George W. Bush may leave a positive foreign policy legacy after all. A year ago this would have seemed difficult to credit, with the Middle East in flames from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean, violent extremism on the rise throughout much of the Muslim world and America's standing abroad at its lowest ebb in polling history.
Objectively, the situation remains much the same today, a bit better in Iraq, maybe a bit worse in Afghanistan and much worse in Pakistan. Yet over this period, Bush has put in place a series of more pragmatic policies from which even a Democratic successor will have a hard time moving away.
In Iraq, the United States has reduced the violence and is beginning to withdraw American troops. In Afghanistan, the United States is increasing its troop strength, even as it tries to bolster the multinational nature of that engagement.
The prospect of imminent conflict with Iran has faded, absent some new Iranian provocation, and the Bush administration has opened a dialogue with Teheran about Iraq.
Bush has embraced the Middle East peace process with all the fervor of a recent convert. Exaggerated democratization rhetoric has been abandoned, but the administration finally is pressing for free elections in Pakistan and trying to broker an accommodation between that country's military and civilian leadership. The administration has concluded a nuclear agreement with Pyongyang and Bush is corresponding with Kim Jong Il. America's standing in the world remains at historic lows, but many of the policies that prompted this decline have been abandoned or at least substantially moderated.
Whatever the candidates may say on the campaign trail, a successor administration is going to have a hard time distancing itself from most of these policies. In the primary season, Republican candidates may talk bravely about doubling the size of Guantánamo and Democrats about setting an early departure deadline from Iraq, but as the campaign moves to the electoral stage, more centrist positions are likely to be espoused, and these may not look all that different than those currently being implemented by the Bush administration.
A Democratic president might be more emphatic about ultimately withdrawing completely from Iraq, could try to expand the dialogue with Iran and may distance himself or herself from President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. But in general, the prospect for continuity in American foreign policy is greater than one might have expected a year ago, even if the White House changes parties.
What explains Bush's move to the center? The failure of more extreme policies, to start with. In 2006, Iraq was headed toward total chaos, the Taliban was gaining ground in Afghanistan, Israel had again invaded Lebanon, the much-touted democratic transformation of the Middle East had heightened sectarian violence in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and non-communication with the two remaining members of the axis of evil was not making either of them any less evil or more cooperative. Time was running out and the president faced the prospect of catastrophic failure across the board.
This led to a shake-up in his national security team with the departure of Donald Rumsfeld, the nomination of Robert Gates (an old-school realist in the Kissinger, Scowcroft mold), the appointment of a second assistant to the president for national security affairs to run the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the dispatching of a new general to Iraq. It also led to the surge in troop strength there, and the increased focus on regional diplomacy, including a dialogue with Iran.
It also is true that many second-term presidents tend to move toward the center, govern more pragmatically and focus more heavily on international affairs. This was true of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well. Bush's conversion to realism and multilateralism may have occurred too late to produce signal achievements during his remaining months of office, but his current course makes a highly disruptive transition to a new administration less likely.
Certainly Bush's commitment to the Middle East peace process, his more balanced stance on the issues dividing the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and his willingness to talk to Iran and North Korea will make it easier for his successor to secure bipartisan support for the continuation of such efforts.
That successor will inherit the immense burden of war in Iraq, but the trend lines there seem more promising than they did a year ago, and pressure for a radical departure in policy has abated.
Finally, Bush's very unpopularity around the world will provide an immediate boost to whoever succeeds him almost independent of whatever policy changes accompany that transition.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on January 17, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.