Lessons From History Series Meeting: The Foreign Policy Legacy of the George W. Bush Administration
Panelists discuss the foreign policy legacy of the George W. Bush presidency, its successes and failures, and the lasting effects that were passed on to subsequent U.S. presidents. The Lessons From History Series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
COMPTON: Welcome, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Lessons from History Series, “The Foreign Policy Legacy of the George W. Bush Administration.” The Lessons from History Series is generously made possible by—made possibly by the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
The lessons we’ll get to in a moment. I want to introduce for you first the panelists that we have today.
Here to my left, Stephen Hadley, principal of Rice, Hadley, Gates, Manuel LLC. Editor of Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama. Former national security advisor—I covered his tenure—and a member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick professor of the practice of international affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Coeditor of Hand-Off, and former deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007. A member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations.
And joining us remotely from Hofstra University, Meena Bose, executive dean for public policy and public service programs, the Peter S. Kalikow School of Government Public Policy and International Affairs. Director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency. And she is a CFR member, speaking—joining us virtually today.
The conversation can cover a lot of ground for the eight years that George W. Bush was president. And I want to start with you, Steve Hadley. I covered all of those eight years, and the two campaigns that led up to them. I even was on Air Force One on a long, ten-hour journey with President Bush. I was allowed to remain onboard on September 11, 2001. Steve, what was on your desk in terms of Bush foreign policy, strategy, and aspirations on September 10, 2001?
HADLEY: Well, thanks very much for doing this, Ann. And thanks for hosting us.
I think one of the things that people forget is how long it takes a new administration to get up and running. So remember, when we got started—and the NSC gets staffed out early because, of course, the NSC folks don’t have to be Senate-confirmed. So we got the NSC up and running. And I thought we would call our first interagency meeting. So I called a deputy meeting probably February, March of the administration. And nobody from the agencies that showed up to the meeting had been Senate-confirmed. They were all civil service folks. Which were great, but not exactly a rip-roaring start about what’s going to be the new agenda for the Bush administration. Those folks were still awaiting confirmation.
So we—I think I had my first deputies meeting when we actually had Senate-confirmed deputies probably middle—second, third week in May. So there’s not—it’s ironic, because you think, you know, September 11. So you’ve been in office nine months. We’d really probably been in office, functionally, four months—four and a half months. And we were, if memory serves—and Meghan, you can correct me—one of the things we were doing was developing, well, what are we going to do about our strategy with respect to al-Qaeda? And we had kept Dick Clarke and the unit that the Clinton administration had used to deal with counterterrorism, we kept them in office and said, you just keep doing what you’re doing and fighting the bad guys, and we’ll think about what strategic differences we might want to make in terms of our approach.,
And my recollection—Elliot can maybe correct me—my recollection is we had pulled all that together in a nice memo for the president for consideration of options on a new approach for al-Qaeda. And we submitted it to his office on September 10. But remember, George W. Bush ran for office not as a foreign policy president, but as a domestic policy president. He was about education reform, entitlement reform, immigration reform. Been a governor of Texas. For him, foreign policy was what to do about Mexico, which is a good grounding but incomplete for someone who is going to be president of the United States. And, of course, 9/11 changed all that.
COMPTON: Take us now to the present day, because you and Meghan have come out with Hand-Off, which is a really remarkable, I think, actually unprecedented look at how an administration hands off the most difficult issues to the next. Tell us about Hand-Off.
HADLEY: Well, Hand-Off started out in the Bush administration as a document that would be handed over to the Obama administration, to try to put them in the position so that they would be able to handle their responsibilities on day one. And this was a real priority for President Bush. He knew that the incoming president—we, at that point, didn’t know who that was going to be—was going to have two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a terrorist threat reflected in the war on terror. And that was before we knew we were going to have the biggest financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression. So there was a lot that the new administration needed to get up to speed on so that they could handle their responsibilities day one.
We did forty transition memos on all the issues of the day, Iran, Iraq, Middle East peace, China, Russia, you name it. And they all had the same format—what we found, what was our strategy, what we thought we accomplished, and what was left to be done, and what was probably going to surprise the new administration. And we put all these together, and each of them have voluminous attachments which for that issue told what was the president’s policy, presidential speeches, records of NSC meetings on the subject, of conversations the president had with other heads of state. It was about two boxes worth of material.
So about four years ago it occurred to me in talking with President Bush, and he was very supportive of the idea, that we would take the transition memos, try to get them declassified, to put them out so that people would understand what really happened during the Bush administration. There’s a lot of mythology about Bush administration foreign policy. The book continues thirty of those forty memos. And then we asked the people who wrote the memo, who otherwise worked on the issue, to take the transition memo, which appears in the book exactly as it was given to President Obama. But, based on that as a starting point, update it with a postscript saying what’s happened subsequently in the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations.
