Shadow Government

How to debate the Bush legacy

This week, the George W. Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. It will be a fun reunion of people who served in the Bush administration -- those who helped advise, make, and implement the president's policies in a time of great consequence for American history. 

The opening of the presidential library has coincided with dramatic events at home and abroad that have eerie echoes to the Bush-era -- a Boston terror attack that reminds people of the post-9/11 jitters, ricin-laced letters to politicians that remind people of similar anthrax attacks, and an unraveling sectarian civil war in the heart of the Middle East, complete with intelligence reports of WMD use, that reminds people of the bitter experience in Iraq. 

All of these have occasioned a great deal of talk about the Bush era and renewed debate about the Bush legacy. The talk and debate is welcome, but sometimes it takes a curious turn.

Case in point: consider Walter Russell Mead's two posts about the Bush legacy, the first of which Will Inboden rebutted last week. 

Let me begin by emphasizing that I have a lot of respect for Mead. I assign some of his books to my students, I find his blog posts to be usually thoughtful, and I appreciate that he is not a predictable Johnny-one-note on foreign policy.

Yet, on balance, his contribution to the current wave of commentary on the Bush legacy seems to be more an example of what not to do than of what to do. He opened with a provocative post entitled "The GOP Needs to Talk About Bush: Part One," in which he claimed that Republicans need to, well, talk about Bush "openly and honestly."

In his follow-up "part two" post Mead mocked Peter Wehner for, well, talking about Bush openly and honestly. 

Mead's rebuttal to Wehner consisted of two pillars:

First: claiming (falsely) that Wehner's argument was premised on the belief that Bush had done nothing wrong and that all bad things that happened on Bush's watch should be entirely blamed on others. But Wehner explicitly acknowledged important mistakes and he explicitly called for shared responsibility. Apparently, Mead saw no middle ground -- no via media, if you will -- between a claim on the one hand that all critiques of the Bush presidency are true and a reductio ad absurdum claim on the other that the Bush presidency was a "triumph, a sterling example of greatness, of competent benevolence mixed with wisdom almost divine..." Instead of productively exploring the middle ground, Mead derisively dismisses a caricatured version of Wehner, one entirely of Mead's fabrication. 

Second: passionately arguing that any attempt to answer critiques of the Bush era plays into the hands of the Bush-haters and is backward-looking. Never mind that this Pillar directly and obviously contradicts Mead's first post, which, as you will recall, encouraged everyone to talk "openly and honestly" about the Bush era (i.e. to look backward with clear eyes so as to move forward). The only possible way to reconcile them is to believe that what Mead meant in his first post is something like this: "Republicans should embrace every criticism of Bush, no matter how wrong or illogical because to answer such criticisms is to play in the hands of the Bush-haters." Why would accepting bogus critiques of the past prepare us well to face the future?

What is curiously missing in Mead's response is any factual or logical engagement of Wehner's (or Inboden's, for that matter) actual argument. Perhaps Wehner or Inboden have over-claimed or misread the history. If so, I would like to see the facts and logic that make up that case. 

I wonder if there are two Walter Russell Meads (that would explain why the Via Media refers to itself with the first person plural). There is the Mead who has written important books that are must-reads for any student of American foreign policy and who has offered thoughtful commentary on an impressively wide range of topics. That same Mead, in his "Part One," acknowledged that many Bush-haters distort the past in their critique. And then there is a second Mead, the one who trashed Wehner for engaging in the historical conversation Mead #1 claimed to want. If so, I hope Mead #1 will start debating Mead #2.

Of course, the problem is not really Mead, who, I would argue, will eventually be part of the solution. Compared to other pundits back in the day, he had something of a balanced view of the Bush administration as it unfolded. In fact, I would turn the frame upside down: if reasoned, fact-based discussions of the Bush Legacy cannot produce balanced and nuanced assessments from generally fair-minded observers like Mead, then I would despair of ever seeing it at all. 

Happily, the truth is that, over time, we can see such appraisals emerging. Some scholars not blinkered by ideological opposition do produce more balanced assessments than what the conventional wisdom of the day, which is still overly shaped by the instant partisan commentary, would predict. Thus, Mel Leffler has a balanced account of the origins of the Iraq war, Stephen Biddle and his co-authors have a sophisticated analysis of the contributions of the Iraq surge, and Robert Jervis has a careful review of the intersection of intelligence failure and policy choice in Iraq. 

None of these scholars can be dismissed as court sycophants. All would, on balance, come down more negatively on the Bush legacy as a whole than the typical Shadow Government contributor. Yet, like the typical Shadow Government contributor, each seems committed to letting the facts lead where they may, even if those facts will disrupt the settled caricatures of the conventional wisdom.

Some journalists are coming around, too. Ron Fournier has a thoughtful commentary that humanizes former President Bush. And maybe even the public is showing an openness to reconsidering previous opinions.

Therefore, I think Republicans should be willing to talk openly and honestly about the Bush era. That will involve accepting some critiques but rejecting others. That will require conceding some mistakes and explaining why the conventional wisdom is wrong in other respects. I do not think that should be the sole or principal preoccupation of Republicans, nor do I think we are in any danger of Republicans falling into that trap. 

A worthy contribution of the new Bush center to the ongoing political dialogue in the country would be if it used its convening powers to conduct careful and detailed explorations of key decisions and policies from the Bush era. With the benefit of hindsight, such explorations may conclude that some decisions and policies were mistaken and, if so, the center can be candid in acknowledging that. 

