Fiddling While It Burns

Did George Bush Strengthen or Weaken the American Empire?

Synopsis

At the turn of the century, the world was unipolar, with America wielding unparalleled influence, expected to lead the world into a peaceful and liberal democratic future. Its only rival on the horizon was China, but with their vastly different records on freedom and human rights it was clear which nation the world would choose, giving America a clear advantage. Then came George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States.

In his eight years George W. Bush caused great, almost unprecedented harm to the American empire. His very presidency undermined American claims to democratic superiority. His unnecessary unilateralism and contempt for the international system alienated the world. After the September 11 attacks, his Manichean rhetoric and pugnacious attitude dissipated sympathy. This all made the exercise of American influence infinitely more difficult. War planning was bungled by his administration, leading to two resilient insurgencies. His dissembling promotion of the invasion of Iraq profoundly undermined the world’s trust in American good intentions, inflamed the Islamic world, and destroyed the appearance of American power being used for justice rather than conquest. His disregard for human rights was reflected in prisoner abuse both in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, forever tarnishing America’s claim to being a morally superior superpower.

Most of the damage Bush did could be fixed – the military remains powerful, and America remains wealthy. However, where prior to Bush America was clearly the superior option to China, to be favoured by all liberal democracies in the struggle for global dominance, Bush made the situation much more ambiguous, ceding America’s most important advantage in the struggle for influence.

Introduction

After being appointed the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush dealt a staggering blow to both the mythos and power of America, causing America to lose ground it may never regain. His unilateralism and arrogant rhetoric did inestimable damage to America’s soft power, causing world opinion to turn savagely on US dominance and jeopardising the degree of assent American power has always enjoyed. His ill-conceived and poorly waged war in Iraq, and the consequent reallocation of resources from Afghanistan, put the magnificent American military machine in a position where it appeared weak and ineffectual, as it struggled to bring order to one tiny state with too few troops. His disregard of human rights lost America its moral advantage, making room for arguments of equivalency between America and its global rivals.

To a traditional empire, this may not have mattered. The American empire, however, is an empire of liberal democratic ideology, and therefore relies on assent for much of its imperial power – assent from the voters of America, assent from the allies who give it unmatched global influence, assent from the people of the world who choose American goods and cultural exports, and who endorse the market liberal status quo every time they work to improve their lives or save to buy goods and services. Bush and his advisors appear to have considered American power contingent only on its overwhelming military power, disregarding the importance of world opinion, and in acting on this assumption fundamentally changed the way the operation of American power is seen in the world.

This is most important in the context of the American rivalry with China. America is a liberal democracy; although China has embraced market ideology, it remains oppressive and totalitarian. America’s great advantage in the two nations’ competition for global power is that it is seen as preferable, because of its human rights record, freedom and open society. That is the strategically vital advantage that Bush’s precipitous presidency harmed.

Narrative of Infamy

Appointed by a Supreme Court voting on partisan lines after losing the popular vote[1], Bush’s very presidency challenged America’s identity as an exemplar of democracy[2]. He immediately made a bad impression on the world with unilateralism on global warming, contempt for the United Nations, and his pursuit of a missile defence system at the expense of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty[3]. This is an important period, as in previous decades the US was primarily pushing the Western world in the direction it wanted to go, one compatible with global liberal democracy, but at this point the US began to be seen as selfish and inflammatory, a dangerous cowboy on the world stage. Missile defence particularly threatened Europe, as it indicated the willingness of Americans to buy their own security at the expense of the stability of the international order[4]. Bush only strengthened this impression by bullying other nations over the International Criminal Court[5].

Bush also inflamed global opinion with his reinstitution of the ‘global gag rule’ and expansion of government funding to ‘faith-based initiatives’, overtly religious measures. The global gag rule, or Mexico City Policy, is the ultimate political football, first instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1984, then repealed by Bill Clinton immediately upon taking office, and reinstituted by Bush on his first day in office[6] (and repealed by Barack Obama on his first day in office), and is loathed throughout the world for the enormous control it exercises over non-government organisations[7]. Bush’s faith-based initiatives program[8] flew in the face of traditional US separation of church and state. Both these measures undermined the US’s credibility as a liberal democracy, instead associating it with aggressive evangelical Christianity.