And then, looking at what’s happened subsequently, try to do two things. One, assess the Bush administration foreign policy. What did we get right? What did we get wrong? And then, looking back over sort of twenty years of four administrations trying to deal with the issue, what are the lessons learned for future administrations? Because these issues are still with us today, in some sense a different form. But the issues are largely still with us.
COMPTON: Meghan, what do the issues in the book say to the policymaking foreign policy today?
O’SULLIVAN: Sure. Let me first just say, first, thank you for having us, and thank you all for coming.
I mean, this effort, I think, underscores two remarkable things. The first, as I think people in this room and online are probably well aware, but most Americans are probably not, it’s remarkable that there isn’t a more standardized process for a transition from one presidential administration to another. Our colleague and coeditor of the volume, Peter Feaver, says every four to eight years the government gives itself a lobotomy. All the papers, from one administration get packed off to go to a subsequent presidential library. And the incoming administration doesn’t have the benefit of all that. So on the one hand it’s odd that there isn’t something more standardized. And I think part of Steve’s hope in instituting this is this would be a model for others going forward.
The second thing is looking at the issues. If you look at the table of contents, you will be struck by how the agenda then bears a lot of resemblance to the agenda today. A lot to do with the rise of China, a revanchist Russia, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, a fragile Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of this sounds very familiar even twenty-plus years on. Well, I guess it’s not twenty years since the transition, but, you know, quite a distance on. However, when you really get into it, there’s a lot that’s different today, even though the broad themes are similar.
When we think about China, maybe we’ll talk a little bit more about, China at the time that the Bush administration came into office was only about 3 percent of global GDP. Now it’s close to 20 percent, a very different kind of leadership. When we think about Russia, obviously a very different type of challenge there. But some of the issues that really, I think, are posing the largest challenge to foreign policy makers today are reflected in the section that we called, like, emerging issues. And those are cyber, climate change, populism. Those were issues that we focused on, but they didn’t—they weren’t front and center in the way that they are today.
And one issue, technology, that’s obviously incorporated in some of what we looked at through the various chapters. But the element of technology being a force shaping geopolitics was not really nearly as prevalent as it will be for future administrations.
COMPTON: Let me bring in Meena. Meena, you have done considerable—published considerable materials, comparisons over broad swaths of history of American presidential leadership. Do you think that right now the American public and the academics have had enough time to go back and adequately assess the Bush administration, especially with the declassification of documents, including those in this—in this volume?
BOSE: Thank you, Ann. I think that’s the key question for scholars. And it’s a pleasure to be here today to participate in this discussion. So thank you to the Council for doing this—for organizing this.
I think it’s a good question. At what point is there a settled scholarly assessment of a presidency? We’re fourteen years after the Bush presidency, nearly fifteen, excuse me. I think that there are even now questions about whether the administration’s foreign policy decisions need a longer historical view for comprehensive assessment. I think the declassified record, having these transition memos, is essential. It’s such a rich resource to look at the continuity of challenges from the Bush to the Obama presidencies.
I do think that an important question to consider is that unlike other previous administrations—let’s say Eisenhower, for example—where the declassified record of Eisenhower’s national security meetings, Cabinet meetings, revealed a presidency that was very much at odds with what the public perception was at the time, I don’t think we’re going to see a similar situation with the—assessment with the Bush presidency. That is, I think that the Bush—George W. Bush’s vision as president was very clear for what he wanted to achieve. And the—and the assessment comes in, I think, how we view those decisions, what was the case at the time, from 2001 till the administration left office in 2009, and how we look at the effects of those decisions today.
That said, the topics that Steve and Meghan raised in the totality of these thirty of the forty transition memos really point to a number of topics that we didn’t—that didn’t get much public attention during the Bush presidency. And I think as we look at the totality of the foreign policy legacy, to examine all of these topics is really important. That’s why, in addition to the thirty memos, there are three essays by scholars—by Melvyn Leffler, Hal Brands, and Martha Joynt Kumar. And these essays really ground the transition memos in our assessments of the Bush presidency.
And one of them in particular, I believe it was the Brands essay, actually commented, in speaking of Iraq, that twenty or thirty years from now, some time from now, our analysis may be very different based on the passage of time and events than it as in 2009 or even in 2023. So I think that this fourteen years provides an important time to kind of take that measured assessment that perhaps wasn’t possible immediately after the presidency.
COMPTON: Meghan, you mentioned China. What a difference today.
O’SULLIVAN: Yeah. And just building on what Meena said about that this volume really does underscore how, maybe contrary to popular wisdom, the Bush administration was doing a very wide range of things across the globe. And the China section I think is particularly interesting, in part because many people have a sense that the Bush administration was too busy with the Middle East to adequately deal with China. And I think the China—there’s actually two memos and two chapters, so to speak, in the China section. One that deals with East Asian alliances and one that deals with China.
