The List

5 Leaders Who Miss George W. Bush

Barack Obama might still be overwhelmingly popular around the world, but here are five heads of state who probably wish they could have the old guy back.


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Country: Italy

What he misses:  His old buddy. In 2008, Time's Jeff Israely called the Italian president Bush's "Last Best Friend on Earth." A bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but it's true that Berlusconi stuck with Bush when nearly every other European leader (and Italian politician) was scoring cheap political points by attacking him as a reckless cowboy. Berlusconi provided political cover for his American friend by supporting the war in Iraq while most of Western Europe opposed it, but the close relationship between the two leaders seemed to go beyond politics. The conservative Christian from Texas and the lecherous billionaire might seem an odd pair, but Berlusconi was a frequent guest at Bush's ranch in Crawford, and Bush called the Italian leader a "man of sincerity and principle."

Berlusconi committed an early gaffe with Obama, calling the African-American president "young, handsome, and also tanned." There are also reports that U.S.-Italian relations have cooled somewhat and that the Obama administration is irritated by Berlusconi's close relations with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. The United States also supports expanding the Group of Eight or consolidating its European members, a move that is likely to irritate Italy, which depends on G-8 membership for international legitimacy.


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Country: Israel

What he misses: The benefit of the doubt. Netanyahu took power (for the second time) just two months after Obama, but the two have never been in sync. Obama has been far more outspoken than his predecessors on the issue of settlement construction in the West Bank, including the so-called "natural growth" of existing communities, which Netanyahu is determined to keep on the table. "What the hell do they want from me?" he reportedly told an associate after a particularly contentious White House meeting.

The Israeli government claims that a tacit agreement was reached with the Bush administration that would have allowed natural growth to continue. The Obama team counters that no such agreement exists, though Bush's former deputy national security advisor, Elliott Abrams, says that it did.

Despite the disagreement, Netanyahu's team stresses that "there is no crisis" between the administrations and progress is being made on the settlements issue. However the current impasse is resolved, it's clear the United States was far more cautious about issuing ultimatums to Israel in the Bush years.


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Country: Colombia

What he misses: Unconditional support in the drug war. The Colombian president was a staunch pro-U.S. voice in a region where Bush had few friends. The affection was mutual. Bush authorized millions in military aid for Colombia’s war against drug cartels and leftist rebels and awarded Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom, citing his “immense personal courage and strength of character.”

These days, things aren’t quite so friendly. Obama campaigned on his opposition to a free-trade agreement with Colombia, citing human rights issues. There is also growing concern in the administration over Colombia’s methods in the war on drugs. An anonymous source told the Washington Post that at their meeting last week, Obama planned to question Uribe on a recent United Nations report that characterized extrajudicial killings by Colombian security forces as "cold-blooded, premeditated murder."

Uribe has also lost the unique status he enjoyed under Bush, as Obama has made an active effort to improve relations with other Latin American leaders, including leftists. Both presidents say that progress continues to be made on the free-trade agreement and other issues, but the days when Colombia was the one reliable U.S. partner in South America are over.


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Country: Poland

What he misses: Being wooed over missile defense. Anti-Russian and pro-American almost to a fault, the Polish president came to power promising to strengthen his countries ties to the West. Kaczynski's ardor paid dividends for Bush in 2008 when Poland, over angry Russian objections, agreed to host part of a planned U.S. missile- defense shield on its territory in exchange for aid for military modernization. In doing so, the Polish government set back relations with Russia and provoked the Kremlin into stationing missiles in Kaliningrad, just across the Polish border.

The relationship between Obama and Kaczynski did not start off a on good foot. The two leaders spoke over the phone soon after Obama's election, after which Kaczynski immediately told the press that Obama had pledged to continue work on the shield. The U.S. president-elect said he said no such thing.

Several months later, Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offering to halt work on the shield in exchange for cooperation on other issues. The apparent misunderstanding has had domestic political repercussions for Kaczynski, helping the Polish opposition caricature him as a bit of a buffoon. His government has also faced several embarrassing reports of senior politicians -- including Kaczyinski's twin brother Jaroslaw, a former prime minister -- making racist jokes about Obama.


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Country: Venezuela

What he misses: Speech fodder. Whether he was comparing him to Satan or calling him a donkey, nothing livened up a Chávez speech or an episode of his TV show Alo Presidente like an extended tirade against George W. Bush. After a botched coup attempt against him in 2002, Chávez routinely accused domestic political opponents of being part of a U.S.-backed coup to overthrow him. His main foreign-policy project, the ALBA economic union, was marketed to other Latin American countries as a way to counteract U.S. influence. Chávez's bombastic anti-Bush statments earned him fans from Tegucigalpa to Tehran.

With the election of Obama -- who is overwhelmingly popular in Latin America -- the old zingers just don't pack the same punch. As the Obama administration loosens restrictions against Cuba, it's harder for Chávez to paint the United States as an all-purpose enemy of the Latin American left. The region's new generation of leftists, like El Salvador's recently elected president Mauricio Funes, are modeling themselves after Brazil's Lula rather than Chávez or Castro. After last week's coup in Honduras, Chávez tried to blame the United States for orchestrating the events, a claim that seemed a bit dubious after the Obama administration vocally supported ousted President Manuel Zelaya and invited him to Washington. With his foreign-policy influence declining along with the value of his oil reserves, Chávez might wish he had the old donkey to kick around again.

The List

5 Afghan History Lessons for Obama's New General

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on June 15, is far from the first general to take on the daunting task of pacifying the country. Here are five lessons from Afghanistan's history that he should keep in mind.

