Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Is George W. Bush a Republican?

I ask the question beyond the point about party labels (e.g. if you call yourself a Republican you are one). I contend that if Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson were to attend a meeting of the Democratic National Committee today, they would not embrace the Democrats as their modern-day successors (if for no other reason that the presence of non-whites, given their pronounced attitudes on race). It was an Alexander Hamilton, in contrast, who bluntly stated that there was no basis for asserting any sort of innate superiority or inferiority to any racial or ethnic group. But I diverge from the main point.

Dimitri Simes has this to say on the matter:

In his relentless restatement of the virtues of freedom and America’s right and duty to promote them worldwide, Mr. Bush is dramatically different from other post-war Republican presidents. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush all believed that America stood for something bigger than its narrowly-defined security and economic interests, but they never demonstrated the current President’s missionary zeal to remake the world. They never took the position that America could not be safe unless others basically adopt Western-style democracy.

President Reagan was in a special category. He delivered visionary speeches about freedom and denounced the Soviet evil empire. But, even while bitterly criticizing the Soviet leadership, Reagan began writing personal letters to Brezhnev to begin a meaningful dialogue. Jack Matlock, Reagan’s advisor on Soviet affairs and later Ambassador to Moscow, wrote in his book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, that the former President did this literally from his hospital bed, days after the assassination attempt on him, and well before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and began his perestroika reforms.

For Reagan, devastating criticism of the Soviets’ evil ways was not just a reflection of his personal beliefs, but was also a tool to change the dynamics in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, which he believed was against the United States. Reagan intended to demonstrate to Moscow by words and deeds that America could not be bullied, but he also wanted to convey to the Soviet leaders that should they address U.S. concerns, he would be prepared to do business with them. Mr. Bush, in contrast, delivers declaratory instructions with little regard for the perspectives and sensitivities of those he is ostensibly trying to persuade. The trouble is that they are likely to have little regard for his guidance either.

Does the Bush Administration mark a definitive break in Republican foreign policy continuity with previous administrations? Or will the nominee in 2008 argue for a "return" to the past?

Interesting that we should be thinking along similar lines. Perhaps this will cast a little light on the subject.
The Bush response is simple. New world after 9/11, old rules and standards don't apply.

Then again, how many US presidents, Republican or Democrat, have been eager to "remake the world"? True, you guys have more than once helped transform the rest of the world and otherwise din more localized situations. But it has usually done so by default, as descriptions like "reluctant empire" and "accidental" attest.

Bush may be a rare anomaly in this American tradition of diffidence. Not merely un-Republican, but un-American as a leader, a true radical. (Faith-based, for what radical is not?). Thus he seems to be locked into this pattern of drawing a line on the ground, then telling the other guy to step over here, and only then would he be willing to talk business.

Obviously, even someone who is inclined to concede your point would be loathe to do so in the face of such humiliating insult. Thus, this strategy succeeds in getting you what you want only if the objective is to force the other guy to take a stand so that you can gun him down with overwhelming firepower. This would also make sense if you can't get what you want because you don't have that option and you don't have an acceptable alternative outcome that can be gained by negotiation. In that case, you might as well stand firm. All you will get is a stalemate, but it's better than nothing if you are willing to settle for a stalemate that lasts through the next election. In fact, I would hazard to guess that it was some kind of all-purpose Rovian genius at work if the Bush administration hadid not indiscriminately applied this tactic to every situation and ended up, well, where it's ended up today.

Sidebar: Why does Condoleezza Rice et a free pass in this? Isn't she at least as much to blame as Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld in all of this? Is it all about likeability?
as with an uncomfortable silence at a dinner party being filled with mindless chatter, so to with Bush's talk of freedom: there's an empty space between the sweet illsuion of what they hoped for and the bitter reality of what they have found - have to fill it with something otherwise the natives will get restless.
Simes wrote:

"Reagan intended to demonstrate to Moscow by words and deeds that America could not be bullied, but he also wanted to convey to the Soviet leaders that should they address U.S. concerns, he would be prepared to do business with them."

