The unfinished Iraq war – from its staggering cost to the way it distracted America from other global issues to its unintended result of elevating Iran as a regional power – has come to define the Bush presidency, at least in the arena of international affairs. If a stable and relatively democratic Iraq eventually emerges from the initially chaotic venture, Mr. Bush's stock – and his legacy – will rise.
But as of this moment, the president's venture in Iraq is described variously as "a colossal blunder" and, a bit more charitably, as a failure to recognize the advent of a geopolitical shift in which superpower muscularity was giving way to a more multipolar world.
"The world has been going through a historical switching point in terms of the diffusion of power, the rise of new players, and the redistribution of global wealth, but the Bush administration has not afforded [that development] much attention," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations here. "The Bush years mired the United States in Iraq with a war reflecting a faith in American superiority that, in the end, distracted the country from addressing the broader changes going on around it."
Within this 21st-century context, the Iraq war will stand out for how it embodied both Bush's early refusal to acknowledge this new geopolitical reality and his faith in the ability of military force to effect change, some international affairs analysts say. That would change in his second term, which saw a shift from ideology to pragmatism, from unilateral zeal to multilateral diplomacy.
But valuable time was lost, says Lee Hamilton, who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 commission and is a former Democratic member of Congress from Indiana. "We lost time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, [and] we've seen the impact of that in the events of these recent days [in Gaza]. We lost time on confronting climate change. We lost time in going after Osama bin Laden.... That's quite a full plate," he says, "that will now be left to Bush's successor."
As much as Iraq dominated the Bush years, it is not the only signature foreign-policy event of the president's eight years in office. Foreign-policy and national-security experts cite four other top issues on which Bush administration decisions are likely to have an impact in coming years – and that will contribute to his legacy.
•The war on terror as the US response to the 9/11 attacks.
•An inability to clamp the lid on the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
•The initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and a shift in US foreign aid toward performance-based assistance.
In assessing Bush's foreign-policy imprint, "there are other things to consider [besides Iraq], negative and some positive – from how North Korea was handled that allowed it to get a nuclear bomb to the initiative [Bush] had on AIDS and to the way relations have been managed, other than North Korea, in Asia," says Joseph Nye, a professor of international relations at Harvard University and a former assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton. "But Iraq is up there at the top of the list."
He faults the administration's decision on Iraq as "a colossal blunder" that for years will dominate US foreign policy, serve as a recruitment tool for Islamic terrorists, and sap domestic resources.