The Making of a Quagmire: Little remembered and still less understood is the role that George W. Bush played  in setting the stage for the war in Ukraine.

A week after putting down Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion, Vladimir Putin seems more in control of Russia, not less. EP arrived at that judgment after a week of daily reading Johnson’s Russia List e-mail newsletter, which offers a more comprehensive and therefore better balanced account of events surrounding the war in Ukraine than any single newspaper I read.

Two summaries stood out:  a dispatch by Fred Weir in the Christian Science Monitor; and a column by Anatol Lieven in The Guardian. “The Russian leader’s show of mercy towards Prigozhin was not a sign of weakness but a shrewd move,” wrote Lieven.

Control of Russia is one thing. Control of Putin’s war with Ukraine is another. Antiwar sentiment is almost certainly growing at home.  The Russian president has been foiled at every turn by staunch Ukrainian resistance, backed by superior NATO intelligence, firepower, and press commentary. Promises of an imminent summer offensive by Ukraine’s forces notwithstanding, the war seems likely to remain bogged-down along the mine-strewn battle fields in the east. A Korean War style armistice probably lies somewhere ahead.

How is it that the United States finds itself sponsor-in-chief of a proxy war with Russia?  EP has a long-standing habit of blaming it all on Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton’s roommate when both were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford, but that has grown more than outdated over time.  It remains true that the Clinton administration got off to a bad start with Russia in the second half of the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in recent years, the presidency of George W. Bush has loomed larger in memory – not the first term, with its disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but the second.

Last week I re-read chapters on the beginning of the second term in Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (Doubleday, 2013). Baker covered the Clinton and Bush administrations for The Washington Post; since then he has kept track of the White House for The New York Times. There will never be a more seamless insider narrative of high-level American government these last thirty years, imperfect in some dimensions though inevitably it is. (He will have time someday  to look back on all those years.)

You remember the transition. With the war in Iraq spinning out of control, Bush defeated John Kerry by a narrow margin. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, he boasted “And now I intend to spend it.” He let go Secretary of State Colin Powell and replaced him with Condoleezza Rice; kept in place Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; and persuade speechwriter Michael Gerson to draft a big-idea  “freedom speech,” designed to “plant a flag” for democracy around the world.

Thus, in his Second Inaugural Address, on January 20, 2005, Bush proclaimed “[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Then came his proposal to partially privatize Social Security, his administration’s lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina, his failed nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court; the dismissal of Rumsfeld and the behind-the-scenes break with Vice President Cheney. Bush then appointed Hank Paulson Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernanke chair of the Federal Reserve Board, but that is a story for some other day.

Lacking experience in foreign affairs, President Barack Obama deferred to Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, both presidential aspirants. Both enthusiastically pursued the Bush freedom agenda, especially in Ukraine.  President Donald Trump disqualified himself to pursue any meaningful action, thanks to abundant conflicts of interest. Then, having spent eight years as Obama’s vice president overseeing Ukraine policy, Joe Biden in the White House redoubled America’s thirty-year bet on liberal Russian democracy, promising NATO membership to Ukraine, “but not any time soon.”

Meanwhile, most mainstream media in the West have pursued the demonization of Putin, combined recently with the magical thinking that, under the pressure of war, his government soon would collapse.  Granted, Putin is not a nice man; remember him taunting Angela Merkel by bringing his mastiff to a meeting? Having paid billions to Wagner Group for its services over the years in Syria, Africa, and Ukraine, it is fair to call him ruthless and cruel.

Never mind the fundamental considerations in the background: the risks that accompany trying to bully the government of a fully equipped and increasingly resentful nuclear power (suppose Wagner Group did get the Bomb?); and the opportunity costs associated with giving up on meaningful collective action to cope with climate change?

EP cuts Dubya some slack for that Second Inaugural Address. Those were tumultuous times. He had begun paying the price for his war in Iraq. But is there any other word but reckless for US foreign policy with respect to NATO expansion in the years since then?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *