The Corner

Bush Regrets

In recent days, I surveyed some former Bush administration officials to ask what their regrets are. In addition to giving credit where it is due, there’s always a need for self-reflection. Here’s a little of the feedback:

CESAR V. CONDA

Regrets? I have very few from my time as Vice President Cheney’s economic and domestic policy adviser from 2001 to 2003. On the domestic policy front, President Bush delivered the largest tax relief in a generation. His 2003 income, dividend, and capital gains tax rate cuts were the most supply-side oriented tax cuts since Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts. As someone who spent most of my career in Washington advancing supply-side economics, it was a thrill of a lifetime to play a small role in shaping the Bush tax-cutting agenda. My biggest regret was that my domestic policy staff and I took our eyes off the ball when it came to shaping the Administration’s position on the Farm bill in mid- to late 2001. At that time, the OVP domestic policy staff was small, consisting of myself, and my deputies Ron Christie and Nina Rees, and so we simply could not get deeply involved in every single policy debate in the White House (although we tried our best). We never really engaged the Vice President to–as he would often say–“put an oar in the water” on the internal debate over the Farm bill, as we did on other issues such as tax and energy policy. I remember Scooter Libby sent me to attend the President’s “policy time” discussion in the Oval Office on the Farm bill. I took some notes, tried to pay attention to the somewhat boring debate on agriculture policy among the President’s advisors, and perked up a bit when Karl Rove showed a colorful map of all of the “red” states benefitting from the bill. But my staff and I really didn’t do anything to raise concerns to the Vice President or anyone else in the White House about the Farm bill’s anti-free market bent and excessive costs. We probably couldn’t have done anything to change the President’s position anyway, because the bill was politically important to Congressional Republicans running in the 2002 mid-term elections. But I regret that we never really tried. In my opinion, President Bush’s support for that budget-busting $190 billion Farm bill was the beginning of the end of GOP’s brand as the party of fiscal discipline and limited government.

— Cesar Conda was assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Cheney and a senior economic adviser to Governor Mitt Romney during his presidential campaign.

GENE HICKOK

In its education strategy, the Bush administration sought to “purchase” support for its No Child Left Behind initiative with major increases in funding. In the end, it got almost no credit for the increases and the education establishment responded to the new money by saying it wasn’t enough. The truth is, in the eyes of those overseeing America’s schools no amount of new money will ever be enough. More importantly, money won’t solve what ails American education. The Administration should have sought tax credits for individuals and corporations contributing to private K-12 scholarship programs for kids.

– Gene Hickok, a former deputy secretary at the U.S. Education Department and once Secretary of Pennsylvania’s education agency, is a Bradley Education Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

JOHN HILLEN

I came in in 2005 with Bush 43 Part II, and from, quite literally, the very first second of that administration there was a fundamental contradiction that girded our foreign policy. On the one hand, with the soaring aspirations of the second inaugural address, the President had just set perhaps the highest bar in American history for the purpose and objectives of U.S. foreign policy. On the other hand, events on the ground required a sober, and pragmatic plan to advance American policy and interests. The post-9/11 rallying around American policy was fraying; fairly or unfairly, the moral standing of the country has slipped considerably with almost all allies and coalition partners; elections–the ill-timed first manifestation of the freedom agenda, had delivered us Hamas, radical Shia’s and Sadarists, Hezbollah cabinet ministers, and the like. Afghanistan was revealing itself to be exactly what it has always geopolitically been, a clean end to the Iraq intervention was indiscernable, Asia and Latin America were suffering from strategic inattention due to their failure to fit into the freedom train construct, Syria was out of Lebanon but Hezbollah more firmly entrenched than ever, and Iran was poised to go nuclear and hegomonic while we dreamed of fermenting an Iranian led regime change by all those reasonable middle class Iranians we saw shopping in Europe.

While the President had evoked Wilsonianism as our guide, at the working policy level we focused on a combination of things that would make Metternich proud. In Iraq the U.S. cut deals with the Sunni tribal chiefs to buy them out of the insurgency–ending that lethal chapter in the intervention. In Afghanistan and Lebanon we dispaired about Karzai’s and Sinoria’s political frailty, but pushed as much pragmatic military aid to the countries as we could regardless. In my shop, we re-opened military aid to Indonesia after a decade and a half of the country being in our human rights penalty box, and between that and our singular response to the Tsunami we helped prevent a 3rd front by radical Islamacists in SE Asia, which was certainly possible after the bombings there of 2002-2003. We pushed thru military aid to Musharraf’s Pakistan, including the controversial sale of F-16’s, a combination of things that allows us today to wage with incredible effectiveness the drone-fired missile “plinking” of Al Qaeda leaders that has dissimated them in the Pakistani tribal areas over the past year. The late Congressman Tom Lantos chased me around the Hill with a figurative butcher knife after that deal but it has made a real difference in keeping this country safe from apocolyptic terrorists. Instead of looking for regime change in Iran, a country whose internal politics were unfathomable to us, we put into place a series of cooperative military agreements and arms deals with all the countries of the Gulf to dent Iran’s outreach to them and reassure them that the U.S. would stand by them in very real strategic ways, and not abandon them to Iran’s hegominic reach while we lectured them on governance.

In some ways, it has always been thus in American foreign policy. The most high-minded goals and rhetoric, but a clear-eyed and even flinty view about the ways to advance American interests. I think there is a recognition, even hinted at in the emerging pragmaticism of the incoming President, that the Freedom Agenda is impossible to operationalize and perhaps even of questionable benefit to American interests if realized in places. While I think we moved the ball down the field in key areas in the second half of the Bush administration, it would have been useful to have had a more coherent and open recognition of this dynamic in our policy.

– John Hillen was the assistant secretary of state for political-military Affairs from 2005-2007.

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