inside the kingdom, only less extreme preachers now receive public support. Bin Laden had been the Saudis’ enemy for years, but it was only after 9/11 that they began actively to hunt down his supporters and made their first moves to discourage rich Saudis from sending money to jihadists abroad. More than a thousand Saudis have been arrested, dozens have been killed while resisting arrest, and Saudi banks must now check if wire transfers are being sent to Muslim organisations on the terrorist list.
In different ways, other governments in Muslim countries all the way to Indonesia also took their stand with Bush and the US against the jihadists, even though jihad against the infidel is widely regarded as an Islamic duty. Suddenly, active Islamists and violent jihadists suffered a catastrophic loss of status. Instead of being admired, respected or at least tolerated, they had to hide, flee or give it up. Numbers started to shrink. The number of terrorist incidents outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq keeps going down, while madrassas almost everywhere have preferred toning down their teachings to being shut down. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, the dominant association of imams condemns all forms of violence without exception.
But it was in Pakistan that Bush forced the most dramatic reversal of policy. He had said that it was with us or against us, and he meant it. President Musharraf was given a stark choice: stand with the US to destroy the Taliban that Pakistan itself had created, or be destroyed. Musharraf made the right choice, shutting down the flow of arms to the Taliban, opening the Shahbaz airfield to US aircraft and giving blanket permission for US military overflights across Pakistan. Nothing will stop the North-West Frontier Province from being as violent as it has been since the days of Alexander the Great. Nothing can dissuade the Pashtuns from their twin passions for boys and guns. And naturally they approve of the Taliban on both counts. But at least the Pakistani state is no longer funding these pederasts. Musharraf also started to remove the bearded extremists who once practically ran Pakistan’s ISI, starting with the chief, Mahmood Ahmed, who was replaced within a month of 11th September by the moderate Ehsanul Halqas. It has been less easy for Musharraf and his acolytes to identify and remove the more subtle smooth-shaven extremists in the ISI, who still support the renascent Taliban, but they tried hard enough to trigger at least one of the assassination attempts against Musharraf himself.
What happened in Pakistan within 24 hours of 9/11 was something the world had never seen before: the overnight transformation of the very core of a country’s policy—the support of jihad—which derived from the national myth of Pakistan as the Muslim state par excellence. It was as if President Bush had sent an envoy to Italy to demand the outlawing of spaghetti al pomodoro—and succeeded.
Yet one hears well-informed people casually remark that Bush’s war on terror has been a total failure. This is not just political prejudice; after all, the dog that does not bark is not heard. But one need not be Sherlock Holmes to recall that 11th September was meant to be the beginning of a global jihad, with a 12th September, 13th September, 14th September and so on.
Not that al Qaeda itself could do it—its one shot had been fired. But the destruction of the twin towers inspired thousands of young Muslims to go down to the local Islamist prayer hall to offer their services to jihadists. The Koran, after all, explicitly promises victory in all things to the believers, making Muslim weakness the source of agonising, if unspoken, doubts about the credibility of the faith itself. That is the true source of the resentment that no policy accommodations in the middle east could possibly assuage. And it was those doubts that induced not only the hapless Palestinians but even westernised, affluent, wine-drinking Tunisians to celebrate the television images of 9/11 with tears of joy, and that of course made Bin Laden the first pan-Islamic hero since Saladin.
The destruction of the twin towers was therefore the most powerful possible call to action. It was quite enough to trigger not just a Madrid, a London or a Glasgow attack, but many more in Europe alone. The main target, however, was bound to be the US itself, as well as American tourists, expatriates, business residents and, naturally, any troops anywhere.
Instead, the global jihadi mobilisation, triggered by post-9/11 enthusiasm for Osama bin Laden, was stopped before it could gain any momentum by all that Bush set in motion: the destruction of al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan, the killing or capture of most of its operatives, and, most importantly, the conversion of Muslim governments from the support of jihad to its repression.
Jihadism has been largely confined to Iraq and the border zones of Pakistan, where guns are fashion statements and jihad the latest excuse for millennial violence. By contrast, since 9/11, attacks against western (“Christian”) targets have been few, with not a single attack in the US and just a handful in Europe. It would not have been so if a less determined, less self-confident president had been in the White House. “You are with us or with the terrorists” was the right slogan and the right policy. The post-victory shambles in Iraq is a sideshow by comparison.