And I think it lays out in a way that’s very elucidating—and I wasn’t someone who was working on China—but demonstrates that there was a vision, an approach, a strategy that involved, as we’re all well aware of, trying to bring China into the international system in a way that it was hoped would help curb some of the excesses of the Chinese economic system, with an eye of advancing reform, not necessarily so much a sense of this was going to bring about a democratic China, but an eye in terms of encouraging reform. So that was one piece of it.
But there also was this piece about hedging. Like, what if that doesn’t work? What if China becomes more aggressive? What if China advances and develops in a way that isn’t as consistent with our hopes and aspirations? And that piece, it was really the work of many, many people in the administration to reinforce a lot of the alliances in East Asia in particular, to reinforce trade and security arrangements in that part of the world. And that was very much a conscious hedge.
One other piece of it, which I think is very interesting—I’ll just mention briefly—is India. And there’s a transition memo on India and a discussion about the Bush administration approach toward India. And there, there was a sense very strongly held on the part of the president that there should be a more strategic relationship between the United States and India. And you see the laying of the groundwork of some of the frameworks and the institutions that, today, are very important in terms of solidifying that strategic partnership between India and the United States. The Quad was actually formed during the Bush administration years.
And that even though at that time the U.S.-India relationship wasn’t seen as much of, you know, something that was to be counter to India—I mean—to China, it very much today is part of that overall picture, where there is a very well-developed set of relationships and architectures that have been useful in managing, you know, China developing in the way that, you know, wasn’t anyone’s aspiration in the administration.
COMPTON: We are going to open to members’ questions in just a few minutes. But, Steve, I want to move you onto another point on the globe. I was in Ljubljana when President Bush looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. I was also in the family quarters of the White House in March of 2006 when he called in several reporters on a rainy Friday afternoon to try to explain why he was doing what he was doing. And said of Putin, well, as a democrat, he’s gone. Take us through a relationship which we now, obviously, are facing Vladimir Putin going into Ukraine.
HADLEY: So I once had a chance to interview the president. I thought I’d give him a chance to explain that “looking into your eyes” kind of comment. I told him I was going to do it in advance, which was my mistake. (Laughter.) And I said, Mr. President, you know, you were in. You saw Putin. You looked in his eyes, saw his soul. What were you thinking? And he said, I don’t know. I just read the talking points you gave me. (Laughter.) Which was not the case, I’m pleased to say. (Laughter.)
What he would say, we really thought that with the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism, there was a chance historically to bring Russia into the West. If you read—I’m no—I’m no historian. But if you read Russian history, for four hundred years they’ve been struggling with their relationship with the West. And we thought this was an opportunity to really make a fundamental change. And that—Putin was going to have to be part of that change.
So Bush is meeting Putin for the first time. Putin is clearly nervous. And so they ask him basically, can you trust this man. So Bush says, so what am I supposed to say? No, I don’t trust that guy farther than I can throw him?
Is that really the way you want to start out a relationship with someone you’re going to try to convince to overcome his country’s history and bring his country into the West? So he said, I needed to try to establish a personal relationship with this man. And that’s what I was trying to do.
And early on, we did pretty well with Putin. And we had a lot of discussions about how to democratize Russia, and two-party systems. And Bush would say to Putin, you know, you have a chance to bring Russia permanently into the West. And Putin would say, that’s what I want to do, but there are dark forces in Russia that must not be awakened. So you need to let me do it in my own time and in my own way. But the truth is, whether he had the intention or not, it is not what he did. And over the course of eight years of the Bush administration, while we tried to intensify relations with Russia, build constructive programs with Russia, he was becoming more and more authoritarian at home.
And he became particularly unsettled by the color revolutions in 2003, 2004, 2005 in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. These were popular uprisings where people were demanding accountable, democratic governments that would provide services to the people. And we thought, this is great. These are going to be good, prosperous neighbors for Russia rather than satellites that will drain resources from Russia. Putin didn’t see it that way. He saw these uprisings as CIA operations, which were to install anti-Russian regimes on his border, as a dress rehearsal for the destabilization of Russia itself.
And at that point we lost him. He was gone. 2008, he goes into Georgia. 2014, he goes into Ukraine first. 2022, he goes into Ukraine again. And he is now seized with—and, again, we can debate, did he have it in 2001, or did he acquire it during the COVID lockdown when he was locked away in the Soviet Archives? But he has this vision of a restored Russian empire in the area of the former Soviet space, or with Russian control over traditional Russian lands, which turns out to be not only Ukraine and Belarus but chunks of the Baltic states, Poland, a lot of other states in that region. And that’s the Putin we have today. He is a man on a mission. He has a vision. And we should not underestimate his commitment to try to realize that vision.
