Don’t Underestimate George W. Bush

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James Lindsay
James Lindsay Executive Director - Catholic Volunteer Network

December 21, 2003

George W. Bush is widely seen outside the United States as a reckless cowboy who is all brawn and no brain. And the American president often plays to type, whether by retreating to his Texas ranch, employing the blunt language of the American west (“wanted: dead or alive”), or expressing amazement that others might hate the United States.

But if this stereotypical view is right, how has Bush succeeded in redirecting the course of American foreign policy? The answer is that the man from Midland, Texas, is a far more capable man than his critics realize.

Bush gained his reputation for being a dunderhead the old-fashioned way-he earned it. Many Americans and most foreigners first learned of him in late 1999 when he was asked to name the leaders of Chechnya, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan. He flunked the test.

Bush’s other foreign policy gaffes only bolstered the impression that he did not know enough to be president of the world’s lone superpower. He confused Slovakia with Slovenia and referred to Greeks as “Grecians.” Kosovars became “Kosovians” and the East Timorese “East Timorians.” He called for free-trade policies by lowering “bariffs and terriers.” All too often he mangled the English language (he would not be “misunderestimated”), leaving his listeners scratching their heads.

Bush did not hide his foreign policy weakness. He freely admitted that he had much to learn about world affairs. “This is a big world,” he once said, “and I’ve got a lot to learn.” He repeatedly reassured voters that he would compensate for gaps in his knowledge by surrounding himself with seasoned advisers. He portrayed himself as a man who knew what he didn’t know and was secure enough to turn to others to find out what he needed to know.

But Bush also understood two things that his critics did not. One was that all the knowledge in the world is of no help to a man who does not know what he believes. Bill Clinton’s foreign policy missteps during his first year in the Oval Office attested to that. The former Arkansas governor’s ability to soak up facts was of no help when he was unsure of what he wanted to do. On that score Bush was emphatic: “I know what I believe in.”

Bush’s foreign policy beliefs were simple, straightforward, and deeply held. The world is a dangerous place. Power, especially military might, is crucial to defeating threats to the United States. Pay less attention to what others say and more attention to what they do. Multilateral agreements and institutions were neither essential nor necessarily conducive to American interests. And perhaps most important: The United States is a uniquely just great power and seen as such by the rest of the world. As a result, when America leads, others will follow.

Bush understood something else, namely, what it took to succeed as president. He had been in the unique position of observing his father’s presidency, keeping a watchful eye on staff and rebuking them when he felt they were putting their own interests before their father’s. In those years, he later acknowledged, he learned as much from watching his father’s failures as from watching his successes.

Bush is also the first American president to graduate from a business school. That education stressed what it took to be a successful chief executive. Bush’s subsequent years running a company gave him the opportunity to put those ideas to the test and to learn from his failures, which were many. His time as Texas governor convinced him that what he had learned about leadership worked. Leaders outline a clear vision and agenda. Leaders surround themselves with talented subordinates and delegate authority. Leaders act boldly; they do not merely tinker at the margins. Leaders stick to their guns even when public opinion moves against them.

Just how tightly Bush held to his beliefs about how the world works and to his notions about how to lead became clear after September 11. Al Qaeda had not preoccupied Bush before the attacks in New York and Washington. He had been far more worried about “madmen with missiles” and far more interested in building a futuristic defense against missile attack. Nonetheless, he saw September 11 as confirming his basic beliefs. The world was a dangerous place. Evil would be defeated only by an iron fist, not by friendly smiles and open checkbooks. Americans, and the rest of the world, needed the president to paint the world in black and white, not in shades of grey.

The world did not give Bush’s leadership the greeting he might have hoped for. The international support that formed around the United States immediately after September 11 and that carried over to the Afghan war has dissipated. In Iraq the White House discovered that sometimes when America leads, others do not follow.

None of this has deterred Bush. The reason is his unshakeable confidence in his own judgment. When Bush argued during the 2000 campaign that his inexperience in world affairs did not matter because he would surround himself with seasoned advisers he never explained how a man who knew so little would distinguish good advice from bad. Since being in office he has repeatedly told journalists that he doesn’t second-guess his own decisions. “I am a confident person,” he said last week. “I am, because I believe in the values of America. I believe in what we stand for.”

Bush’s critics find it difficult to fathom such confidence and chalk it up as overbearing arrogance. But Bush’s own personal history suggests why he is so confident. When he first decided to run for governor of Texas, his mother told him he could never win, the press dismissed him as a daddy’s boy, and his opponent belittled him by calling him “shrub.” Bush not only defeated the popular incumbent, he won reelection four years later in a historic landslide.

Bush’s decision to run for president brought similar disdain. Opponents lambasted him for running on his father’s name, comics mocked his intelligence, and political strategists insisted he had no chance of defeating an incumbent vice president during the greatest economic boom in U.S. history.

Once in office pundits insisted that his policy initiatives were doomed to failure. But his massive tax cut passed easily. He abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, fought the International Criminal Court, and ridiculed a host of other multilateral efforts. Still, America’s allies rallied around the United States after September 11.

Yet the temptation facing anyone who repeatedly defies the conventional wisdom is to believe that his own judgment is infallible. Those who have observed Bush from the days he flunked the famed foreign policy pop quiz note that his demeanor has changed. He is less inclined to ask others what they know and more inclined to tell them what he thinks.

On Iraq, Bush has refused to entertain the possibility that his administration might have made mistakes both in the run up to war and its handling of the occupation. When it was pointed out to him recently that Iraq did not have the weapons of mass destruction he had once insisted justified the decision to go to war, only the potential to build them, his response was terse: “So what’s the difference?”

One of the key traits of a good leadership is a willingness to constantly re-examine policy and strategy to make sure you continue to be on the right track. It is not a trait Bush appears to have learned at Harvard.

The ultimate undoing of Bush in foreign policy, then, may not be too little knowledge. Rather, it could be something that the ancient Greeks knew all too well—hubris.