George W. Bush came into the White House a complete novice in national and international affairs. From his background as governor of Texas and through the influence of his conservative party, Mr. Bush entered into office with a specific agenda: he would reduce American involvement in foreign affairs, refrain from nation building, and "give back" the budget surplus to taxpayers in the form of massive tax cuts. However, as is the case for many presidencies, situations change over time, and the current President has had to change with them. The terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center radically altered the world stage, bringing to light the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, and Mr. Bush's policies changed accordingly. Instead of pulling back from nation building, Mr. Bush has heavily invested the United States in two such rebuilding efforts. He has clamped down on civil liberties to (as he states it) "protect" American lives and placed great powers in the CIA and Justice Department's hands. As with his famous predecessor Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Bush's beliefs have changed in order to adequately address a constantly changing world situation.
Mr. Bush came into office proposing radical changes to the American foreign and domestic policies supported by the Clinton Administration. Instead of involving the United States in foreign affairs, such as the bombings in Yugoslavia, Mr. Bush pledged a 180º turn; no more nation building. The military was to be used in fighting wars, not policing foreign countries. Though Mr. Bush promised to increase the military's budget under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the military would face less combat as the United States disengaged itself from "foreign entanglements." Though Mr. Bush was not aiming at anything approaching the post-World-War-I isolationism favored by America in the '20s, he wanted to sharply contrast Bill Clinton's approach to world affairs that left him hosting Yasser Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister at Camp David to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, Mr. Bush bowed out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until Yasser Arafat agreed to appoint a Prime Minister and remove himself from the peace process.
Mr. Bush's domestic policies also reflected his about-face from Mr. Clinton. Instead of taxation, Mr. Bush planned to reap the political dividends from expected trillion-dollar surpluses by passing enormous tax cuts through Congress. His idea was to "give back" to the taxpayers and his financial supporters. Mr. Bush also (unsuccessfully) attempted to push through a bill allowing oil drilling to be conducted in Alaska's national parks to relieve American dependence on foreign oil.
Terrorism Hits Home
Many presidents, upon entering office, are forced to confront the world's realities and must adapt their policies and beliefs in order to thrive in a fluid situation. Thomas Jefferson is a prominent example of this; he realized his strict interpretation of the Constitution could not be reconciled with the real world and the chance to buy the Louisiana Territory. Mr. Bush is another such example; the day al Qaeda murdered thousands of American lives in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania he had to confront a world that had radically changed overnight.
Instead of viewing conflicts half a world away as a private affair, Mr. Bush came to the realization that extremists had the capability to engulf the United States in these conflicts through acts of senseless violence. The immediate effect that these new beliefs had was Mr. Bush's rejection of his old axioms forbidding nation building and scorning involvement in regional conflicts; the world's problems had come to America's front door and America needed to respond. Within weeks of the attacks, he ordered the United States military to invade the al-Qaeda-supporting Afghanistan, removing the repressive Taliban regime from power and installing a new government. Mr. Bush had realized, just as Jefferson had realized, that his beliefs were unrealistic in the world that he now lived in. He became a full supporter of the ideas espoused by the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative policy think tank that enjoys a tremendous following with many influential members of Mr. Bush's foreign policy team; America must make itself secure by active participation in ionternational affairs, not through isolation.
This epiphany also manifested itself in domestic policy. Attorney General John Ashcroft was given sweeping new powers to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists under the Bush-supported USA Patriot Act. In doing this, Mr. Bush went against the strong libertarian streak present in the base of his party. Again, he came to believe that change was necessary to confront the looming threat posed by the fundamentalists.
The new doctrine of nation building and international interest then enlarged to support a preemptive strike on Iraq. Mr. Bush's reasoning: Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to national and international security. With terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda that are capable of killing thousands using 747's, Mr. Bush believed that the results could be ruinous if they could get their hands on chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Mr. Hussein, according to Mr. Bush, was illegally harboring such weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was thus a good first test of the new "Bush doctrine" of preemption. Bucking the wishes of such long-standing allies as France and Germany, Mr. Bush and Great Britain assembled a "coalition of the willing" to remove Mr. Hussein from power and secure the world from his perceived threat. The risk of waiting for international inspections to locate Iraq's weapons, according to Mr. Bush, was too great and force, even nation building, was necessary to secure the world from the perceived threat.
The fall of Mr. Hussein's government also served another developing Bush strategy. The White House used the fall of Iraq as a warning to the other members of the now-famous "Axis of Evil," and, by doing this, hoped to avoid military action against other "rogue states" supporting terrorists or harboring illicit weapons. Mr. Bush, therefore, began diplomatic discussions with North Korea over its developing nuclear program with the sword of Iraq's defeat hanging over the heads of the Korean government, always a reminder of what happens when you cross the line and are perceived by Mr. Bush as a threat to national security.
The Iraqi war also forced Mr. Bush to do something personally distasteful: become involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process despite former pledges not to. With the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Prime Minister and a sizable American military presence in the Middle East, Mr. Bush had no other options. He needed to placate Arab allies in the war by fulfilling promises to resurrect the peace process and also wanted to bolster British Prime Minister Tony Blair's flagging public support. Therefore, he met with both Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Aqaba, Jordan for a landmark summit debuting the peace plan forumlated by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia known as the "road map."
Domestically, Mr. Bush successfully used his popularity after the war in Afghanistan to help Republican candidates for Congress. His enormous resources and popularity paid big dividends; Congress was brought under a Republican majority. Now, with Republican control over two branches of the federal government, Mr. Bush attempted to gain control of the courts by appointing conservatives to the federal District Courts. Unfortunately, his plans were somewhat foiled, as Democrats in the Senate are currently filibustering two of his most controversial appointments. However, this has not deterred him from attempting to pass through his remaining agenda, including the omnipresent tax cut and the still-suffering bill to allow oil drilling in Alaska, which he now contends is necessary to reduce American dependence on the Middle East.
Perhaps the one aspect of Mr. Bush's policies that did not change was his belief in tax cuts. Whether he is "giving back" to the taxpayer or, as is the case after the attacks, attempting to "jump-start" the economy, Mr. Bush's stance on taxes remains the same. After the attacks, with the economy entering a long recession, Mr. Bush touted his taxes as a way to stimulate consumer spending. Under the Republican-controlled national legislature, he succeeded in passing the largest tax cut in history.
The 43rd President of the United States is definitely one to remember. Under Mr. Bush, the United States confronted a new foe, fought in two wars, and experienced an economic recession. Mr. Bush approached these pitfalls by adapting his beliefs to fit the current situation. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was flexible enough to realize that an ever-changing world requires a flexible approach and was therefore able to abandon much of his pre-Presidential views in favor of ones that would be (in his mind at least) more effective.
Helpful and interesting commentary below.
eliserh: On the Project for the new American Century: it's not quite accurate to say it enjoys a "following" among leading members in the Administration. People who went on to be leading members of the administration had key roles in PNAC. It's essentially a who's who of future members of the Bush administration. It's also not accurate to call "terrorism" (in the selective usage of the US government) a "new foe". Remember that Ronald Reagan and George Schultz declared "War on Terror" back in 1980. (My response: This is the first time in history, though, that terrorism is a major American policy issue.) It's also a bit of an understatement to refer to "Tony Blair's flagging public support." The minute he jumped on the Bush war bandwagon he earned the scorn of practically the entire electorate (not to mention the House of Commons).