Hardly. Reagan's plan for the Soviets was simple. "We win, they lose." And just as Bush II has expanded upon Reagan's approach to fiscal matters, he has expanded upon Reagan's approach to foreign policy. Reagan was more constrained, by the Soviets in particular, and so Bush II has merely had more scope to endulge the fundamental recklessness of modern Republicanism.
I think that in the realm of foreign policy at least, George Bush represents a continuation of Reagan's Legacy, not a decisive break.

It is true that Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union, and commendable. But his essential platform - what he was elected on -was confrontation in every concievable form, even if there was no clear path from that confrontation to victory.

The prime difference between Reagan and Bush II is that Reagan inherited an enemy already in the beginning of collapse. Bush has not. It makes the strategy look a little different.

Also, Reagan made intelligent deviations from his general strategy that Bush has been unable to equal.
Dave Schuler,

Is the link to your website? To answer the post on Texans, this is also the state that produced Ann Richards and Ross Perot. But I do agree that in staying with a war that wasn't going well LBJ and George W. Bush have something in common.

Regarding the post here, Reagan's private letters to Soviet leaders were not known at the time. The Bush White House has probably had private contacts with U.S. adversaries in recent years. But we won't know how public and private relations have really been handled until memoirs come out and private papers become available.

Dmitri Simes has a larger point in noting the contrast between Bush and his predecessors. It is true that circumstances constrained Reagan more than Bush and that Reagan tried to rollback communism where he could. But Reagan could have easily invaded Libya in 1986 to depose Qaddafi and chose not to do so. I think there has been a change in Republican foreign policy since then.

The change is not in the adoption of more expansive aims but in the relation of war aims to war.

In World War II, President Roosevelt pledged to remake the world according to the Four Freedoms, which were hardly modest. But the pledge was in the context of a war that had a clear aim-point once unconditional surrender of the Axis governments became the goal. Although the war was open-ended as to the timing of its end, there was no real question that it would end in a finite time as victories on the seas, in the air, and on land gradually tipped the war in favor of the Allies.

President Bush has tried to revive the imagery and aims of World War II in the context of a struggle that involves waging land wars with US troops on multiple fronts. But unlike WWII, there is no clear aim-point achievable in a finite timeframe, and in the current struggle the United States makes no clear distinction between who we are willing to coexist with and who we are not.

But I would caution against laying the failures of recent US policy entirely on Bush. His policies and style are part of a larger conservative ascendancy in American public life that has become more militant since 2001. The aims of the current war on terror will only change if their costs overpower the fears that motivate them.
Anonymous 9:24:

What a nice simplistic rendering, We win, they lose.

Yes, Reagan believed that the Soviet Union was not a sustainable proposition over the long run and that it should not be the US policy to try and build up the USSR as a co-equal in the world system or even that the USSR was necessary to exist for a stable world order--what some thought the end point of the Nixon-Kissinger approach.

But apart from jokes about starting the bombing, he was never going to force a Soviet collapse, cause an invasion, and so on. He believed in strong defense and in exploiting weakness of the Soviets, especially on the peripheries.

I think Reagan in his prime would have seen the invasion of Iraq as a big mistake in the way it was handled.
I should have added to my last paragraph above that conservatives today are not uncritical of current policy. Changes seem likely after the 2008 elections even if Republicans retain the White House. And whether the changes are more sustainable may depend as much on their results as on their costs; Americans may be willing to bear higher burdens if better results visibly follow.

My point is that transformative aims in the world are not necessarily out of place if they are coupled with a strategy that achieves results in a finite time. The Four Freedoms were not achieved universally in 1945, but they were achieved in the enemy countries, which then became allies. The question today is whether a war that has no end point, and that is unclear as to the criteria for treating other governments as enemies, can achieve results. At least one of these two conditions may need to change if the struggle with terrorism is to be successful.
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