COMPTON: In the few minutes—three or four minutes we have left—I want to hit one more issue. And that is the Middle East, before we open up to members’ questions. Meghan, the Middle East.
HADLEY: Been there a few times, I think. (Laughter.)
COMPTON: You have any experience?
O’SULLIVAN: Sure! Anything—I mean, there’s so much to touch on there. And I would say, going back to overall the book, first of all, one of the things that is also remarkably is those memos capture what we were thinking at that time, right? So that’s unlike all these other Washington memoirs, that is in retrospect. People going back and putting things as they remember them. This is really—you get to see the words as they were written and as they were presented to incoming President Obama.
What we did in the postscript, and I’ll get to Iraq, is we tried really hard to be reflective. Of course, everyone who wrote a postscript was involved in the policy in some fashion. So we don’t pretend that we could be completely objective, in any stretch of the imagination. And it’s part of the reason we have those three chapters at the end. But we did spend quite a lot of time—and I personally worked on the Iraq postscript and the Afghan one with a couple of my colleagues. And, you know, looking at both Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, there’s a lot in there that, you know, is cause for reflection.
And some of the—we tried to highlight some of the places where we think we did things well, and then we tried to be pretty transparent about the many places where things went awry, things did not materialize as we had hoped, the mistakes that we made, both in terms of strategy and in implementation. So it’s a little bit hard to do something pithy in a short period of time.
But, you know, of the things I would emphasize on the Iraq side is, on the one hand, when I think about our pursuit of working with the Iraqis to build a democratic Iraq, I actually think that to have done otherwise would have been a folly. And this is partially because of my own experience of spending two years in Iraq in total and working with Iraqis who were aspiring to have an accountable government, but it’s also the realization that a democratic Iraq was probably the only way to keep together a very fractious country, unless you were willing to have a very difficult and onerous dictator in place, like Saddam.
But, you know, the mistakes there were many, and the costs were extremely high. And I think, actually, the last thing I’ll say—well, second to last thing I’ll say on Iraq. Throughout the book, I think it’s clear that there were opportunity costs that came as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our failure to stabilize those places, and particularly to stabilize Iraq in the period from 2003 until the surge. And that was costly, first and foremost, for Iraqis and for Americans, who lost their lives or had their lives inalterably changed. And that, you know, was at the forefront of our minds, the people who were involved with it.
But also costly in the sense of opportunity costs, policies that we didn’t pursue, leverage that we weren’t able to exert. And I think the book, we are—the book reflects that, I think, in a very real way. The last thing I’ll say, just building on what Meena said about how over the passage of time we may look at things differently, I was in Iraq last month. And it was interesting. I was at a conference with the Iraqi prime minister, about half of the Iraqi Cabinet, also Iraqi civil society, Iraqi academics, Iraqi youth, who were asking questions of the prime minister, or of the, you know, Cabinet members.
And there was an exchange that would have not been conceivable in previous—under Saddam. But it wouldn’t have even been conceivable in the time that we were there. And so I left feeling, you know, there’s some seeds here. They may have been extremely costly, and maybe too costly, from an American perspective. But there’s still something that will change over time.
COMPTON: I’d like to open up to questions. I see several hands going up here.
HADLEY: Meena would—
COMPTON: Oh, Meena, would you like to—yes.
BOSE: Oh, Ann, oh, yeah. It’s hard to chime in from Zoom. But just to pick up, Meghan brought up the point about the postscripts. I had meant to refer to that. I think those are absolutely essential for putting these memos in context. And that’s what makes the book, Hand-Off, so significant for scholarly purposes. Because we see not just what was said in 2009, in the transition—2008, 2009—but looking fourteen years later assessments of what was—what worked well and what, in retrospect, could have been done differently.
And there’s so many examples. I won’t go through them. Meghan detailed some. But one on, I think, the war on terror talks about the framing. There’s one by Michele Malvesti talking about the importance of institutionalization of developing policy plans. And so those really I think are very instructive as we look at what the Bush administration did and what happened afterward, right? And what can be done next.
COMPTON: Thank you so much.
We have microphones over here. Let’s start in the very middle table here. A microphone coming—there we go.
Q: Hi. My name is Alex Yergin. This has been a great discussion.
My question is, what advice do you have to future administrations, what policy changes might you advocate for that will ensure, you know, a smooth transition of power every time there’s a transition?
HADLEY: Well, the—I’ll pick that one up. Martha Kumar, who is really the expert on presidential transitions, did a chapter in the back of the book. And a lot of—and she documents the things that were done in the Bush administration, and in the transition from President Bush to Obama. And let me say, Bush gets a lot of credit for this transition, but so does President Obama, because the two of them really bonded on the notion that this ought to be the best presidential transition that there has been. And President Obama was true to his word, and his staff was as well.
