American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

Two weeks after the midterm elections of 2002 an academic conference was convened on the Gulf Coast Campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.1 The purpose of the event was to provide one of the first scholarly assessments of the Bush presidency.Thirty scholars, representing a wide array of institutions and interests, and including political scientists, historians, and philosophers, gathered for two days of presentations and panel discussions, many focusing on Bush’s foreign policy and national security record.

It is always a difficult task to evaluate presidents, as is evident in the numerous presidential ranking polls that exist and the good deal of controversy surrounding the enterprise. Ever since historian Arthur M. Schlesinger conducted his first presidential ranking poll in 19482, the polls—and the larger notion of evaluating the presidents—have attracted considerable attention and their fair share of detractors. Indeed, viable questions exist as to how and when to rate presidents. Some efforts poll only leading experts, while other polls survey larger numbers of scholars. Participants are typically asked to place the presidents in categories such as “great,” “near great,” and so on to “failure,” while other polls list presidents numerically from first to last or employ Likert scales (i.e., a 1-5 scale from “good” to “poor”) to assess a president’s standing. The issue of whether specific criteria (derived from Article II of the Constitution, public opinion polls, or, for instance, such quantitative measures as the number of vetoes sustained or success in getting appointees confirmed) should be employed in rating the presidents or whether an overall or “holistic” approach is preferable also remains open to debate. Moreover, some scholars have alleged that the ranking polls contain a built-in liberal bias, given that many of the participating scholars are liberals/Democrats and because presidents tend to be evaluated on the “FDR model” of an activist presidency, which might naturally favor Democrats.3 Add to these concerns the difficulty of attempting to assess a president while he is still in office, and one faces quite a challenge. As such, the organizers of the conference as well as the participants were realistic in their goals and approach to the midterm assessment (and “grading”) of Bush, viewing the endeavor as a point to initiate further scholarly examination rather than a firm rating. Additionally, the conference attempted neither to fix a firm ranking (numerically) for Bush, nor compare him directly to other presidents. To account for some of the inherent shortcomings and biases confronting the early assessment, a wide array of scholars were invited to attend, including those on the political left and political right, and participants were asked to contemplate their assessment and grading months prior to the actual conference. That said, scholars did debate the successes and failures of Bush’s foreign policy at the midpoint of his term, along with its significance, objectives,and underlying rationale. The comments and concerns raised at the conference regarding Bush’s foreign policy, as well as the grade given to Bush, form the focus of this essay.

Introduction: From Taft to Wilson?
During the presidential campaign in 2000, George Bush was widely viewed to have little foreign policy experience and scant appetite for this area of responsibility. Indeed, during his first months in office, pundits and policymakers on the political left and right accused the President of inattention to the nation’s foreign affairs and warned of a renewed era of neo-isolationism. The few foreign policy initiatives that Bush did undertake, including the rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming and the drive for a national missile defense (NMD), seemed to foreshadow policies that reflected the more traditional Taft wing of the Republican Party, as opposed to the internationalism of his immediate predecessors such as his father or Ronald Reagan. Hence, by the summer of 2001, Bush’s policies were variously described as “unilateralist” or “isolationist” or even as “hemispheric isolationist” because of a perceived focus on Latin America instead of the transatlantic or Asia-Pacific region.

All of this changed on 11 September 2001. Following the terrorist hijacking of four airliners which crashed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania, Bush initiated a series of foreign policies and policy decisions that have recently created comparisons with that most internationalist and idealist president, Woodrow Wilson. His focus has shifted from the domestic to the international and Bush seems content to go into the 2004 presidential elections with an emphasis on foreign and security policy as the key to his campaign. Few of the nation’s chief executives have faced greater foreign policy challenges than Bush did during the first year of his presidency and his reaction to these challenges won wide support among the American people. Concurrently, however, many aspects of the Bush administration’s management of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader campaign against international terrorism have strained traditional alliances and, again, led to charges of U.S. unilateralism.

Key to any effort to analyze Bush’s foreign policy is the need to integrate the before and after of 11 September in order to delineate the trends in policy or to identify those areas in which new US initiatives or directions emerged. In achieving several of the immediate security goals established in response to the attacks by Al Qaeda, the administration can claim success. The highly visible campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq highlighted the power, flexibility, and capabilities of the U.S. military. Meanwhile, efforts to increase multilateral cooperation in criminal investigations and programs to curtail the financial assets of international terrorist organizations also have achieved notable victories. By the midterm elections in 2002, perceptions of Bush’s foreign policy had shifted considerably, especially among the American public. In fact, a key to the success of the Republicans in avoiding the long-term historical trend of the president’s party losing seats in the midterm elections was Bush’s wartime popularity and the perceptions of his administration’s management of the campaign against terrorism. The essay provides a brief overview of Bush’s foreign policy through his first two years and discusses scholarly perceptions of the effectiveness of Bush’s policy based on the aforementioned gathering of scholars.

