Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Delusion Points

| November 8, 2010

Don't fall for the nostalgia — George W. Bush's foreign policy really was that bad.

Two years into Barack Obama's presidency, it has become a cliché to observe that the newish president, who spent his 2008 campaign promising a U-turn from his deeply unpopular predecessor's activities abroad, has ended up with a foreign policy that looks surprising like George W. Bush's. The United States has more troops in Afghanistan than it did at the end of the Bush years, Guantánamo is still open, efforts to engage Iran have failed, and while American soldiers may have begun pulling back from Iraq, they've left plenty of Western defense contractors in their wake.

In anticipation of tomorrow's release of Bush's memoir, Decision Points, this line of thinking is reinforcing one of the Beltway press corps' favorite rituals: the "was he really that bad?" nostalgia for a president that the same reporters and analysts were happily pummeling only two years ago.

Don't believe a word of it. George W. Bush's presidency really was that bad — and the fact that Obama has largely followed the same course is less a measure of Bush's wisdom than a reminder of the depth of the hole he dug his country into, as well as the institutionalized groupthink that dominates the U.S. foreign-policy establishment.

Decision Points has 14 chapters, each one pivoting around a key decision that Bush made in his adult life. So, in honor of America's newly published ex-president, here's my own list of 14 decisions that Bush made — ones that tell a slightly different history of the 43rd presidency.

1. Listening to Cheney. In 2000, George W. Bush chose Dick Cheney to run his vice presidential candidate search effort. In a supremely self-confident move, Cheney muscled the competition out of the way and nominated himself — and Bush agreed. This was Bush's ur-blunder, the mistake from which so many subsequent errors flowed. Cheney wasted no time stocking the administration's foreign-policy apparatus with extremists eager to implement the full neoconservative program, and they got their opportunity on Sept. 12, 2001. As Richard Perle — a central member of the neocon team himself — later told the New Yorker's George Packer, "if Bush had staffed his administration with a group of people selected by Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker ... Then it could have been different, because they would not have carried into it the ideas that the people who wound up in important positions brought." Talk about failing to dodge a bullet....

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Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, is the author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy and, with coauthor J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby. He blogs at

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M..“Delusion Points.” Foreign Policy, November 8, 2010.

The Author

Stephen Walt