Although the aftermath of September 11 caused great sympathy for the United States[9], it was immediately damaged by Bush’s possibly unintentional framing of the conflict as religious in nature[10], and by its unilateral arrogance in its retaliatory invasion in Afghanistan. In a world willing and ready to assist, Bush’s singular attitude to American power still managed to lose friends and alienate people. Meanwhile, his administration’s refusal to put enough soldiers on the ground in the Afghanistan campaign meant that when it came to the crunch, commanders had insufficient soldiers to cut off the retreat in Tora Bora of not only Al-Qaeda’s figurehead and Bush’s formulation of ultimate evil, Osama Bin Laden, but also the Taliban’s spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar[11]. Both remain at large to this day. The symbolic importance of this cannot be overlooked, particularly in a region where symbolism is so important – all the might of the American military, the most powerful organisation in the history of the world, with all its technology and manpower, failed to apprehend two men. This loss of face is an important part of what enables the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

The Bush administration now turned its attention to Iraq, with a radical refiguring of American foreign policy. In his State of the Union address, Bush spoke about “the axis of evil”, in which he included Iraq, Iran and North Korea, which he described as rogue states which threatened America and world stability. He asserted that these nations were seeking weapons of mass destruction, and argued that they must be stopped because they might provide these weapons to terrorists. In June 2002, speaking at the West Point military academy, he articulated a first-strike policy against not just actual threats to the US, but perceived or potential threats. This alienated almost the entire world, but also changed the nature of American world leadership, basing it much more on an implicit threat[12].

Bush backed this up with a relentless drive for an invasion of Iraq. During 2002 and eary 2003, his administration engaged in a protracted and ruthless campaign to use distortion, propaganda and misinformation to convince Americans and the world to invade Iraq. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, this cynical tactic, although gaining some traction in the Anglo world, turned the world – the Islamic world in particular – against America[13],[14],[15]. This did further great harm to the United States by making it appear an opportunist and imperialist power, and laid the groundwork for broad-based resistance. In the process, the administration pulled most troops out of Afghanistan in preparation for invading Iraq, which allowed the Taliban to rebuild and commence a protracted guerrilla campaign which continues to this day[16]. Bush’s hubris (and the influence of his Iraq-obsessed war cabinet) meant that instead of finishing one war, he initiated a second, and turned both into protracted guerrilla campaigns. This damaged American empire in several ways. Firstly, the wear on equipment and damage to morale (and therefore recruiting numbers) from fighting two insurgencies is enormous. Secondly, invading a second Islamic country so quickly made both conflicts very definitely about religion for many Muslims, lending what would have been otherwise unpopular causes great sympathy (and therefore money-making ability and manpower). Third, he lost the confidence and support of Western nations with a vested interest in the advancement of a liberal agenda. Fourth, the massive expenditure involved in these wars represents a massive economic drain and opportunity cost, and will continue to weaken the US for decades to come[17].

Rumsfeld’s obsession with precision bombing had already led to failure in Afghanistan, but he was determined to do the same in Iraq. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prominently refused to plan for an occupation, and demanded the invasion take place with far fewer troops than his general staff felt they required[18],[19],[20]. The US military took Iraq within weeks, but Saddam Hussein had put in place a detailed plan of guerrilla warfare, which the Americans did not have enough troops to combat. Iraq predictably turned into a bloody quagmire, with an insurgency starting mere days after the conquest of Baghdad[21], world opinion of the US continued to spiral[22].

The next disaster of the Bush administration’s making was revelations of the use of torture, which first erupted with the Abu Ghraib revelations in 2005[23]. The Bush administration feigned horror at these revelations, and charged junior military members with crimes, pretending the rot went no further[24],[25]. It soon emerged, however, that the Bush administration had authorised torture, euphemistically titled ‘enhanced interrogation’, soon after the September 11 attacks, with dubious legal opinions provided by the Bush Department of Justice that attempted to redefine torture almost out of existence[26]. Many of the techniques used at Abu Ghraib – intimidation with dogs, use of nudity, presence of female soldiers, and forced simulated sex acts – were very similar to those used at Guantanamo Bay, where they had been originally authorised[27]. As this drama played itself out across the world’s newspapers, it not only destroyed America’s ability to claim the moral high ground in the War on Terror, but further inflamed the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Bush years came to a close, two wars continued to sap American strength, Bush was broadly despised, and the US economy had started to crumble. It is undeniable the Bush years were devastating to the mythology of American exceptionalism, and to world opinion of the US[28]. What may prove more significant in the eye of history, however, is that Bush’s failed presidency was situated at the exact historical moment when China was making incredible economic gains, building its power-base and challenging for recognition as a new superpower[29]. It is enormously significant that, as China was making its final gains towards entrenchment as a superpower[30], the Bush presidency so harmed US global influence and military power, and it is possible for this reason that George W. Bush will be remembered as the president who destroyed American empire.

Conclusion

Traditionally, empires have disregarded the opinions of the ruled. The American empire, however, is one of liberal democracy, and all nations turning to this model for the betterment of their citizens lives have implicitly joined the American global hegemony. The lure of wealth and freedom is what drew much of the world into America’s sphere of influence, and without this assent, American power could never have reached the stratospheric heights it had by the start of the Bush years. Bush and his advisors, however, failed to understand this. They perceived America’s power as wholly military, and in using that power destroyed much of America’s less tangible influence.