The Prelude
During the 2000 campaign, Bush pledged to “protect America’s ‘national interests’,” while pursuing a “more humble foreign policy.”4 At the core of the future president’s nascent foreign policy agenda was a desire to reevaluate the policy priorities of the Clinton administration and to only engage in new missions, especially military operations, when national interest demanded such action. Hence, Bush advocated a policy that seemed to combine strains of both unilateralism (based on national interest) and isolationism (based on a careful calculation of those interests ), but was neither fundamentally unilateralist nor isolationist. New York Times columnist David Sanger summed up the Bush message as follows: “don’t expect us to leave home as often, and don’t expect us to whip out our American Express card when we do. It’s not isolationist, but it’s far less activist than the let’s-have-a-summit approach of Bill Clinton.”5 For the Bush administration, U.S. unilateralism came to be defined as “a conscious decision to put America first, even if there is a diplomatic price to be paid.”6 This trend would be identifiable throughout the foreign policy initiatives of the administration, both before and after 11 September. Consequently, as a BBC commentator declared, “whereas Mr. Clinton became known as a determined consensus and alliance builder, Mr. Bush has signaled on a number of occasions that the U.S. is prepared to go it alone, even if it puts noses out of joint in other countries–friend or foe.”7 The administration would use multinational forums to pursue U.S. interests, but if world bodies did not support or endorse U.S. actions, then the United States would go it alone in what can be described as neo-unilateralism.

Initial Priorities and Tensions
Once in office, the initial foreign policy priority of the Bush administration was NMD. Bush was determined to proceed on NMD, even if it meant the abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and increased tensions with states such as Russia and China and with allied nations in Europe. In addition, Bush sought to reevaluate U.S. policy toward North Korea and the administration was willing to adopt a more confrontational stance (this included a tacit rejection of both the policies of the Clinton administration and the “sunshine policy” of South Korea’s president, Kim Dae Jung).8 Bush also felt that economic interests compelled a rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming.

As a result of his early stance on these issues, tensions between the United States and even its closest allies were exacerbated. For instance, Bush’s relations with Western Europe were strained even before he entered office over four main issues: NMD; the Kyoto Treaty; South Korea; and the death penalty. The machinations of the 2000 elections added to the mix. Martin Kettle notes that Bush also became the focal point of rising anti-Americanism:

It is hardly a secret that Europeans, along with many other inhabitants of the planet, had a prolonged laugh at America’s expense during the aftermath of last year’s [2000] presidential election. In Europe, those sniggers appear to be part of something that is at once more serious and more sustained: A new form of post-Cold War anti-Americanism that reflects unease with the American capitalist model and its cultural outgrowth. This phenomenon was already beginning to make itself felt well before the elections over three issues in particular: the death penalty, global warming and national missile defense.9

With NMD in the background, the first significant foreign policy test of the Bush administration was the April 2001 mid-air collision of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter. The U.S. plane was forced to land at a Chinese base and the crew became hostage to the diplomatic wranglings of Beijing and Washington.10 In spite of harsh rhetoric during the campaign about a reassessment of Sino-U.S. relations, Bush deftly managed the crisis and secured the release of the crew with little long-term negative impact on U.S. relations with either China or Taiwan.11

Nonetheless, the China crisis occurred against the backdrop of Bush’s March 2001 decision to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Treaty. White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer explained Bush’s decision quite simply: “The president has been unequivocal. He does not support the Kyoto treaty. It is not in the United States’ economic best interest.”12 The decision led both domestic and international critics to invoke the twin strains of unilateralism and isolationism. Meanwhile, through the summer of 2001, U.S. relations with North Korea dominated the foreign policy concerns of the administration. On June 6, Bush announced the conclusions of a policy review which argued for greater efforts to ensure compliance with the 1994 agreements.13

11 September
By late summer of 2001, senior foreign policy figures, including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet, had concluded that international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda posed the greatest national security5 threat to the United States.14 Rice had even drawn-up an initiative which called for military action against Al Qaeda in August and the proposal was forwarded to the President during the second week of September. However, before action was taken, Al Qaeda launched the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil on 11 September.

