This time next week, the U.S. presidential election will be over, and we will know the name of the next commander in chief. (This is barring the possibility of the courts getting involved in the electoral process again, of course.) Whether we will be looking at a McCain or Obama presidency, the world will be watching expectantly for new foreign-policy directions to come.
Nov. 6 will also mark the end of the George W. Bush era in foreign-policy. Little attention has been paid to the Bush administration in recent months, the cold reality of power changing hands. This has been exacerbated by the fact that both candidates are running against him. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has successfully tagged his opponent with representing a "third Bush term," which has caused Republican candidate John McCain to redouble his efforts to put daylight between him and Mr. Bush.
It is clear, however, that Mr. Bush's foreign policy legacy will be a more nuanced legacy than any of Mr. Bush's critics at home or abroad are willing to acknowledge. Over the past eight years there have been extraordinary highs and lows, and a good deal in between.
The global war on terror will inevitably frame the Bush presidency in history's eyes. Following September 11, preventing another attack on American soil became the overriding priority for Mr. Bush. Though it meant following a course that was derided abroad and often criticized at home, Mr. Bush was steadfast in the most important trust any president has, the safety of his citizens. That safety came at the price of the invasion of two foreign countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, and unpopular and contentious political decisions such as opening Guantanamo Bay or passing the Patriot Act.
Whether Mr. Bush succeeded in his vastly ambitious second major foreign-policy goal, remaking the Middle East, is more doubtful. If Iraq continues on a positive path, it could have transformational consequences as a major Middle Eastern, oil-producing democracy. If Iraq fails, possibly because a President Obama disengages prematurely, there will be little to show for the Bush legacy in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, that legacy is already in doubt, and America's troubled ally Pakistan has experienced only the most halting progress in rooting out terrorist breeding grounds.
In the field of foreign aid and HIV/AIDS prevention, the Bush administration has made a major mark - though these are not traditionally Republican causes, and Mr. Bush is rarely given credit for them. Foreign aid to Africa has grown by leaps and bounds under Mr. Bush, to the extent that it is in Africa he registers his most positive approval ratings.
And Mr. Bush has succeeded in repairing relations with European leaders in his second term, something he is also not usually given credit for. With leaders of Germany and France of a friendly political stripe, the trans-Atlantic relationship at least on the leadership level has come a very long way.
The last two lame-duck months of a presidency carry little potential for any constructive policy making, though occasionally surprise acts are possible. One recalls President Clinton's signing onto the Kyoto treaty in the last days of his presidency, knowing full well that it would never be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Or President George H.W Bush's humanitarian invasion of Somalia, which was well intentioned but turned out to be a major poisoned pill for Mr. Clinton.
As for the outgoing Bush administration, there has been much discussion of whether Mr. Bush would launch a surprise attack on Iran to deal with the country's nuclear program, a favorite theory of conspiracy-mongers in Europe, fuelled periodically by the reporting of Seymor Hersch. Were this unlikely scenario to unfold, it would produce the mother of all headaches for his successor.
Mr. Bush, however, has talked confidently of expecting major foreign policy accomplishments in his last few months in office, the completion of the WTO Doha Round of trade negotiations and of achieving a negotiated Middle East peace. Sad to say, both are unlikely in the extreme.
Time is closing in on the end of the Bush foreign-policy record. When all is said and done, his most important achievement, his essential legacy, was to keep the United States safe from any further terrorist attacks after September 11, despite the terrorists' determined efforts. This legacy Mr. Bush can truly be proud of and those who desire to succeed him in the Oval Office should be proud to do as well.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times