The pattern of this behaviour was set early, by the unscrupulous manipulation of the legal system to gain power, leaving Bush without the legitimacy of popular election. Contemptuous of the global order, Bush pursued the destabilising missile defence program, disregarded Kyoto, and isolated the US. After the September 11 attacks, this unilateralism and tendency towards unnecessary confrontation reached new heights, as the administration managed to turn retaliation for the attacks, which the world supported, into another way to alienate America’s support base. Then, prematurely turning their attention from Afghanistan, and articulating a Manichean world view and a foreign policy which no state in the world could fail to feel threatened by, the Bush administration plunged America into a second war, giving an enormous boost to world hostility, stretching the American military machine, and ensuring two guerrilla campaigns would continue to sap blood and money.

Bush repeatedly antagonised the world, with his bombast, unilateralism, and ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric, while losing America its poition of esteem and damaging Americans’ own pride through the brutal human rights abuses he allowed. American ideals and moral superiority were a vital asset in its maintenance of global superiority – they proved so in the Cold War and will continue to be in its contests with China for global influence – but Bush treated them cavalierly and with contempt. The Bush presidency is certain to be regretted in the decades to come.

Bibliography:

Bilms, L. & Stiglitz, J., ‘The Iraq War Will Cost Us $3 Trillion, and Much More’, Washington Post, 9 March 2008

This article calculates the total cost of the Iraq war to the American economy, including specific appropriations, costs hidden in the defence budget, and the cost of future care for veterans and the wounded. This article takes a clear and critical look at just what the Iraq War will cost the American economy in the final accounting.

Boehlert, E., ‘Mission demolished: Bush and Co.’s Iraq adventure grows bloodier by the day — thanks to the delusional hawks who planned only for a victory parade’, Salon.com, 4 Nov 2003, available at http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feature/2003/11/04/iraq/index.html, retrieved 31 May 2009

Salon.com, an online-only news outlet started by disillusioned print journalists, was one of few news organisations critically reporting the Bush administration and holding it to account between late 2001 and 2005. This news article lays out in some detail how poor planning, wishful thinking and arrogance created a disaster in Iraq.

BBC UK, Infinite Justice – Out, Enduring Freedom – In, 25 Sep 2001, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1563722.stm, retrieved 1 Jun 09

A hard news story on how rhetoric had to be adjusted when Bush noticed his domestic posturing had an international audience.

Bugliosi, Vincent T. “None Dare Call It Treason”, The Nation, 272.5 (Feb 5, 2001): 11.

This article is an impassioned cry against the politicization of the Supreme Court, and considers the Gore v Bush decision which made George W. Bush president a criminal act. Bugliosi’s rhetoric is a little too florid, but his points are valid.

Cincotta, R., and Crane, B., ‘The Mexico City Policy and US Family Planning Assistance’, Science Magazine, 19 Oct 2001, available at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/294/5542/525.pdf, retrieved 2 Jun 2009

Cincotta and Crane are critical of the Mexico City Policy. They point out how the policy acts to hinder world health efforts, but actually force aid agencies to choose whether to obey US laws or the laws of the nations in which they practice.

Cohen, W., America’s Failing Empire, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2005

Cohen offers a revisionist view of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. He particularly focuses on the Bush administration, of which he is highly critical.

Galbraith, P., ‘Mindless in Iraq’, The New York Review of Books, vol. 53 no. 13, 10 Aug 2006, available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19197, retrieved 02 Jun 09.

Peter Galbraith is an experienced Iraq correspondent. In this article he puts his own experiences together with several on-the-ground histories of the Iraq War, to create an ugly picture of an incompetent and unplanned occupation.

George W. Bush, Executive Order 13198 – Agency Responsibilities With Respect to Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, 31 Jan 2008, available at http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/executive-orders/2001-wbush.html, retrieved 31 May 2009

Hersh, S., Chain of Command, HarperCollins, 2004

Often criticised as a polemicist, Hersh’s indefatigable investigative journalism uncovered the Abu Ghraib scandal, and much of the other malfeasance of the Bush administration. Although often criticised as a polemicist, his success in revealing this and many other important betrayals of public trust make him a source impossible to dismiss.

Ikenberry, ‘The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 87, no. 1, pg. 23

A hard look at the current environment of competition between America and China, this article emphasises the importance of America’s influence on the international system and liberal democratic order.

Kaufmann, C., ‘Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War’, International Security, Vol. 29 No. 1, Summer 2004, pp. 5-48.

Kaufmann looks in detail at how the Bush administration deceived and manipulated the media and electorate to enable the invasion of Iraq, from the perspective of democracy as a ‘marketplace of ideas’.