In response to the attacks, Bush insisted that plans be drawn-up not only to go after Al Qaeda, but also to attack Afghanistan which provided the group bases and other support. To the nation, Bush declared that “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”15 In his joint address to Congress on 20 September, Bush further expounded on the U.S. strategy: “we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”16

Multilateral Unilateralism
During the build-up to the military campaign in Afghanistan, the Bush administration sought to develop a “coalition of the willing” or, perhaps more precisely, a coalition of coalitions. The administration sought to avoid past problems in joint military operations, such as those that occurred in Bosnia or Kosovo17, and instead only utilize those military assets that would complement existing U.S. capabilities. Specifically, the administration wanted air and naval support, special operations units and logistical assistance. It did not seek large numbers of conventional ground forces.

In meetings with allies, officials of the administration assured their counterparts that the United States would only ask for military support from those states it knew were willing to participate in combat operations.18 In briefing NATO on U.S. plans, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage reported:

I didn’t, as I said, come here to ask for anything. I came here to share with good Allies the information we have. I did point out that in this coalition building there is a continuum from, on the one hand, rhetorical or political support for activities on this global attack on terrorism. It runs the gamut to sharing of intelligence, sharing of financial information, perhaps overflight rights, etc. And at the far end of the continuum is the possibility of some military activity either together or unilaterally.19

As Armitage stated in regards to NATO, the United States wanted to “pick and choose among its allies, fashioning the moral authority of an international coalition without having to deal with the problems of the whole alliance.”20

The coalition of coalitions was a reflection of the neo-unilateralism of the Bush administration. Hence, the United States sought to secure multilateral agreements in areas such as intelligence, law enforcement, financial cooperation on freezing terrorist assets, and aid to states such as Pakistan, which would be important in the global anti-terror campaign. It also gained broad support from multinational bodies. Less than a month after the 11 September attacks, the Bush administration had 46 multilateral declarations of support, including the invocation of the collective defense clauses of NATO, the ANZUS Treaty, the OAS, as well as the passage of Security Council Resolution 1373 which required all states to take action against terrorists and their financial networks.

As a result of the attacks, relations between the United States and states with which the administration had tensions, including Russia and China, were improved. For instance, Bush announced on 14 December 2001, that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty in order to pursue NMD. Earlier Russian opposition to the unilateral move vanished as Russian president Vladimir Putin announced on television that the U.S. action “presents no threat to the security of the Russian Federation.”21 Meanwhile, China publically supported the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

While there were efforts to gain multilateral support on the diplomatic front, the military campaign in Afghanistan was controlled completely by the United States. In fact, Bush insisted that the UN humanitarian force, which was deployed to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, come under the broad auspices of U.S. command. Even before the fall of the Taliban, the Bush administration signaled that it planned to expand the war on terrorism outside of Afghanistan. The expansion of the war on terror was codified first in the 29 January 2002 State of the Union Address in which Bush stated that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea:

and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic. We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. We will develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack. And all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security.22

Later, the promulgation of the Bush National Security Strategy (NSS) further refined the administration’s shift to a more proactive, neo-unilateralist policy by endorsing the doctrine of “preemptive strikes” against states that possess weapons of mass destruction and adopt policies that could lead to proliferation or threaten the security interests of the United States.23 On the basis of the NSS, Bush would begin the diplomatic process that would culminate in the neo- unilateralist Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, at the midpoint of his first term, Bush seemed to be on a multilateralist path as UN Resolution 1441 was passed unanimously on 8 November, just three days after the midterm elections.

Report Card
It is against this backdrop that the assessment of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy was conducted. One obvious way to assess a president is to consider public approval ratings. Though there are many well known limits to the effectiveness of opinion polls for such an endeavor, because Bush’s approval was shaped by international events (the 9/11 terrorist attacks), because his administration has used his popularity in crafting foreign policy, and because 9/11 produced such a dramatic change in his approval, it is worth our while to consider Bush’s approval in assessing his foreign policy. The tragedy that produced Bush’s remarkable surge in approval also altered his prioritization of and approach to foreign policy. As is evident in Table 1, Bush’s approval rating was mediocre prior to 9/11. But the public responded to the attacks with a “rallying effect.” Bush’s approval remained high months after the attack. In fact, as Table 2 depicts, the President’s approval—as an average measure over the first two years of his term—remained higher than the average approval all of his predecessors enjoyed over the duration of their presidencies. The war against terrorism and Afghanistan conflict were instrumental in sustaining relatively high approval for the president—demonstrating the impact of foreign policy and national security on presidential popularity—yet Bush’s ratings dropped slowly but gradually from the time of the 9/11 attacks to the midterm. Not surprisingly, they were again boosted by the war against Iraq.