A lot of those things that were done in that transition are now codified in statute. So they are actually required in subsequent administrations. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the last two transitions, honored in the breach. But I think the standard is set. And it’s the kind of things you would expect. Information exchange so that the new administration comes in and has the documents they need in order to manage the issues. A staff transition so when the new national security advisor comes in there’s actually staff there to work with, and they don’t have to fill it from the bottom up from the get-go.
A lot of the interactions, most useful, interactions between incoming staff, outgoing staff. And the incoming staff is always asking, what’s changed from when we were last in office? And finally, there’s a lot of joint exercises that were done, sort of tabletop exercises, not to put the team on report, if you will, or have them audition in front of the old team, but to help in real world acquaint them with the kind of resources and processes that are available to help them manage a crisis, if they should get a crisis the day they walk into the office.
COMPTON: OK. Oh, lots of questions. In the very back table. Thank you, Bert (sp). And then I’ll move over to this side, and this side. And I do also encourage those who are watching on Zoom to be able to put your hand up online.
Q: Hi. Carolyn Campbell with Emerging Capital Partners.
I find it very interesting that in the discussion of the legacy of the administration I don’t think I’ve heard the—a reference to the neoconservatism legacy of the Bush administration. And that, I remember, at the outset was sort of the grand strategy. I would love to hear from any of the panelists, what was the arc of the experience with that? Was it the last grand strategy that we’re going to see, because today’s foreign policy—or, the foreign policy since September 11, 2001, seems to be more of a whac-a-mole, or a(n) issue of the day, rather than grand strategies. Thank you.
COMPTON: Meena, would you like to?
BOSE: Sure, I’ll start. I think that’s an excellent question. And I’m taken back to 2002, the release of the National Security Strategy. President Bush speaking at West Point at the commencement in June 2002, and discussing the preemption doctrine. And I think that administrations subsequently have issued strategy documents. They’re kind of expected as part of the policy process. But I think the Bush administration had a—and as Steve discussed—was kind of propelled into this, right, but had, I think, the foreign policy ambitious agenda. It just became front and center early on.
Since the Bush administration left office, I think the reaction has been much more of limiting U.S. engagement abroad. And that has made, in the Obama administration, the effort to govern through more multilateral approaches, kind of more of a limited foreign policy. And so less of a grand strategy for kind of the U.S. role in the world, or leading that role. And then subsequently, I think even more so, in the Trump presidency of kind of limiting U.S. commitments. And then the Biden presidency in progress. But I think the Bush—I think the question points to the shaping of a strategy that we haven’t really—subsequent administrations have been in reaction to, rather than trying to develop another one.
COMPTON: We have so many questions. We’ll go to the back table over here, and then over—and then over here.
Q: Thank you so much. George Bogden at the Kennan Institute.
President Obama vigorously campaigned against various aspects of President Bush’s foreign policy. And the same could be said of his successor, I think. And so I wonder if the hand-off process is partially a deliberative one in which the best case is made for continuity, or if it is solely for the purposes of promoting continuity. Thank you.
COMPTON: Who would like to—
HADLEY: I think that’s a very good question. And it was—I would say there were two aspects. One is legitimately an effort to put the new administration in a position so they know where the instruments of power are available and they have the context so that they can make right decisions as soon as they come in the door. But I think President Bush also said very clearly that he wanted to try to—in particularly the last years of the administration—try to get the policies that he had pursued in a form where they would have broader acceptance within the public and within the Congress, so that, for example, the tools that he had developed to keep the country safe from al-Qaeda and other terrorist attacks would be available to his successors.
And there was certainly an effort and a recognition that the project that we undertook in Afghanistan and Iraq was something that we weren’t going to be able to complete within the space of an eight-year administration. So it was trying to frame it in such a way and explain it in such a way that it maximized the likelihood that the subsequent administration would embrace it. There were some issues that were sort of off the table. I mean, Bush had the wonderful experience that both of the candidates to succeed him campaigned against him on a number of his policies, Iraq being one of them.
But I think that was—his goal was really twofold. One, to prepare his successor. And secondly, to try to frame his policies in such a way that the next administration would be able to build on them. Because one of, I think, the little secrets in Washington is that there’s a lot more continuity in foreign policy across administrations, even administrations of different parties, than you would—than you would expect if you listened to presidential debates with discussions of foreign policy that are usually strawmen or red herring, if you will.
COMPTON: We’re going to take a question from the Zoom audience, the members watching on Zoom.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Daniel Mandell.
Q: Thank you very much for this presentation. I appreciate the effort to collect this information. I find it very interesting. My name is Daniel Mandell. I’m a term member and I recently concluded a CFR international affairs fellowship in Japan.
