First off, I would to start off by mentioning my thoughts and prayers are with the former President for a quick recovery from surgery to open a blocked artery near his heart. All reports indicate he is doing well.
As I have written about previously, American foreign policy has oscillated between periods of intervention and periods of isolation. Over the last several decades however, America’s political parties have altered their positions. Where once Democrats were the interventionists and Republicans largely isolationist, the opposite seemed to hold true until 2008 with the election of a hawk in a dove’s clothing.
The 2000 presidential campaign was fought during a strong economy. Both major party candidates seemed to back away from major interventionist policies. Al Gore even criticized President Bill Clinton for going into Bosnia to stop ethnic cleansing. Then Governor George Bush campaigned on a “Humble foreign policy.” Oh how times quickly changed Bush’s tune.
To quell worries Bush was to much of an isolationist in GOP circles he chose close friend Donald Rumsfeld as his Secretary of Defense and former Sec of Defense Dick Cheney as his VP. Up until 9/11 their views were largely marginalized in his cabinet. But 9/11 changed that.
We all know what resulted from 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security was created, the Patriot Act was soon passed, and entities like the TSA and NSA were either created or greatly strengthened. We also saw boots hit the ground in Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda and depose the Taliban. In March 2003 the new “War on Terror” reached Iraq.
The stretch of the War on Terror to invade Iraq likely brought down the Bush Presidency. Iraq’s government and Bush pet peeve leader Saddam Hussein was accused of supporting Al Qaeda and by extension the 9/11 attack. Evidence was presented/fabricated (you decide) and soon after boots hit the ground. The reasons for invading Iraq remain muddled even today. First it was to protect America and depose Saddam, then it was to provide Iraqis freedom and finally it was nation-building. By the way, nation building started in 2001 in Afghanistan.
The 2004 election was seen by many conservatives and defense hawks as support for their agenda. John Kerry had moved far, far to the left on foreign policy to court the growing anti-war network. To bad he did not have the election in 2006. Bush won in 2004 on two issues, national security and family values. According to exit polls, of the 55% of the public that supported the Iraq War, 90% supported Bush. Of the minority that opposed the war over 90% supported Kerry.
Second term events were not kind to Bush and the GOP. Ethnic tension in Iraq led to increased civilian and US military deaths. In Afghanistan the Taliban, based in Pakistan, struck back with mostly impunity against American and NATO targets. This led to the anti-war Left, largely an anti-Bush movement, to grow and thrive. Despite their cries they were anti-war, as we will see when Obama comes into the picture they shut up rather quickly.
Early 2007 brought substantial change to American foreign policy leaders, if not policy. Rumsfeld was replaced with Gates and the GOP’s hawkish wing began to scream out in frustration on Iraq. As a result, the surge in Iraq occurred in 2007 and continued until after Bush left office.
But during this time period something else also changed. Al Qaeda and its affiliates began to decentralize as counter terrorist organizations stepped up their efforts. Between 2007 and 2009 over a dozen high-profile terrorist leaders were killed, many by now infamous drone strikes.
Bush had one enduring success during his tenure. After 9/11 American soil was never attacked again. I will not debate or posit reasons for this phenomenon. It is simply the enduring legacy of his Presidency. So far, it is a legacy his predecessor has been unable to replicate.
Apparently even his Democratic doveish replacement, Barack Obama took notice. As a result, Obama did not work hard to close Guantanamo Bay and he even accelerated the CIA and NSA’s drone strike program. Obama also copied Bush’s surge idea and used it in Afghanistan. Due to geography it has not proven as successful as Iraq.
During 2012 it was noticeable just how far to the right, or “Neocon” side of things Obama had moved on foreign policy. He defended drone strikes, surveillance programs such as the Patriot Act, the NDAA and attacked Romney for being to soft on foreign policy. Leaving aside the fact Obama seems to also have followed Bush’s tendency to put incompetent people in important posts he also took credit for no major attack occurring on US soil.
Since that time much as changed in eight months. The Boston Marathon bombing marked the end to a 12 year era where American soil was not touched by terrorist acts of destruction. Americans also seem to be horrified by the fact the NSA has been collecting meta-data on millions of Americans actions. Major businesses such as Facebook, Apple, Google, Samsung, etc. have been complicit in helping the government accomplish this goal. Libertarians in the GOP, long silenced, have come out against the “National security state” and for once the party does not seem to be making a serious effort to silence them.
Even the left-wing groups that so adamantly opposed Bush’s foreign policy and were quiet for much of Obama’s first term are speaking out (never thought I would give a shout-out to Code Pink). This of course begs the question then of what Americans want? They seem to want to be safe but also keep their civil liberties protected. Both Bush’s and Obama’s actions would seem to show they have taken the side of national security. Yet, public opinion is far more nuanced and recent public commentary suggests the needle has moved away from the National security state.
Both Bush’s and Obama’s policies have been mirrors of each other. Interventionism has been the name of the game (as has incompetence). Meanwhile, non-interventionists in the Democratic Party and GOP had been marginalized or afraid to criticize their President. Now that seems to be changing as the public begins to awaken to the dangers of a national security state.