Bush’s detractors must also contend with another great success: denuclearisation. It started with Libya, which in 2003, in fear of what Bush might do, surrendered all the equipment it had bought to make nuclear weapons. Then there is Syria, which lost its secret proto-nuclear reactor to a strike by the Israeli air force last September—a move made with Bush’s approval. The demolition of North Korea’s nuclear programme has finally started. It may continue to full denuclearisation if Bush’s successor keeps up the pressure. And most recently, the direct engagement of the US with Iran’s nuclear programme has started. As usual, European diplomacy failed completely. While the E-3—Britain, France, Germany—continued to talk, the Iranians continued to build, and later publicly boasted that they had tricked the Europeans. Now matters are coming to a close. Bush has sent his own trusted envoy to offer generous incentives to the Iranians to stop enriching uranium and demolish a few installations. That is exactly what the E-3 offered. The difference is that there was no Bush involved, hence no credibility to the implied “or else.”
Bush may yet decide that it is unfair to leave the problem to his successor, or to the Israelis, who would have to fly 1,000 nautical miles to Iran instead of less than 200 from carriers in the Persian Gulf. After all, Bush has been the great denucleariser, not least in Iraq, in spite of the misleading postwar controversy. Saddam’s plan was to revive his nuclear programme in 2004 after the end of the UN embargo. Without the war there might now be an Iraqi nuclear programme to deal with, not just an Iranian one.
Often connected to the underestimation of George W Bush as a foreign policy president (his fiscal policy is another matter), the new conventional wisdom is also wrong about an altogether larger subject—the future of the US itself. There is no end to books that predict the decline of the US—the latest is Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (Allen Lane)—or simply assert it as proven fact.
In part, this may reflect a form of wish-fulfilment. There is a longing in some quarters to yoke together Bush’s perceived mismanagement of America’s foreign policy with the diminishment of US power itself. More charitably, one might suggest that it shows a confusion between absolute and relative change. The economies of China and now India have been growing rapidly ever since their governments gave up self-destructive policies, and Brazil and many smaller countries from Israel to Singapore are doing the same. This has diminished the relative wealth of the US and Europe, while at the same time greatly enriching them. It is, after all, enriching to have new markets that import American and German technology and European luxuries, and in a different way it is enriching just to know that hundreds of millions have escaped utter misery and filth to move up into more decent lives, or even affluence. So the relative statistical decline of US and European income has no negative substantive meaning—unless it were true that today’s economic capacity will become tomorrow’s military capability aimed at the US, if not Europe. Implicit in this is an absurd assumption: that China, India and Brazil and the rest of the fast-growers will form a global alliance to confront the US and Europe—presumably encouraged by the blunders and bullying of Bush. Once again, wish-fulfilment. The opposite is far more likely: China has been the ally of the US over decades, and its enemy only between 1950 and 1953; India and the US had their moment of tension in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistan war, but have been slowly converging for two decades. The idea that China is another Wilhelmine Germany, just waiting to convert its new industrial wealth into military power, would make perfect sense if the Chinese were Prussians, supremely dedicated to the service of the state, and personally eager for the opportunity to send their brave sons to war. That describes everything that the Chinese are not, and have never been. The Chinese empire was aggressive and expansionist under the Yuan dynasty and again under the Qing. But one dynasty was established by horseriding Mongols, the other by horseriding Manchus, both the products of foreign warrior cultures. The Han Chinese prefer other pursuits. Perhaps they will change, as cultures sometimes do. But if so, they will confront all the other newly rich allies of the US.
But what is true of the new industrialising states is not true of the parasitic oil-bubble countries, from Russia to Saudi Arabia to Iran to Venezuela. Their enrichment really is our loss, as Americans and Europeans of all income levels, as well as much poorer people all over the world, pay for the gaudy luxuries of oil-rich potentates, oligarchs and their servants. Unlike China or India, the oil-bubble countries produce neither goods nor services—the oil on which they sit is usually extracted, processed and shipped for them by foreigners (see my essay “The middle of nowhere,” Prospect May 2007.) Thus their imports are unrequited transfers from oil consumers everywhere. Moreover, these governments are mostly anti-democratic and usually nefarious in other ways as well. If China, India, Brazil and the rest of the hard-working world were like oil-bubble countries—parasitic and mostly malevolent—the future of US power would indeed be in doubt.
There is no denying, however, that when the US (and European) financial system is creaking under a colossal accumulation of private debt; when the values of formerly safe bank shares held in millions of pension accounts can collapse overnight; when the credibility and value of the dollar has been shaken by the unprecedented magnitude of new guarantee commitments thrust on the US treasury (trillions not billions)—then the argument of American decline starts off with a degree of plausibility.