So I was in college in September of 2001, so the Bush administrations were very much when I was studying in my undergraduate, and then onto law school as well. And when I came back to it, what strikes me the most were the treatment of detainees post-9/11, allegations of torture, and Guantanamo Bay, which still remains, I think, what many would consider a red spot on American history. I haven’t read the book. I’m sorry about that, though it does sound very interesting.
But I’m wondering, could you reflect on that now that we are so many years removed? How do you view the decisions that were made at the time regarding treatment of some people who are still detainees? And how do you view the legacy that some would say is really the undermining or destruction of America’s relations with a lot of the world, such that President Obama had to come into office and say, I’m back. I’m here to mend relationships?
HADLEY: Well, it’s a very—I should probably take that on. It’s a very fair question. And we could—we could be here for a long while. I’ll try to give you the headlines. First, people, I think, forget the circumstances after 9/11, an attack by nineteen terrorists seizing four airplanes, killing three thousand people from almost eighty countries. And we were surprised. Maybe we shouldn’t have been, but we were. And we did not know enough about al-Qaeda. The intelligence community said this was going to be the first of a wave of mass-casualty attacks on the homeland, some of which would involve, or could involve, weapons of mass destruction. The next month, in October, envelopes of white powder started showing up at the Capitol, which contained the poison anthrax. We didn’t know where they came from.
So the president’s view was, we’re going to do everything we can within the law in order to try to protect the country from these subsequent attacks. And the great strength—and he instituted, with the cooperation of Congress and the American people—a comprehensive realignment and restructuring of how we deal with the issue of terror. And those prophecies did not come true. In order to make it so that those prophecies did not come true, we had to do a lot of hard things, some of which we knew would be uncomfortable to the American people once the initial crisis was over and normal circumstances returned. We made those decisions in order to keep the country safe.
I would say, I think the thing that really killed us was less the detainee treatment, or the CIA enhanced interrogation program, and the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and the abuse by American servicemen and -women of Muslim males. It was inexcusable, and it was a terrible blow to the country, and to our ability to operate in that part of the world. Over time, those various measures were brought to the public. Some were leaked by great American newspapers. Some we brought to the public.
And we began a process which is very American—discussions in the press, hearings in Congress, congressional legislation, litigation, court decisions, Supreme Court decisions. And we came over a period of time to a consensus within this country about what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do in order to keep the country safe from terrorism. That’s where we are now. And I hope that we don’t ever have to open that toolkit again for some of those measures, because we hope that the United States will never again be the subject of the kind of terrorist threat that we were after 9/11.
COMPTON: If I could take a question here at this table. Thank you.
Q: Hi. I’m Mark Lagon. I’m with Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
I got to work on some tough issues at the State Department during the—I got to work on some tough issues at the State Department of the UN, the freedom agenda, and human trafficking. But I’ve been recruited in the last six years to work on a legacy of the administration, PEPFAR, and fighting AIDS. Could you look at the PEPFAR legacy as it’s twenty years old today, and a tremendous bipartisan contribution led by the president, and its value to soft power, to the image of the United States beyond the twenty-five million lives that it’s saved?
HADLEY: It’s wonderful that you should mention it. It is—if President Bush was here, he would say it’s one of the best examples of the generosity of the American people and the American taxpayer that is the best-kept secret in America. And this was a remarkable program that started as a UN program and a national U.S. program, that the president basically took global. And it was about prevention, and treatment, and care. And it saved an estimated twenty-five million lives. It was followed by a presidential malaria initiative, similar sort. Saved ten million lives, and counting.
So these are wonderful examples of the United States seeing a problem in the world and leading by example, by resources, and by rallying the rest of the world to address that problem. And the American people know nothing about it. And they should be very proud. It’s a terrific legacy for the country. It still lives in Africa. It may be unknown here. It is not unknown in Africa. And it’s a great thing that was part of a sort of restructuring of how we do development in the developing world in a way that was much more based on partnership and accountability, not throwing money at problems but actually demonstrating success at solving the problem. Thanks for bringing it up.
O’SULLIVAN: So I’ll just add to that. And first, thanks, Mark, for all your work, and your work on this. I think—and, again this comes out quite clearly in the book—the really strategic approach to Africa that the Bush administration took, which this was a component of it but not the entirety of it. And that approach to Africa involved identifying, you know, very, very intractable conflicts—Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Congo—working on trying to bring an end to those conflicts and then trying to create the environment in which that stabilization could be perpetuated. And certainly development was an essential part of it. And, as Steve described, these programs were part of really a new concept of development on the part of President Bush, and the Bush administration. One, as Steve mentioned, that really deeply involved partnership. And not just U.S. partnership with African leaders in African countries, but actually a lot of these initiatives were broadened to be multilateral initiatives, and still are today.