Ivanov, I. ‘The Missile-Defense Mistake – Undermining Strategic Stability and the ABM Treaty’, Foreign Affairs, 79.5 (Sept-Oct 2000): p.15

A criticism of Anti-Ballistic Missile defence projects written before the Bush presidency, this highlights the importance of international stability and the relative unfeasibility of the threat from “rogue states”. Needless to say, and like most intelligent foreign policy analysis, it went ignored by the Bush administration.

Office of the Press Secretary, White House, Memorandum for the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, 22 Feb 2001, available at http://web.archive.org/web/20010604032136/http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/20010123-5.html

The memorandum which reinstituted the Mexico City Policy for the eight years of Bush rule.

Pew Global Attitudes Project, A Year After Iraq War: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists, 16 Mar 2004

This report dramatically outlines the anger generated worldwide by the invasion of Iraq.

Pew Global Attitudes Project, America’s Image Erodes Further, Europeans Want Weaker Ties, 18 Mar 2003

This report, mere days before the invasion of Iraq, shows global discomfort with America’s drive to war, and the related loss of American standing in world opinion

Pew Global Attitudes Project, Bush Unpopular in Europe, Seen As Unilateralist, 15 Aug 2001

This report from the Pew Global Attitudes project is an interesting view of how Bush was seen before the distortion of September 11. It refutes the attempts of Bush apologists to position Europe as anti-American without reason, and provides a clear foreshadowing of strained US-European relations during the Bush years.

Pew Global Attitudes Project, Global Public Opinion During the Bush Years (2001-2008), 18 Dec 2008

A final report of Bush’s effect on global attitudes to America, this is an even more powerful refutation of claims that the world is fundamentally anti-American, showing clearly the effect of the Bush foreign policy.

The Onion, ‘Serbia Deploys Peacekeeping Forces to U.S.’, 15 Nov 2000, available at http://www.theonion.com/content/node/38646

The Onion is the world’s premier satirical publication. This article shows the ridicule the circumstances of Bush’s presidency exposed America to.


[1] Bugliosi, “None Dare Call It Treason”, The Nation,  272.5 (Feb 5, 2001): 11.

[2] The Onion, ‘Serbia Deploys Peacekeeping Forces to U.S.’, 15 Nov 2000.

[3] Pew Global Attitudes Project, Bush Unpopular in Europe, Seen As Unilateralist, 15 Aug 2001.

[4] Ivanov, ‘The Missile-Defense Mistake – Undermining Strategic Stability and the ABM Treaty’, Foreign Affairs, 79.5 (Sept-Oct 2000): p.15.

[5] Cohen, America’s Failing Empire, pp. 129.

[6] Office of the Press Secretary, White House, Memorandum for the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, 22 Feb 2001.

[7] Cincotta and Crane, ‘The Mexico City Policy and US Family Planning Assistance’, Science Magazine, 19 Oct 2001.

[8] President George W. Bush, Executive Order 13198 – Agency Responsibilities With Respect to Faith- Based and Community Initiatives, 31 Jan 2008.

[9] Prestowitz, Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, 2003, p. 4.

[10] BBC UK, Infinite Justice – Out, Enduring Freedom – In, 25 Sep 2001.

[11] Cohen, op. cit., pp. 132-134.

[12] ibid., p. 135.

[13] Kaufmann, ‘Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War’, International Security, Vol. 29 No. 1, Summer 2004, pp. 5-48.

[14] Hersh, Chain of Command, pp. 203-247.

[15] Pew Global Attitudes Project, America’s Image Erodes Further, Europeans Want Weaker Ties, 18 Mar 2003

[16] Cohen, op cit., pp. 132-134.

[17] Bilms & Stiglitz, ‘The Iraq War Will Cost Us $3 Trillion, and Much More’, Washington Post, 9 March 2008

[18] Boehlert,  ‘Mission demolished: Bush and Co.’s Iraq adventure grows bloodier by the day — thanks to the delusional hawks who planned only for a victory parade’, Salon.com, 4 Nov 2003

[19] Galbraith, ‘Mindless in Iraq’, The New York Review of Books, vol. 53 no. 13, 10 Aug 2006

[20] Hersh, op. cit., pp. 249-250.

[21] ibid, p. 257.

[22] Pew Global Attitudes Project, A Year After Iraq War: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists, 16 Mar 2004.

[23] Hersh, op. cit., pp. 21-23.

[24] ibid., pp. 27-28.

[25] Cohen, op. cit., pp. 159-160.

[26] Hersh, op. cit., pp. 18-20.

[27] ibid., pp. 3-7.

[28] Pew Global Attitudes Project, Global Public Opinion During the Bush Years (2001-2008), 18 Dec 2008

[29] ibid.

[30] Ikenberry, ‘The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 87, no. 1, pg. 23

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1 Comment »

  1. Extremely good. Thoughtful, well-written and insightful. If I was marking, I wouldn’t bother, just give you a top job with a quality newspaper.

    Comment by Marj — 17/06/2009 @ 8:48 am


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