Table 1. Pre and Post 9/11 Approval
PollApprovalDisapproval Approval Disapproval
Newsweek 50318211
CNN/USA/Gallup 51398610
Note. Poll numbers reflect the polling data immediately prior to 9/11 and immediately after 9/11.

Table 2. Comparison of Bush’s Approval Numbers
Newsweek 73.48852
CNN/USA/Gallup 70.59051
Note. Represents Bush’s average approval, 01/01 - 12/02
GW Bush729050
Clinton5473 37
G Bush618929
Reagan5365 35
Johnson5579 35
Kennedy70 83 56
Note. Represents the average approval numbers throughout their presidencies using the major public opinion polls.

Measures of Foreign Policy
It is also worth considering a president’s legislative record and accomplishments in gaining support for his treaties. Neither measure is, of course, definitive, as one must consider whether the president faces divided government or a Congress controlled by his own party. Moreover, recent efforts to “lump” legislative initiatives into omnibus packages make it difficult to determine success based on sheer numbers, as do such practices as bypassing the Congress in favor of Executive Orders and using Executive Agreements in place of treaties. Quantity should also not be confused with quality when considering presidential foreign policy accomplishments. Still, as is evident in Tables 3 and 4, George W. Bush’s first two years have produced remarkably few initiatives or accomplishments, perhaps giving some weight to those maintaining he has, at best, been dragged reluctantly into international affairs or, at worst, ignored a number of foreign policy issues. The numbers might also suggest that, in spite of his popularity and supposed famed instincts in dealing with legislatures, the President has not pushed his legislative agenda at home or abroad. On the other hand, as a conservative, Bush’s record might be an accomplishment (of inactivity) in stemming any active federal role and limiting governmental initiatives. As Table 5 notes, Bush did not veto any bills during his first two years, which might reflect his success in preventing any unfavorable measures from making it through Congress, or it might also reflect a presidential legislative plan that was minimal from the outset. Or, the record lack of activity might reflect the growing legislative-executive gridlock, but it is doubtful the partisan tensions are any worse than under Clinton. Plus, the fact that Bush did enjoy some control by his political party in Congress and high poll numbers since 9/11 allows him to be held responsible for this record.

Table 3. Public Laws Passed
GW Bush
G Bush
G. Bush
(1989-1991) 650
(1987-1989) 713
(1981-1983) 473
(1979-1981) 614
(1975-1977) 588

Table 4. Total Treaties
GW Bush107(2001-2003)17
G Bush102(1991-1993)41
G. Bush101(1989-1991) 22
Reagan100(1987-1989) 22
Reagan99 (1985-1987)31
Reagan98 (1983-1985)32
Reagan97(1981-1983) 28
Carter96(1979-1981) 61
Carter95 (1977-1979)26
Ford94(1975-1977) 28
Nixon/Ford93 (1973-1975)37
Nixon 91(1969-1971)25
L.B. Johnson90(1967-1969)28

Table 5. Presidential Vetos
GW Bush00
G Bush461
F.D. Roosevelt6359

One way to attempt to determine Bush’s foreign policy priorities is to consider the topic of presidential addresses. Bush’s radio addresses are listed by topic in Table 6, pointing to relatively few international priorities beyond the war against terrorism.

Table 6. Radio Addresses
Topic #Addresses
Ceremony/Holiday 13
U.S. Economy12
War against terrorism 11 1/2
Iraq 6
Note. Partial addresses or joint topic addresses were calculated as 1/2 address.

Readers are invited to use the aforementioned data as interested. Scholars participating in the November 2002 conference assessing the Bush presidency were asked to give the President a letter grade as part of an effort to provide a report card on Bush’s first two years in office.24 Scholars were not given any specific criteria to use in arriving at a grade, but were given many weeks to work on the project.

The grades reflected a wide range of views, with the President receiving grades from “A-“ to “F” in the area of foreign policy. The same wide grade distribution was found for Bush’s overall grade at midterm. To arrive at a grade, all grades were averaged (using the standard 4- point grading scale of “A” to “F”) using the mean score. These are listed in Table 7.

Table 7. Bush's Report Card
B-/C+ Overall grade2.52 A- to F
CForeign policy2.11A- to F

The scholars participating in the project to grade President Bush were asked to justify their evaluation. Following are comments indicative of the types of points raised at conference and made by scholars in defense of their grading, be it an “A-“ or “F”. The first set of comments were made regarding the President’s overall performance.