BOSE: Ann, could I just add one thing. Just that—
COMPTON: Oh, yes. Please, Meena.
BOSE: Sorry. Just very quickly that—just to reinforce what was said. PEPFAR passed with bipartisan support almost unanimously in the House. It was more than almost four hundred votes, I think, and very strong support in the Senate. And it’s surprising—I think it’s actually starting to get more recognition now, fifteen years later, or twenty years after it was passed, than it was at the time.
HADLEY: But one of the—one of the lessons of that, if I could, is if you want an initiative that is going to last from one administration to the next, you have to take the time to build the bipartisan support for it among the public, within the Congress, both houses of Congress, Republicans and Democrats. If you can do that, you can get a kind of enduring American commitment, as reflected in HIV/AIDS, or the Plan Colombia, which has really helped the Colombian people take back their country from terrorism. An issue like Iraq was riven domestically. And we were never really able to create that kind of broad consensus after the first year or two, when things started to get tough.
COMPTON: OK. We have so many hands up. I will do one over here. And then we’ll get over to—get over here. Hi, Chris.
Q: I’m Greg Thielmann, a board member of the Arms Control Association.
One of the George W. Bush administration’s first actions was to withdraw from the thirty-year-old functioning Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. One of the things that did, from my point of view, was made it impossible to ratify the START II agreement, which would have been a very stabilizing agreement. And it later helped convince the Chinese they needed to build up their strategic offensive forces. And in the end, we spent billions of dollars and had no reliable strategic ballistic missile defense. So I wanted to know what your take is on that.
HADLEY: (Laughs.) It will not come to a surprise to you that I have a slightly different take on this issue. (Laughter.) One of the things that’s interesting about it, and I’m glad you raised it, it’s the first time missile defense has come up in any of these book events. So the president tries to convince Putin to join with the United States to jointly withdraw from the ABM Treaty, and to cooperate in developing missile defense not against each other, but against third-country threats like Iran and North Korea.
And we—through the year 2001, that’s what that conversation is between Putin and the president. And at the end of the day, Putin doesn’t bite. And he says, you know, George, you just go ahead and withdraw from the ABM Treaty, and I won’t criticize you too much. And indeed, people have forgotten that Putin released a statement saying that while he did not approve of the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, it did not threaten the security interests of Russia.
And interestingly, the nuclear priesthood at the time, of which I used to be a card-carrying member, was of the view that if you didn’t constrain defenses, you couldn’t reduce strategic offensive forces. But the interesting thing is five months after declaring that the United States was going to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, and one month before we actually did withdraw from the ABM Treaty, we reached the accord with Russia on the Moscow Treaty, which dramatically reduces the number of our strategic offensive weapons. So we were able to both get out of the ABM Treaty and pursue missile defense, but also continue to disarm and reduce our offensive nuclear weapons.
Now, we tried for the rest of the Bush administration—and I will tell you, I personally have been involved in this in track one and track two since the Bush forty-one administration, trying to convince the Russians to cooperate with us on ballistic missile defense. We even got Putin to stand up at Kennebunkport when he was visiting President forty-one and forty-three and say that this could be an area of strategic cooperation between the United States and Russia. We were never able to bring that home. The Obama administration tried. They failed. The Clinton administration had tried. It’s one of my own personal failures. We could never get the Russians into the kind of missile defense cooperation we sought.
COMPTON: Right here.
HADLEY: But I would say one thing, given what you see with the Iranians and the North Koreans, and their ballistic missile programs, and the North Koreans’ nuclear program, if you look at what’s happening in Ukraine right now, it’s a good thing we have ballistic missile defense, because we really need it.
Q: Maryam Mujica from Booking Holdings, former NSC and State Department, focused on the Middle East.
But given all the national attention that was given to the Middle East after 9/11, I would love to ask you a question about China that we have not discussed today. One is, do you think that, and retrospectively, there would have been anything different you would have done with China? To your point of continuity, President Trump, you know, brought this issue to light for most Americans. And we see President Biden and the bipartisan support on Congress on being sort of tougher on China and having a level playing field. That’s one—the first part of the question, is do you think you would have done anything differently at the time had 9/11 not happened? But, two, the issue of Taiwan. How concerned do you think the American public should be about this potential invasion and what that would mean for us as a country?
HADLEY: Big topic. I’ll try to be short. Let me do China. You can do Taiwan, how about that?
O’SULLIVAN: OK, sure.
HADLEY: And Meena can jump in at the end.
HADLEY: You know, I’ve thought about this. And, you know, you can read these transition memos that Meghan talked about. I can’t tell you what more we should have done that we could have done. I mean, we really tried to bring China into the international system in every way, shape, and form. And I don’t know what more we could have done. I think the Obama administration tried to continue that effort.
