Portentous shortfall: nukes
North Korea's development – and detonation – of a crude nuclear bomb in October 2006 may rank as the most portentous foreign-policy shortfall of the Bush administration and, arguably, the Western world. An inability to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions would not be far behind.
Conservatives like John Bolton, a former Bush diplomat, say US timidity let Pyongyang and Tehran make dangerous progress. Even foreign-policy traditionalists say President Bush's post-9/11 "we-don't-talk-with-evildoers" approach gave the two regimes an incentive to develop their nuclear programs.
In Mr. Bush's second term in particular, he looked to other nations to take the lead on nuclear nonproliferation, encouraging China to assume greater international responsibility and host multiparty talks on North Korea's program. He also agreed that the Europeans should be chief negotiators with Iran. So far, these diplomatic strings have yielded a yo-yo of ups and downs and UN resolutions of uncertain effect, especially on Iran's actions.
"On Iran, [Bush officials] wasted too much time focused on regime change in the first term, when I think a deal could have been done, and then they couldn't get their act together on what to do after they gave that up," says Joseph Nye, an international relations specialist at Harvard. "As a result, Obama comes in to find Iran is a lot closer to having the materials and technology it needs for a nuclear weapon."
A mixed record on managing big-power relations
President Bush garners widely positive reviews for his management of relations with two rising global powers – China and India – but encounters criticism for his direction on US-Russian relations.
In particular, many experts praise him for resisting pressure from foreign-policy hawks to adopt a more confrontational stance toward China. Others highlight last year's watershed nuclear cooperation agreement with India and predict that it will come to be seen as a cornerstone of Mr. Bush's foreign-policy legacy.
"You have to say he handled an emerging China pretty well, particularly after he abandoned the word 'competition' that he used early on," says former US Rep. Lee Hamilton, now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.
Relations with Russia, though, deteriorated during the Bush years. Some see the US sliding into an ideological, confrontational posture that may end up harming US national interests in areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear-materials management, Iran, and the Middle East.
"Some of these problems pose an existential threat to America, but apparently the Bush administration decided it was more important to confront Russia over NATO expansion and radar in Eastern Europe than to encourage their cooperation with us," says Susan Eisenhower, a national-security analyst.
American arrogance about its transformational powers, which "Bush brought to a new level," is [largely] responsible for worsening US-Russian relations, she says.
High marks for helping Africa on AIDS and boosting foreign aid
President Bush gets high marks for his decisions to more than double US foreign aid for fighting AIDS in Africa and for introducing performance-based standards for foreign-aid recipients.
The president's AIDS program not only has helped Africans in crisis, but its successes are responsible for America's high standing in several strategically important countries, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton noted Jan. 13 during her Senate confirmation hearing.
Stalwart Bush critics give the president his due, too, for boosting foreign aid and for inventing Millennium Challenge Accounts, which link receipt of US aid to good-governance practices. "These are significant initiatives that have already paid off," says Charles Kupchan at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While praising this use of "soft power" as a foreign-policy tool, some analysts note that AIDS relief in Africa is not a high national priority. "It's just not one of the most critical areas that's going to have an impact on America's security and its ability to promote its national interests," says national-security analyst Susan Eisenhower, a Republican-turned-independent.