Bush and Obama: Parallels with the Past

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

As noted earlier, there are several parallels that can be drawn between America’s involvement in Indochina and its aftermath during the Cold War era, on the one hand, and its involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan and their aftermath during the “War on Terror” era, on the other.

President Kennedy initiated and President Johnson greatly expanded American military intervention in Vietnam, but the United States was unable to win the war, which subsequently became highly unpopular with the public.  Similarly, George W. Bush initiated and greatly expanded American military intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The U.S. inability to bring these wars to a satisfactory conclusion also resulted in their becoming highly unpopular with the American public.

Presidents Nixon and Ford would oversee America’s military withdrawal from Indochina, but not before Nixon himself greatly expanded the war through launching interventions in Cambodia and Laos (where the Vietnamese communists had previously been able to operate with impunity).  Similarly, President Obama is overseeing the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and has announced that American forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan between mid-2011 and the end of 2014.  These withdrawals follow the surge in Iraq carried out at the end of the Bush years as well as the surge in Afghanistan undertaken by Obama.  While running for president in 2008, Senator Obama talked about going after Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.  Although he has not expanded the ground war to Pakistan, Obama has greatly increased aerial drone attacks against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

While considered a defeat at the time, the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina under Nixon and Ford ended American overexpansion there and set up the Reagan administration in particular to more easily weaken an over expanded Soviet Union.  The means for doing this included the Reagan Doctrine (aiding anti-Soviet insurgents fighting pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere), Star Wars (a costly ballistic-missile defense program that imposed a heavy burden on the economically weaker USSR trying to emulate it) and other initiatives.  Similarly, Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan appears to many to be inviting defeat, but it may instead serve to end American overextension in these two countries and set up a future American president — or even Obama himself — to more easily weaken an overextended radical Islamist movement.

Finally, just as it seemed virtually inconceivable that democratization would sweep through Eastern Europe until after this process had gotten underway in 1989, it seemed inconceivable that democratization could occur in the Arab world until the dramatic events of 2011 raised this possibility.  It is, of course, not at all certain that the democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt of early 2011 will actually bring democracy to these two nations, much less spread it to other Arab countries.  Yet even if democratization does not spread, or if it proves anemic in Egypt and Tunisia, the mass protests resulting in the downfall of just these two presidents will serve to inspire Arabs both now and in the future regarding what can be accomplished through peaceful protest.  Arab publics as well as authoritarian Arab regimes are now aware that the Arab world is not immune from the forces seeking democratic change that have spread to other regions of the world.

It cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty just how far or fast democratic revolution will occur in the Arab and the broader Muslim world.  Thus, no attempt to do so will be made here.  Through its support for Mubarak’s resignation as president of Egypt in particular, though, the Obama administration has done more to align the United States with democratic change in the Arab world than the Bush administration did by calling for it but then actually backing authoritarian regimes there.  If democracy takes root in Egypt, Obama’s most positive legacy vis-à-vis the “War on Terror” could be that he had the foresight to support democratic change as a means of undermining anti-democratic Islamic radicals.  Even if this does not occur, Obama’s legacy will be that he brought an end to the Bush administration’s overexpansion and all the problems that this caused for American foreign policy.

Yet especially in light of the events of 2011, George W. Bush may also have left behind a positive legacy.  To understand what this might be, we must draw a possible parallel that pre-dates the Cold War:  the legacy of Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I.  President Wilson’s vision of a peaceful, democratic Europe appeared overly optimistic and naïve, not just in the immediate aftermath of World War I, but for several decades afterward.  Yet less than a century after the November 11, 1918, armistice, his vision has largely been fulfilled in Europe.

Why did this happen?  Two key components were 1) the spread of democratic values and the discrediting of non-democratic alternatives, first in Western and later in Eastern Europe, and 2) America’s commitment to supporting West European democracies after World War II (unlike after World War I) and East European democracies after the Cold War.

Similarly, Bush’s support for democratization in the greater Middle East appeared overly optimistic and naïve when he announced his vision for it in 2002.  Demand for it there appeared to be extremely weak.  But the demand for democratization was also weak in much of Europe after World War I — especially after the onset of the Great Depression.  This, however, did not prevent the demand for democratization from growing throughout Europe later.  And American support was crucial for transforming this demand into actual democracy, first in Western and later in Eastern Europe.

While the demand for democratization may have been weak in the greater Middle East up to now, Europe’s experience suggests that this need not prevent it from developing later.  If and when the demand for democratization does grow in the greater Middle East, American support will also be crucial for transforming it into actual democracy.  But for this to happen, an American president must first be willing to acknowledge that it can happen — as President Bush was.  And, as has been seen in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, there clearly is a strong demand for democratization in the greater Middle East — one that is unlikely to be contained within these two countries.

The Cold War era seemed never-ending while it was going on, but it did end — in a surprising wave of democratization.  Perhaps the “War on Terror” era (which also seems never-ending) may simply prove to have been the interlude between 9/11 and 2/11 — the day in 2011 when Mubarak resigned — and another surprising wave of democratization.  If so, I will leave it to others to debate whether this was motivated primarily by the Bush administration’s grand vision for democratization in the greater Middle East, by the Obama administration’s articulation of a more modest vision, or by the vision of individual actors within Arab and Muslim countries themselves.

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top