I think the difference becomes when in 2012, four years after the Bush administration has left office, Xi Jinping comes to power. There is a school of thought that says China was always going to be this way. Xi Jinping, this was the Communist Party line. I understand that, but I tell you with Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, you had two presidents who really had a vision for China that wanted to be part of the international community, wanted to be part of—have a constructive relationship with the United States, and was—you know, had—was hiding its power and biding its time, which if you think about it is not very reassuring, but it means that you’re not going to have a crisis tomorrow.
Well, Xi Jinping had a different view. He thought the West was in decline, the United States was in terminal decline. This was China’s moment. And his vehicle for asserting China in the world was using the party, revitalizing the party, exerting near-totalitarian control, and then pursuing a very aggressive agenda abroad. The Trump administration was right to wake up the country to this challenge. It’s something that sort of snuck up on us.
We had an element of strategic surprise, some strategic panic. I think now we’re sort of getting our feet under ourselves. I think the Biden administration has come up—excuse me—with a pretty good installment of what is a bipartisan policy about how we have to be much more competitive in our relationship with China. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. A lot of this we have to do at home. But in terms of second-guessing could we have headed that off? I don’t think so.
And those people who say, well, the Bush administration should have anticipated, and should have been tougher on China, and that this effort to try to bring China into the international system was a fool’s errand from the get-go, I think it was a reasonable proposition. As Meghan said, it was hedged by strengthening our alliances so they’d be there is China went rogue. But I think if we had not made the effort, we would have questions here about why is it that the aggressive Bush administration forced China into an adversarial relationship with the United States? I think it’s easier to recruit our allies in our tougher China policy because it’s so clear that we made an effort, and it is Xi Jinping that had a different agenda.
O’SULLIVAN: Just, you know, very briefly on the question you said, should the American people be concerned about Taiwan? And I would say the answer is certainly yes. The Council’s coming out with a task force on Taiwan. And part of that task force, that report, will be out in the next month or so. And I say yes, because it is the most obvious potential flashpoint between China and the United States. And I say that not in a way that there’s anything inevitable about it, or that it is necessarily a short-term risk. It is just, you know, Steve mentioned, with a change in leadership in China some new things have happened on the Chinese side. But I’d also say on the U.S. side there have been changes as well.
On the China side, we have for the first time a Chinese leader who really puts a timeframe on the period under which he wants to see the solution, and presumably the reintegration, of Taiwan with China. And that is a very different posture. And I think we’ve heard very clearly from President Xi that he has asked the United States not to underestimate the strategic significance of this for China. And I think that’s one thing that Americans do tend to do, is underestimate how existential this issue is. So there’s opportunity for misunderstanding. There’s opportunity for—you know, for miscalculations on both sides. And I think that’s one of the reasons to be concerned.
The last reason is simply it is now much harder to imagine where this goes in a mutually acceptable outcome, right? I think there was a hope earlier, maybe a decade or two ago, that there could be some kind of peaceful unification. It’s much harder to see now how the—how the people of Taiwan would choose to go back and be part of China. So it’s hard to see how this is resolved. And so if you ask yourself the question of what is success in ten years’ time? It’s if it’s the situation is managed, hasn’t come to a head, and that we can hope for a different set of circumstances later in time, in which it might be managed in a way that it is now currently unimaginable.
COPTON: I’m going to ask that they unplug the clock. We’re going to get one more question in. Chris, did you have your hand up, right here? Wait for the microphone to come around. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Chris Isham.
Osama bin Laden, back in ’98, made a comment that was interesting. He said that Americans can always be defeated because they don’t have the stomach to absorb casualties. His examples at that time were Somalia in ’93 and, before that, Beirut in ’83–’84, when the U.S. sustained, obviously, serious casualties, and subsequently left. I guess my question is, in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration went to war in two countries. But looking at it now, twenty years, do you think bin Laden was right or wrong?
HADLEY: I would say he’s right about a number of things, but not that one. And one of the things that he was understood that that was the view after 9/11. And that’s one of the reasons when President Bush was initially briefed on the Joint Chiefs’ plan for how to respond to 9/11, it was all in terms of air attacks and missile attacks. And he said, go back and redo the plan. I want boots on the ground in Afghanistan, because I want to show to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda, excuse me, and to other terrorists around the world, we’re serious about this and we will not be deterred. And we will prevail over them. So he, in some sense, put the issue of U.S. casualties back on the table as a way to strengthen his response, and to send a message that we were going to prevail.
COMPTON: I want to ask you to thank our panelists. We didn’t get nearly enough in. Meena Bose, thank you very much, at Hofstra. Stephen Hadley. Meghan O’Sullivan. And please always remember that the video and the transcripts of today’s session will be posted on the CFR website. Thank you all for joining today. (Applause.)
HADLEY: Thanks for coming.
O’SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.