The most damaging part of the Bush foreign policy legacy is not the precipitous decline in American power and influence brought about by the disastrous Iraq occupation. It is the way the Administration’s “war on terror” and its neoimperial project in the Middle East have distorted our vision of the world. They magnify out of all proportion what should at worst be minor threats to our national security and ignore much larger developments, such as the extraordinary economic rise of China and India, which are having a much more profound effect on the American way of life.
Just how distorted our vision of the world has become has been on constant display during the primary campaign leading up to the 2008 elections. The major candidates from both parties have followed a foreign policy narrative dominated by Iraq, Iran and Islamic extremism. Promising to see the Iraq War through to a successful conclusion, the Republicans want to extend Bush’s policies into a generational war against Islamic extremism, which they see as a new totalitarian threat. Democratic candidates have committed themselves to getting out of Iraq–or at least vastly reducing America’s presence there–and to fighting a smarter war against terrorism while restoring America’s global leadership. But they, too, seem intent on proving their toughness, even to the point of pursuing many of the same goals that led to the loss of America’s standing in the first place.
Neither party seems ready to deal with a radically changed world that in many ways moved on as we got sucked ever more deeply into Bush’s Iraq catastrophe. In this sense, the 2008 elections pose a larger challenge: to advance American goals and interests in this new world, it will not be enough merely to repudiate the worst features of Bush’s militarism. It will be necessary to rethink American priorities and the very meaning of what American foreign policy is about.
The Republican Narrative
It is clear that this rethinking will not come from the leading Republican candidates. The GOP narrative of a long war against Islamic extremism is purposely backward-looking, modeled on the earlier struggle against Soviet Communism during the cold war. Yet as Juan Cole suggests, the idea that Islamic extremism poses a threat commensurate with Soviet Communism is patently absurd. Six years after 9/11, it is clear that Al Qaeda does not have the organizational capacity or resources to pose a systematic danger to American lives or interests, and that common-sense counterterrorist measures–better intelligence, more effective border control and internationally coordinated police work–can dramatically reduce the risk of terrorist attack. It is also clear that Al Qaeda does not have the popular appeal in Muslim societies to constitute a threat to any significant government, despite the boost that Bush Administration policies may have given to Al Qaeda recruitment.
When leading Republican candidates talk about the Islamic threat, they do not just mean Al Qaeda. They also mean religious-based popular movements like Hezbollah as well as the clerical leadership of Iran. But it is here that the Republican narrative turns from the absurd to the tragic, greatly expanding the number of America’s enemies and ignoring the fact that Iran and its Shiite allies are bitterly opposed to Al Qaeda and could be useful partners in the fight to eliminate extremism. Whether Republicans conflate the two out of ignorance or because they believe that Islamic radicalism of any stripe poses a threat to US interests, or merely because they want to play on the public’s fears, it makes for bad policy, as the Bush Administration’s failed Middle East strategy demonstrates.