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Was Bush a (successful) realist?

Several readers have asked me what I think of Peter Feaver's "realist" defense of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Feaver's logic is admirably straightforward: 1) realism emphasizes evaluating great powers by how they manage relations with other great powers, 2) Bush did relatively well on that front, therefore: 3) Bush had a good foreign policy by "realist" standards. QED.

Not so fast.

First of all, relations with the other great powers weren't a top priority for Bush and his team, especially after 9/11. So even if one accepts Feaver's argument, it amounts to saying that Bush and Co. did better on issues they paid less attention to, while screwing up royally in the areas that they focused on most. I'd agree, but it's not exactly a ringing defense.   

Second, as Feaver admits, relations with Russia got worse throughout Bush's two terms, culminating in that nasty little war in Georgia last summer. Part of the problem may have been Bush's decidedly non-realist method of gauging Russian intentions (i.e., looking into Vladimir Putin's soul), but the larger problem was that the administration kept assuming it could trample all over Russian interests and ignore various Russian "red lines" and not pay any diplomatic price for it. (To be fair, this was merely the continuation of the Clinton administration's own approach, but Bush failed to realize that Russia was no longer as hapless as it had been in the Yeltsin era). So they continued to expand NATO (including open support for Ukrainian and Georgian membership), insisted on independence for Kosovo, and started deploying missile defenses in Eastern Europe, a step which Moscow could only see as an attempt to gain some sort of first-strike advantage.  Whatever the merits of these various initiatives, it was entirely predictable that Russia would be very, very, annoyed by them and that it would be eager for payback.

Even if Bush did manage to avoid a violent blow-up with Moscow, his approach made it impossible to get Russia's cooperation on several issues that did matter a lot to Washington. Russia didn't support the invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, and along with France and Germany, this opposition made it impossible to get a second U.N. Security Council supporting military action. Russia also repeatedly balked on tougher sanctions toward Iran, which made it harder to deal effectively with Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Nor does Bush deserve an "A grade" on relations with India. The new security partnership with India is a positive step that can certainly be justified on realist grounds, but the price Bush paid -- in effect turning a blind eye toward India's nuclear programs and thereby sending a torpedo into the existing non-proliferation regime -- was too high, especially in an era when we were rightly worried about discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states or terrorists. But at least he got a lot of help from India in Iraq, and strong backing from New Delhi on Iran? Oops, my mistake: they stiffed us on Iraq and provided only mild diplomatic support on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Seems that new strategic partnership still has some growing to do. As for China, it has taken advantage of our confrontation with Tehran to quietly enhance its own position in this vital strategic area, and forged a series of new connections in Asia while our attention was focused elsewhere.

Finally, realists would judge a great power's foreign policy not just on how one manages bilateral relations with other great powers, but on whether one’s overall foreign policy has left it in a better position vis-à-vis the other major states, and especially those that might become serious competitors.  Here the record is much more worrisome: by mismanaging relations in other places -- most notably the Middle East -- Bush weakened U.S. material power and brought America's global image to new lows. One suspects that Chinese foreign policy elites have found it difficult to contain their glee; their influence has risen not so much because they have played their hand skillfully, but because we've been shooting ourselves in the foot.

Bottom line: even on this narrow "realist" criteria, it's hard to give Bush high marks.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images