Yet I am confident that such a rigorous analysis of the past will produce a more balanced assessment than the conventional wisdom holds. And I am confident that such rigor and balance will be more useful to Republicans going forward than caricature is.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Debating next steps on Iran

The failure of the latest round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will likely bring calls for changes in the American approach -- for bilateral engagement, for an "endgame proposal," or even for reconsideration of the merits of "containment" of a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran. One such proposal -- focusing on strengthening the US "diplomatic track" with Iran -- was put forward recently by The Iran Project, a group of distinguished former U.S. officials.

There is much in the report with which I agree. In particular, the report is correct to observe that neither sanctions nor engagement alone will accomplish U.S. aims and that a combination of policy tools will be required. It is also right to begin with an assessment of U.S. and Iranian interests and objectives, which should be the starting point for any successful policy.    

However, I would differ with the report on four vital issues and thus reach different conclusions regarding the way forward on Iran policy.

First, the report conflates the objectives and interests of Iran writ large with those of the Iranian regime. The principal-agent problem that bedevils even democratic governments is particularly pronounced in authoritarian regimes, such as Iran's, which are not accountable to an electorate. Care must therefore be taken to distinguish between Iranian national interests and regime interests.

When it comes to sanctions, the Iran Project report's own conclusions illustrate this distinction -- the economic costs imposed upon Iran have certainly set back Iran's national interests but have had little apparent impact on the regime's own calculus, likely in part because Iran's leaders are relatively sheltered from the impact of sanctions compared to ordinary Iranians.

This distinction must also, however, be applied when designing incentives. What the report lists as Iranian aims -- respect, acknowledgement of nuclear "rights," etc. -- appears based on the rhetoric of regime officials. That rhetoric has multiple audiences in mind -- especially public opinion in Iran and the Middle East -- and therefore deliberately obscures the gap between the interests of the regime and those audiences. An examination of Iran's policies and actions, on the other hand, suggests that the regime is primarily interested in the enrichment of regime elites, the projection of power throughout the region to ward off potential foes, and especially in the survival of its "velayat e-faqih" system of rule.

Second, the report draws a false distinction between "diplomacy" and "pressure." There is a widespread misconception that diplomacy means "being nice," which leads to engagement being seen as a reward. In fact, diplomacy is just the conduct of relations between states -- a means of communication. A skilled diplomat will use these communications both to pressure and to entice, as well as to learn about his counterpart. Whether any particular action constitutes a disincentive or incentive depends on whether it damages or advances the Iranian regime's interests, which is why understanding how the regime truly views its interests is critical to diplomatic success.

Third, the report treats Iran's nuclear ambitions as the result of U.S.-Iran hostility. In reality, both likely arise from the regime's desire to preserve itself. Anti-Americanism was a founding pillar of the current Iranian government, and abandoning it would undermine the regime's raison d'etre. As for nuclear weapons, they would under the right conditions provide Iran with a powerful deterrent to external attack. Furthermore, the regime may calculate -- based on U.S. policy toward North Korea during its recent leadership transition, as well as U.S. policy toward Pakistan -- that fears of "loose nukes" would cause outside powers not simply to be deterred, but give them a vested interest in the regime's stability. Because the threats to that stability emanate from within as well as without, Western security guarantees are unlikely to be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a nuclear arsenal.

Fourth, and most problematically, the report assumes that a nuclear agreement could result in a broader strategic shift by Iran. In fact, a nuclear agreement -- and any improvement in U.S.-Iran relations -- is more likely to be a consequence of such a shift than a cause of one. As noted above, both Iran's nuclear ambitions and its hostility toward the West are elements of a strategy to advance the regime's interests, as it conceives them. For a strategic shift to occur, the regime must be convinced that this strategy is no longer tenable.

Far from compelling the regime to rethink its strategy, however, the current Western approach is likely seen in Tehran as vindicating it. U.S. policies at the negotiating table and across the region -- a reduction in our military posture, our inaction in Syria, and our continually improving nuclear offers -- are interpreted as successes by the regime and perceived by it as indications not of good will but of desperation or decline. 

Seen in this light, rather than forcing the regime to face a stark choice, the U.S. and our allies have given Iran's leaders the impression that they can have their cake and eat it too: retain an implicitly acknowledged nuclear weapons capability and not only maintain but expand its regional influence without having to adopt a posture of international cooperation.   

The U.S. objective, therefore, should be to reverse this dynamic. Such an approach would require a firmer posture in the nuclear arena -- refraining from further improvements to our offer, setting red lines for Iran's nuclear program, taking  steps to enhance the credibility of the U.S. military threat, and leaving open for now the question of whether we will hold further talks. 

But it would also require putting the nuclear negotiations in their appropriate regional and strategic context. The regime should come to believe that a confrontational, rather than cooperative, approach to its own security will come at a price, exacted by the U.S. and our allies. There are a number of ways to send this message -- pushing back against Iranian support for terrorism, greater support for the Iranian opposition -- but the most important way to do so is through greater involvement in Syria, where Iran has much at stake.

None of these steps exclude continued or even intensified diplomacy. Successful policies should combine a range of tools employed in coordination. But the goal of all of these actions should be the same. A strategic shift by Iran -- from a zero-sum policy of confrontation to one of cooperation -- would benefit the U.S. and the region whether or not a formal nuclear agreement is reached. A nuclear agreement without such a shift, however, will prove a hollow achievement.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images