Bush 41 Versus Bush 43 on Foreign Policy

Matt Yglesias argues that the hoopla over President Bush’s sudden turn to people from his father’s administration for advise misses the boat:

The purported dichotomy between 41 people (good!) and 43 people (bad!) is dramatically overstated. And it’s not just Cheney. Paul Wolfowitz was on the Bush 41 team. So was Condoleezza Rice. And, of course, so was Colin Powell. Don Rumsfeld, meanwhile, wasn’t. The reality is that presidents almost always — especially in the first terms of their administrations — appoint reasonably diverse groups of people to national security positions. They proceed to disagree with each other. The President of the United States then decides what he wants to do. Bush 41 had some real nutters working for him who pushed some nutty ideas inside his administration. Bush 43 had some reasonably sensible people working for him who pushed some reasonably sensible ideas inside his administration. The difference wasn’t in the advisors, it was in the presidents. More often than not, Bush 41 made reasonable choices while Bush 43 made bad ones.

While I wouldn’t characterize Cheney and Rice as “nutters,” the bottom line here is dead on: The president is ultimately, as a wise man once put it, “the decider.” To the extent we are unhappy with the decisions promulgated by an administration on key matters, then, the ire should focus on the president rather than his appointees. For one thing, he’s the guy who appointed them. Further, he’s the guy who chooses among the myriad of policy options with which he is presented or simply delegates and lets the chips fall as they may. Either way, he should get most of the credit and blame.

Moreover, Matt is right that there are always smart people with diverse viewpoints inside a presidential cabinet. Cheney and Powell were highly regarded centrists in the days when they administered Desert Shield and Desert Storm as the SECDEF and JCS Chairman, respectively. Rumsfeld was a respected if unremarkable (except for his youth) SECDEF a generation before agreeing to serve a second stint.

It is not entirely clear, however, that Bush the Elder made such great decisions as compared with those of his son. There’s no doubt that he built a more ambitious international coalition for Gulf War I than his son did for the sequel. Still, he did so by setting goals that were as minimal as his son’s were overambitious. In doing so, he helped set the stage for everything that followed: Saddam’s attacks on the Kurds and Shia, the formation of al Qaeda, the no-fly zones and decade-plus of conflict with Saddam’s regime, the embargo and resultant starvation of untold tens of thousands of Iraqis, and, ultimately, the present war. Whether letting that situation continue to fester rather than invading, ousting the regime, and the mess that follows is certainly debatable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    the formation of al Qaeda

    Whoa. I’m leery of Bush 41 nostalgia, but that needs some ‘splainin’. Are you referring to the stationing of U.S. troops in Arabia?

    If so, no foul. Had Osama not been given that to bitch about, he would’ve found something else. It’s not like he was going to go, “excellent, the American devils have met my demands; I shall now lead a simple life and cultivate my garden.”

  2. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: Yep and fair enough. I do think that the stationing of troops in Saudi was a huge–if not the biggest–spark for allowing Osama to turn a bunch of disparate terrorist networks primarily focused on domestic matters against the U.S. I don’t blame Bush 41 for that–it’s a ridiculous cause and effect–just note that it happened.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not quite that eager to let the foreign policy realists off the hook. We’ve got something like a dozen and a half big military bases in the Middle East excluding Iraq, a consequence of realist foreign policy. Does Al Qaeda have it in for us because we’re powerful or because we’ve got a huge military presence all over the Middle East? Maybe a little of the former but I believe a lot of the latter.

  4. Dave Schuler says:
  5. legion says:

    Even as a Dem, I’ll admit I voted for Bush over Gore in 2000. Why? Partialy because Gore came off like a petulant schoolgirl in the debates, and partially because Bush, even though everyone knew he wasn’t too swift, was assembling a skilled, experienced team of advisors to back him up. And I’ll also admit that getting Powell on the team was the deciding factor.

    The problem was, and still is, that Bush _isn’t_ much of a decider, at least as far as rational decisions go. He has shown a terrible propensity to go with his initial gut reaction, and then never re-evaluate decisions for any reason, thus negating the value of _any_ advice. We’ve all seen it – once someone has his trust & loyalty, they can do no wrong – period. No matter how badly they actually screw up.

    No matter what Bush says, no matter what Baker suggests, there will be no changes in Iraq, or the GWOT, unless Congress absolutely forces it – mark my words.

  6. Cernig says:

    As usual, the notion of “single cause = single effect” is overly simplistic when looking at the real world. As Anderson sorta says, even if Osama could get everything he wanted tomorrow, without a single other act of terror, it wouldn’t motivate him to hang up his bomb-vest and go grow kumquats. That defines him as a criminal, a bad guy.

    On the other hand, I’ve a feeling that America’s foreign policy will start to work only when America realizes that its national interest lies exactly in not acting in its national interest.

    What I mean is this: only the bad guys object to an honest, impartial and hard-working policeman for whom “protect and serve” is more than just a slogan. A good cop is an asset to his community and puts everyone else’s interests before his own, which ends up serving his own interests – respect, affection, and a mostly peaceable community to live in.

    But no-one likes a cop who has his own interests at heart first and foremost – who’s usually looking for a “take”, is never there when you need him and applies the law only when it suits him while looking the other way when his pals commit crimes. A bad cop should get out of the law enforcement business because he only makes his neighborhood worse.

    As a non-American I’ve no objection to America being the world’s policeman if America will be an honest cop, a “protect and serve” cop. No-one else is big enough for the job at present. But better no cop at all than a cop on the take.

    Regards, Cernig

  7. Anderson says:

    Even as a Dem, I’ll admit I voted for Bush over Gore in 2000.

    Please, please tell me you don’t live in Florida, Legion.

  8. cian says:

    41 over 43 anytime. The reason? Bush I’s ability to listen to those with an idea as opposed to those with an agenda.

    The first rule of any war is to identify your enemy. An easy enough task after 9/11 and Bush II reacted correctly when he invaded the country harbouring the mastermind behind that attack. Every other decision taken should have been based on weakening that enemy. Invading Iraq was exactly the wrong thing to do, and just as Bush senior was warned of this in 1991, so too was Bush Junior by his generals in 2001.

    The better man listened. The other will go down in history as one of our worst presidents ever.

  9. Anderson says:

    41 over 43 anytime

    Well, yeah. For that matter, Neville Chamberlain over 43 anytime.