Dealing with a troubled inheritance

Posted March 23, 2009, at 5:27 p.m.

R

ecent developments in Iraq remind us that terrible instability can return in short order despite encouraging signs and limited steps toward reconciliation between warring Sunni and Shiite forces.

Several suicide bombings that killed and maimed dozens of soldiers, policemen and civilians reflect a nation still torn apart by sectarian strife, terrorist tactics and widespread distrust.

But even if Iraq can find a more peaceful balance of power and economic normality, the war in Iraq will remain the unnecessary war of choice that demonstrated the bankruptcy of the foreign policy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

A new book by New York Times correspondent David Sanger, “The Inheritance,” doesn’t even focus on Iraq in making that case and the daunting challenges they left for President Obama in the international arena. Sanger, who covered the Bush White House, lays out the truly staggering costs and consequences of what he calls the “strategic distraction” of Iraq.

The bill of indictment is well-known, broken up into four main sections and told with a lively blend of fact, anecdote and analysis. It covers:

The decision by Bush, Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to turn away from rebuilding Afghanistan — where the Taliban and al-Qaida have returned with a vengeance. Initial Bush decisions on aid led to commitments to give Afghans a mere $57 per capita in U.S. aid, compared with $679 in Bosnia.

Compounding the failure to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan and pursuing al-Qaida, the administration put all its eggs — and $10 billion — in the basket of an unpopular dictator in Pakistan, leading to much greater instability in a fragile country with both a deadly Islamic insurgency and nuclear weapons. The 9/11 Commission gave the administration a failing grade on making the security of nuclear weapons there and elsewhere a top national priority.

The powerful emergence of Iran, a much larger, more dynamic country comes with, unlike Iraq, a real nuclear weapons program. Sanger documents how the Bush administration stiff-armed Iranian offers of a serious discussion of mutual interests in 2003, because the White House was so full of itself after the initial success in Iraq it figured the Iranian offer would get better if ignored.

While bogged down in Iraq, the administration basically allowed a far more roguish regime in North Korea to develop up to 10 nuclear weapons. Sanger credits Bush with eventually coming around to a diplomatic course through the six-party talks, but only after six years of “paralyzing indecision.”

The U.S.-China relationship is one of mutual interdependence now, and Sanger says Bush came to understand that, belatedly. Yet he wasted numerous opportunities to forge a more profitable Washington-Beijing collaboration on the larger, long-term challenges of environmental cleanup and energy development.

At a recent book-signing in Washington, Sanger commented, “I think the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, was so pleased Bush was absorbed with Iraq that he probably considered sending him a postcard: ‘Great going in Iraq, George. Someone has to democratize the Middle East, and I can’t think of a better person. Keep at it, and let us know how you’re doing in 10 or 15 years.’”

“The Inheritance” ends with possible terrorist scenarios that, Sanger argues, have become more likely because the Bush administration failed to make progress on the larger terror threats and the security of nuclear and chemical weapons. Imagine the trillion dollars spent in Iraq at work on securing those weapons systems and bolstering homeland security.

A conservative friend saw the cover of the book and quipped: “Oh, I see, the book that will make all the excuses for Obama.”

I laughed, and said: “Well, yes and no. Bush did leave a disastrous legacy both at home and abroad. But the responsibilities are now Obama’s.”

I added that legitimate criticism can be leveled at some domestic steps, but most of his actions to date in foreign affairs, starting with selecting smart, experienced, bipartisan national security advisers, have been sure-footed. A responsible exit from Iraq has been framed, a major review of strategy in Afghanistan is underway, Washington has agreed to talk with Iran about key differences and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke candidly to Chinese leaders about climate change.

There’s a long way to go to restore American power and influence, but President Obama has made a credible start in dealing with such a troubling “inheritance.”

• • •

Ted Curtis of Orono and Charles Graham of Camden caught a mistake in my last column. “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind” was a part of the Declaration of Independence, of course, not the Constitution.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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