One can see—along with Zakaria, Thomas Friedman and every casual newspaper reader—that some of the rest of the world has been catching up, and that in Moscow there is a lot of money flowing around while power remains solidly concentrated in the Kremlin. One can also see that the immense wealth of the US—a country of 19,000 local airports and a Mediterranean’s worth of private pools—is being eroded by seemingly insurmountable political inhibitions against pragmatic remedies for key problems, from illegal drugs to mass transport, to healthcare. (The latter—including the monstrous Medicare programme that pays for quintuple bypasses for 97 year olds at a total cost that will soon exceed the Pentagon’s entire budget—now consumes 16 per cent of the US economy).
These are real problems for the US, but the declinist literature has little of substance to say about them. The only interesting question is whether America will be forced to confront its national problems, or whether Americans will simply prefer to outgrow them. The former might be more desirable, the latter is more likely. The path to disorderly innovative growth remains wide open, and there are strong signs that another transformational boom is already taking off—in the energy sector. This is not because they are suddenly fearful of global warming (most Americans remain sceptical), but because the virtue of fossil fuels was their cheapness, and they are not cheap any more.
The usual American subsidies—generous but discreet in the land of free enterprise—and imprudent investments that have fed every previous innovation boom are producing the usual mix of good ideas and frauds, from dozens of energy-saving industrial processes via geothermal energy to the disastrous ethanol drive that John McCain was brave enough to denounce in the leading ethanol state of Iowa.
The fact that my brother’s car in Denver now runs on used restaurant oil (it is a tempura joint, the oil is very clean) is less significant than the fact that his mind, along with millions of other Americans minds, is now focused on energy conservation. Gasoline consumption has fallen notably, the demand for big SUVs has collapsed and housebuyers are now demanding maximum insulation. These would have been foolish priorities when oil was still very cheap. But they are not foolish any more. That is the news which should frighten the oil exporters, not idle talk of new nuclear reactors or anything else that requires that capacity for public action that is notably weak.
So the bien-pensant commentators have got the two big questions about the US’s place in the world completely back to front—they believe that Bush has failed in the very field where he has been most successful, and that China adds to American problems when the opposite is true. But what about the questions they are not even asking? When will China’s Communist party collapse—all things must end, after all, and a major earthquake in Beijing could do the job overnight. Or will the Communist party avoid collapse in the only way possible, by reforming itself democratically and losing elections to be able to win them truly, as Taiwan’s once undemocratic Kuomintang has done? Obviously that would greatly increase American-Chinese convergence, making military rivalry even less likely.
Will the corrupt incapacity of India’s degenerating state and local governments strangle the country’s economic progress, or will economic progress favour the recovery of the decent standards of the past? (Tamil Nadu, with as many people as Britain, was once well governed by Brahmins but now is for the most part simply ungoverned by the lower-caste politicians now in charge.)
Will Russia advance towards Putin’s promised authoritarianism, or will it persist as a unique specimen of centrally administered gangsterism? The US would be weakened by a coherently authoritarian Russia, with its readiness to use oil and gas reserves as diplomatic levers. But in fact the influence of the US in Europe is increasing with each passing day thanks to the gangsterism that infects Kremlin behaviour—the crude threats to supplies, the abrupt closure of highways, and even nuclear sabre-rattling.
Will the increasing decentralisation of Europe into regions and even quasi-states such as Catalonia and Scotland weaken the old national states sufficiently to allow the emergence of a strong pan-European government? That would also weaken the US, which now acts as Europe’s only functioning co-ordinator for all that is military and diplomatic. It is also wildly unlikely in this century.
It is not personal shortcomings that prevent Friedman, Zakaria and co from addressing such questions. It is their method that is wrong, for it relies on two substitutes for systematic research: brief journeys to visit foreign parts that are mostly occupied by meetings with locals who speak English, and international conferences, like the Davos jamboree, which are frequented by the same locals, now on their own brief visits to foreign parts. This encourages the recirculation of clichés that usurp the place of considered thought.
In any case, not even Zakaria can discern any evidence that the spirit of discovery and invention that has made the US and the rest of the west so powerful is being relinquished. If anything, the opposite seems to be true. Even for the Olympics the Chinese relied on celebrity western architects to design the signature buildings. It is western modernity that has been emerging in spectacular fashion in China and elsewhere around the hard-working world, not any locally invented version. And the US is set to remain the chief source of western innovation, not least because its population is younger, and its society more flexible, than Europe’s. On to the next boom therefore, when today’s bust will be forgotten, along with the instant Davos books.
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