1. Do not underestimate the landscape.

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Afghanistan is a country of deserts crossed by a right-angled wall of mountains -- the Hindu Kush to the north, and the frontier with Pakistan to the east. The frontier range is 200 miles long and 600 miles wide, with peaks topping 15,000 feet, and only a handful of major passes crossing it -- the most famous being the Khyber Pass.

In the 19th century, the British, trying to secure a western frontier for their Indian Empire, drew a border down the middle of these mountains after a sapping series of conflicts. Pashtun tribes simply ignored the line and continued to move along mountain tracks that they knew.

Four years after the border was drawn, the British faced their biggest frontier war, which broke out in the very same areas that today shelter the Taliban and are the heart of the insurgency against Pakistan -- Swat, Buner, Bajaur, and Waziristan. This is natural guerrilla territory that has defeated every invader since Alexander the Great.

2. Islam can always be used to rally resistance.

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Before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, their leader, Mullah Omar, declared himself "Amir al-Mu'minin" (leader of all Muslims) while draped in Afghanistan's most revered item -- a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed. The only other Afghan ruler to have done that was Dost Mohammed Khan when he declared jihad against British rule in 1840.

We may have forgotten this history, but the Afghans have not. When I spent a few days "embedded" with the Taliban in Helmand province in 2006, they were keen to remind me of this, and of the Battle of Maiwand, fought nearby in 1880 -- one of the worst-ever battlefield defeats of British forces in Asia.

The 1897 uprising against the British was led by a man whom the young Winston Churchill, then working as a war correspondent, called the "Mad Mullah," and the most fanatical of the enemy were men he identified as "Taliban." The first reference to a "Talib" fighting against British rule was even earlier -- back in 1880.

This political Islam did not go away. It was successfully exploited by the United States in the 1980s in supporting the mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union and is now turned against U.S. forces.

3. Beware of the deceptive lure of tactical superiority.

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Afghanistan is the graveyard of military planning. Invaders have generally found the country rather easy to take but not to hold. And it was no different for the United States in 2001. Just like the British and the Soviets before them, after the fall of Kabul U.S. forces found themselves in a bruising asymmetric struggle in which awesome technical strength, and in particular overwhelming air superiority, is of little use against warriors who do not fight conventional battles.

The Soviet Army lost in Afghanistan despite having far more troops than are currently available to the U.S.-led forces, as well as many other advantages -- better-trained local allies, a contiguous land border, more warplanes, and a ruthless use of land mines.

Exactly a century before that, a strong British force that had defeated a far larger Afghan army on the battlefield to take Kabul soon found itself besieged in its fortress and outsmarted in a series of skirmishes. That was the first time the British began to use the phrase "hearts and minds" about Afghanistan -- a phrase that ought to be the center of U.S.-led efforts today.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, now heading Centcom, and in overall charge of the Afghan war, seems to understand this point, writing, "[M]ilitary actions by themselves cannot achieve success in [counterinsurgency]. Insurgents that never defeat counterinsurgents in combat still may achieve their strategic objectives." In other words, the Taliban have time on their side, and they know it.

4. Don't expect Afghan society to westernize.

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Some observers had entirely unrealistic expectations of cultural change in Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were not going to throw off their burqas just because the Taliban had gone. The Taliban were not uniquely evil, nor were the Northern Alliance leaders who deposed them uniquely good. Cutting the Taliban out of the political settlement was a major mistake of the sort warned about in every war manual going back to Sun Tzu -- victors should be generous with their enemies and skeptical of their allies.

If anything, rights for women are worse now than they were under the Taliban because of insecurity that has licensed local warlords to do their worst. And democracy should mean more than holding elections every few years; it has little value without transparency and accountability.

The frustrating pace of social change in Afghanistan is nothing new. In the 1920s, the government under King Amanullah Khan tried to modernize Afghan society as part of a wave of change in the Islamic world after the First World War, building women's schools and doing away with dress codes. But all it brought about was intense civil unrest as traditionalist elders and mullahs opposed the changes.

Today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai frequently uses this example to water down reform proposals dreamed up in the West. He likes to tell visiting ministers, "Remember, the last king of Afghanistan who tried to improve rights for women ended up dead."

5. Afghan wars are always international.

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During the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States had extensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic contact with Iran. Because Iran was a strong opponent of the Taliban, arming and financing opposition to them for several years, this made sense. But instead of continuing to cultivate this relationship, President George W. Bush branded Iran part of an "axis of evil" within months of U.S. troops landing, alienating a potentially helpful ally.

Iran is now engaged in building the biggest university in Kabul, while all of Afghanistan's other neighbors and interested countries, including India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and Russia, have projects in the country as well. U.S. President Barack Obama's offer to extend a hand to Iran's "unclenched fist" is a start, but it took a major insurgency on the frontier of two unstable countries in a nuclear-armed region where Osama bin Laden is still being harbored to engage U.S. policymaking at the top level.

Bin Laden was only the latest person in a long line of fighters who have used Afghanistan's strategic position at the crossroads of the world for their own ends. In Balkh in northern Afghanistan, which has a fair claim to be the oldest city in the world, archaeologists have discovered a rich harvest of Greek, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Muslim remains going back thousands of years. These attest to Afghanistan's place as a crucible of conflict.

Imperial Britain wanted to control Afghanistan as it did much of the rest of Asia. But after two bruising wars, the British had to content themselves with hoping that the funds they paid to client kings in Kabul would help keep Russia away. Instead of controlling Afghanistan, British spies participated in the century-long "Great Game" against the Russians for influence across the Hindu Kush. As the latest great power to try its hand in taming Afghanistan, the United States has acquired its own great game, stretching into Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, and beyond. Let us hope it ends less badly for the Americans.