  • “I judge leadership not just in terms of response to specific events... In terms of immediate response to 9/11, Bush showed leadership... but in wartime, all previous presidents have asked for sacrifice. Bush has asked nothing but cosmetic kinds of actions and essentially no sacrifice while continuing to increase benefits disproportionately for those at the top.”
  • “The best way to rate any president’s leadership skills is by evaluating how he performs in response to unanticipated crises... Bush had to deal with perhaps the gravest threat to America... since the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor... He performed admirably in the aftermath of [9/11].”

The scholars participating in the project to grade President Bush were asked to justify their evaluation. Following are comments indicative of the types of points raised at conference and made by scholars in defense of their grading, be it an “A-“ or “F”. The first set of comments were made regarding the President’s overall performance.

  • “Bush has been successful when embodying the head of state role, and less successful when acting as head of government.”
  • “The President much better represents the American public’s concerns than he is given credit for...”
  • “. . . especially since 9/11, Bush has proven his ability to mold public opinion on the most important issues.”
  • “Bush exerted strong leadership immediately following 9/11 as commander-in-chief... he has not followed it up in the long run. He did not seize the moment and take advantage of the opportunity to promote long-lasting changes. . . .”
  • “Bush will be remembered for his response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. His action was strong, swift, and successful.”
  • “The President’s knack for framing choices in stark terms has served him well in handling the War on Terror, but it has not served him well in explaining to the American people his positions on stem cell research, corporate scandals, global warming, or...”
  • “Bush has been skillful in either bringing the public to support his positions, or at least in preventing open opposition. His media relations have been superb, given the favorable treatment that he receives.”

The second set of comments pertain to Bush’s foreign policy record at midterm.

  • “The administration for the first eight months largely ignored foreign policy issues, except in a narrowly U.S.-first, go-it-alone way.”
  • “Actions since 9/11 have to some degree squandered the good will that did occur after the attacks. The “for-us” or “against-us” orientation seems not only overly simple but also very limiting for future foreign policy actions.”
  • “It doesn’t make American citizens more secure to alienate half the world.”
  • “Bush has improved relations with such important countries as Britain, Russia, China, Taiwan, Pakistan, India, Mexico, Columbia, and countries around the Russian periphery.”
  • “. . . too little consultation with other nations, and too much unilateralism. It has alienated France and Germany, downplayed NATO, ignored the UN, been somewhat inconsistent...”
  • “. . . the President has earned praise for his quick military victory in Afghanistan... However, the most visible blotch on Bush’s handling of U.S. foreign policy has been his inability to define U.S. policy objectives following 9/11...”
  • “Bush is accused of being unilateral, but that is simply because he strenuously pushes what he perceives as American interests... but he has not done enough to reach out to allies. . . .”
  • “Bush’s simplistic unilateral approach to foreign policy has strengthened the resolve of our potential adversaries and offended our traditional allies.”

Conclusion: Transformational President?
George W. Bush concluded the midterm of his presidency by being voted as the “most admired man” in the annual Gallup poll of the same name and leading his party to an historic and convincing victory in the 2002 congressional elections. Both these accomplishments reflect Bush’s popularity at the midpoint of his presidency and have some role in a scholarly assessment of his performance. Also noteworthy about the Bush foreign policy record, especially at the midterm, was that there appeared to be two presidencies–one before 9/11 and one after 9/11. The magnitude of the tragic terrorist attacks figured prominently into the shift in Bush’s foreign policy priorities and, it could be argued, in the President’s engagement in international affairs.

Evaluating a president is an inexact science. The gathering of scholars at the University of Southern Mississippi shortly after the midterm elections did not intend to provide the definitive assessment of the Bush presidency and foreign policy record. Indeed, it is doubtful that such an undertaking could be done until well after George W. Bush’s presidency. The President’s standing among presidents and by historians must consider whether or not he was reelected, whether the country was stronger after his presidency than when he entered the Oval Office, the long-term ramifications of his foreign policy decisions, and numerous other factors. Nevertheless, the result of the conference and hopefully of this essay are to foster further conversation and debate among scholars on the Bush record.

Robert P. Watson received his Ph.D. from Florida Atlantic University; currently he is associate professor of political science, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla..
Bryan Hilliard earned a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee. He is an assistant professor of philosophy at New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire.
Tom Lansford received his Ph.D. from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va.Currently he is an assistant professor of political science, University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Coast Campus.

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC