Rewriting history in real time

The White House’s recent policy reversals amount to a stunning repudiation of the first seven years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Where allies were previously disrespected, now they’re viewed as essential. Where diplomacy was eschewed, now it’s pursued with vigor. No longer running the government from his “base,” Bush finally tries to lead the entire nation.

His political opponents detect weakness and regret and a last-ditch attempt to salvage legacy, while supporters point to a self-professed “dissident” leader extending a “freedom” agenda in his final months. Both perspectives hold much truth.

But as someone who’s worked extensively throughout the national-security community across this administration, both inside and outside government, I am struck by how the world seems to be returning to its pre-9/11 correlation of forces, like a cosmic clock being reset. It’s almost as if the sum total effect of the second Bush term will be to repair the damage caused by the first.

They say time heals all wounds. It similarly muddles all doctrines.

When Bush entered office, transnational terrorism seemed dangerous but manageable — an “over there” challenge. Fast forward to 2008 and tell me what’s different, other than your approach to air travel. Yes, we now know that a 9/11 is eminently possible and we’re keenly aware of its likely engineers and where they reside. When they pull off the next one, probably in Europe, we’ll collectively head to roughly the same spot to roust them out again.

Meanwhile, we’ll make reasonable efforts to bolster networks, both here and there, but the world must go on. Terrorists monopolized America’s attention for a while but nowhere else, either because other regions were used to such travails or because bigger things were happening.

At the beginning of 2001 we sensed that the Middle East was broken, with little chance of peace. Iraq and Iran were clearly dangerous, but both were considered manageable through a mix of economic and military efforts. No doubt we have far many more boots on the ground today, and our sacrifice in blood and treasure is alarmingly large, but back then the Persian Gulf was seen as something primarily left to the U.S. military to handle, and so it is again today.

Bush’s pre-emptive war became Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency becomes Central Command’s enduring challenge, along with Afghanistan and — suddenly –Pakistan. If, in 2001, I described a Pentagon dreaming of brilliant, high-tech war with “rising China” but operationally engrossed by a messy, unstable, low-tech security landscape, today you’d find all the same bureaucratic tensions, exponentially expanded and increasingly fueled by a young generation of ground officers bristling for institutional reform.

The Bush administration entered office complaining that scant attention was being paid to the “big pieces” of international security, like Russia, China, Europe and India. Then 9/11, triggering a fit of unilateralist pique, pushed all those great-power concerns aside as we targeted failed states and rogue regimes.

Fast forward to 2008 and we’re back to focusing on how those “big pieces” help us manage the little ones. It turns out that you’d better ask the neighbors before you start “draining the swamp.”

But no, this whole journey wasn’t merely the result of Bush’s mis-education at the hands of his now-discredited foreign-policy “Vulcans.” In certain instances, like global warming, the mountain came to Mohammad. If, in 2001, the smart money said the Kyoto treaty was doomed because it excluded booming China and India, today’s conventional wisdom admits the same. Thus we now search for more sensibly comprehensive and sustainable strategies for dealing with this global issue.

Is it enough, in the end, for Bush’s second administration to repair — for the most part — the damage to America’s global standing created by his first?

Yes and no.

The reason I supported John Kerry in 2004 was because I felt the Bush team, while being more than up to the necessary task of resetting the rules in the wake of 9/11, was distinctly incapable of subsequently gaining much buy-in from the rest of the world. Generating such buy-in always involves tradeoffs: winning most means compromising some.

I remain convinced that a Kerry administration would have propelled America far faster toward that inevitable adjustment, the very same realignment the Bush White House finally undertakes today.

So what’s been lost?

Merely time and opportunity, our two most precious assets.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)


  1. Steve Horn

    “Is it enough, in the end, for Bush’s second administration to repair — for the most part — the damage to America’s global standing created by his first?” – interesting question – but a better question would have started with “Is it possible” rather than “Is it enought”. In order to bring about true change the current administration must first admit that their policies, to this point, were wrong, that they were ill-considered, that they were fatally falwed. Only after showing true contrition towards the havoc they’ve brought to the world can any genuine attempt to “repair the damage to America’s global standing” begin.

    Face the facts, generations of Americans will pay for the policies of the Bush administration, just like generations of Germans have paid for Hitler. The trouble I see in America, however, is that a large number of OUR citizens still see the policies of Bush as being the correct ones, rather than the complete failures that they have been. This leaves us vulnerable to a resurgence of Bushian politics in the very near future. We should fear that neocon resurgence the way the German people fear the rise of another Nazi “leader”.



  2. Sandra Price

    Bush is going to have a bigger problem trying to erase the corruption in his entire party during his Administration. I remember the earthquake when Nixon was forced to resign and the GOP took a terrible hit for his crimes. But we did return under Ford but not enough apparently. Carter had one term and yet being a complete gentleman with an honest character was a rather weak leader.

    In 2008 there is virtually no Republican who is running against the corruption. I will never understand how Bush’s crimes can be justified. It is, and should be, the end of the Republican Party. Good Riddance! Since the truth about Iraq and Iran has been exposed not a single Republican has stood out to question the loss of so many of our brave soldiers. Not a single Republican can talk against what Bush has done…All who claim to be good and honest Christians! May I add my comment? Bullshit!

    Instead of replacing a Christian with another Christian who apparently does not know right from wrong, if America wants to survive with integrity we must go with the strongest changes in our government programs, by reducing the size. Banning abortions is not what we need. We need a man who knows right from wrong and can prove it by using the Constitution.

    The GOP took a serious hit under Bush 41 and 43. Give it up and locate men and women who know right from wrong. I’m sick of these lying pro-life fools.

  3. acf

    Bush hasn’t learned a damn thing. The reason, and likely the only reason, he is repudiating anything from the past 7 years of his administration is for purposes of legacy. What people will remember is how they felt that last year before he left. It’s a little like asking fans to vote for the all time great baseball team. When you look at the results, other than the likes of Ruth or Williams, the players selected tend to be those of the generation of the particular voter fan, and since the youngest tend to participate in such polls, the results are heavily skewed to the most recent players. The same psychology is being applied here, with the hope that the memory retained about Bush, is the last one, not the one who screwed things up and caused multi generational problems for this country.

  4. Sandra Price

    acf. I can guarantee that there are enough writers not to let Bush get away with a damn thing. Just here at CHB we have gathered some great commentators. They are popping up all over the ‘net.

    I have behind me here in my office enough books that have exposed Bush to the core. We will not forget as in many of our minds, he not only destroyed the Constitution, American values and the Republican Party; Arlington is filled with the sacrifices he offered to his God of the NWO. We need some script writers, book publishers and cartoonists to do the job.