The Bush administration’s foreign policy will be remembered mainly for the Iraq war, the doctrine of pre-emption and unilateralism, even though Bush foreign policy focus shifted more to multilateralism and diplomacy in the second term, diplomats and analysts say.
As for President Bush’s rhetoric, the phrase “axis of evil” – used in his 2002 State of the Union address to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea – will live on in memory and history books for years, they say.
Both President-elect Barack Obama and his nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have criticized the Iraq war as the biggest U.S. foreign policy disaster in modern history, even though Mrs. Clinton voted for the 2002 measure authorizing the use of force in Iraq.
Administration supporters counter that the war’s last chapter has yet to be written and that it may be judged less negatively in the future. Most agree, however, that the policy was poorly executed in its initial phases.
“The conduct of the war and the lack of planning is the lowest point in the administration’s foreign policy,” said Lorne W. Craner, president of the International Republican Institute and a State Department official during Mr. Bush’s first term.
“It took a couple of years to get the strategy right, but I don’t think we’ve reached the end of the story,” Mr. Craner said, referring to the 2007 surge that helped turn the war around. “I think things will look much better in 10 or 20 years.”
Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Bush administration is handing Iraq over to its successor and to the Iraqis “in a much better shape than anyone expected.”
“It may have been a war of choice, and we can’t declare peace yet, but there is some stability,” Mr. Flanagan said. “Still, it’s inevitable that Bush’s legacy will turn on the question of Iraq.”
Mr. Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption, which calls for attacking a country or group deemed to be posing an imminent threat before it attacks the United States, also will figure prominently in any final reckoning of his foreign policy, said Steve R. Weisman, a public policy fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics.
Mr. Weisman covered the State Department for the New York Times during Mr. Bush’s first term, when the White House and the Pentagon marginalized the department in decision-making on Iraq and other important issues.
Mr. Bush proudly notes that al Qaeda has not struck the United States homeland since Sept. 11, 2001. However, in the aftermath of those attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld claimed so much foreign policy territory that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell struggled to restore a sense of balance.
The State Department still managed relationships around the world, Mr. Powell devoted considerable attention to upgrading resources and technology in the agency, and morale under Mr. Powell was the highest it had been in nearly two decades.
But U.S. diplomats say that the message the Foreign Service received from the White House was that military power was the preferred tool in carrying out America’s foreign policy.
“Some things worked before 9/11” and diplomacy was given a chance to resolve a crisis with China in April 2001, when an EP-3 U.S. reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese military aircraft and destroyed it, said Anthony Holmes, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union.
“After 9/11, the entire equation changed, and there was no longer even begrudging acceptance on part of the White House to put diplomacy first,” Mr. Holmes said.
Around the world, the administration was viewed as unilateral and almost allergic to international treaties. One of its first actions was to withdraw Washington’s signature from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
The approach began to change when Condoleezza Rice, who had been national security adviser, became secretary of state and the U.S. chief diplomat during Mr. Bush’s second term. Aware of international perceptions, she declared during her Senate confirmation hearing in January 2005 that the “time for diplomacy is now.”
The administration has changed course, particularly in its policy toward the two remaining charter members of the “axis of evil.”
After years of insisting that the North Korean regime could not be trusted and vowing not to be blackmailed into offering economic and political benefits in exchange for the North’s abandoning its nuclear ambitions, Mr. Bush authorized bilateral negotiations in 2006.
That same year, Miss Rice offered to sit down with her Iranian counterpart after three decades of no diplomatic relations between the two countries. But she conditioned it on Tehran’s suspending uranium enrichment, which the West suspects is meant to be used in building a nuclear weapon. Iran never agreed to Miss Rice’s precondition.
In 2007, she began an intensive effort to help Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement on creating a Palestinian state, including a large international conference in Annapolis hosted by Mr. Bush. Many officials and analysts in the Middle East, however, fault the administration for doing too little, too late.
“The general perception in Arab countries is that the Bush administration’s public commitment to a two-state solution, enunciated in November 2001, was not backed by real effort to advance that goal until years later,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Of course, the reality is more complicated,” he added. “Still, perceptions linger.”
In other areas, Miss Rice was more successful. She built on Mr. Powell’s success with China and expanded ties with India and Brazil. In addition, “she rebuilt trust with the Europeans by working effectively with them on the independence of Kosovo, in modernizing NATO and on the many problems in the Middle East,” said Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Ambassador Chan Heng Chee of Singapore noted Mr. Bush’s frequent trips to Asia and his talks with Asian leaders in Washington. She also praised his promotion of free trade. “I believe President Bush will leave a good legacy in Asia,” she said.
The Bush administration was also popular in Africa, where, despite its inability to resolve the Darfur crisis, it helped broker a north-south agreement in Sudan and increased aid, particularly for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
“He devoted a lot of resources and put a lot of programs in Africa,” said Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti, the most senior African ambassador in the United States. “Some African nations are getting as much as $700 million. To many countries, it is a major evolution,” he said.
Ambassador Kuame Bawuah Edusei of Ghana said he hopes Mr. Obama will follow Mr. Bush’s lead. “The Bush administration set a record in relations, and we will accept nothing less,” he said.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley offered his own analysis of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy last week. He said the president was guided by three convictions: “that liberty is God’s gift to every man, woman and child; that effective democratic states are the critical building blocks of a peaceful and prosperous international order; and that America is called to lead this community of democracies.”
Mr. Hadley said Mr. Bush rejected “false choices” between realism and idealism, unilateralism and multilateralism, military force and diplomacy.
“When properly employed, these tools can be mutually reinforcing,” he said. “Hard power makes soft power more effective. And by maintaining the credible threat of military force and economic sanctions, we add weight to our diplomacy.”
James Morrison contributed to this report.Top