The Public Eye: Overcoming George Bush’s Pottery Barn Foreign Policy

By Bob Burnett
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:52:00 AM

After six months as president, Barack Obama has put his own imprint on U.S. foreign policy. That’s fortunate because George Bush broke everything he touched. 

Obama is collaborative; Bush was confrontational. Drawing upon his experience as a community organizer, Obama looks for areas of agreement between the interests of the United States and those of other nations. “The United States and Russia have more in common than they have differences,” he said. 

Bush’s signature foreign policy doctrine was preemptive war. “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons,” he said. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech led to the invasion of Iraq and, if that war had played out as expected, would have resulted in the invasion of Iran and other military adventures. 

Obama is a realist; Bush was an idealist. Over the past few decades, Democrats have been accused of quixotic foreign policy—subscribing to the “one world, one global community” philosophy—while Republicans have been pragmatic—Henry Kissinger introduced the concept of realpolitik to Richard Nixon, leading to the normalization of relations with China. However, the Bush administration returned to cold-war politics based upon dogmatic ideology: U.S. military prowess would produce free markets inexorably followed by capitalism and Christianity. 

Now it’s Barack Obama who champions realpolitik, who has emerged as the pragmatic diplomat. Obama has kept the door open to Iran, as he seeks to build a coalition of containment that includes Russia and China. 

Obama is a globalist; Bush was a nationalist. Obama sees the United States as a powerful player in a complex world; Bush saw America as the leader in a global crusade. Driven by his conservative Christianity, Dubya viewed the world through the prism of good versus evil—“you are either with us or against us.” Because of his rigid perspective, Bush wouldn’t have countenanced continued diplomacy with Iran after June’s election turmoil. 

Obama sees a world of overlapping spheres of influence: military, business, and social. United States military interests require that we collaborate with other nations to combat terrorism and control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Our business interests require that we regulate trade and oversee the global economy, make sure that poor nations participate. United States social interests require that we encourage the development of civil society everywhere, while we cooperate to control the spread of infectious diseases and respond to the crisis of global warming. 

Bush viewed America as a fortress where barbarians were hammering at our gates. Therefore, his foreign policy perspective was simplistic: America needs to remain the world’s preeminent military power to maintain our security. Dubya had little interest in global commerce and social problems. When questioned he’d invariably respond that they would be dealt with by “the market.” 

Obama believes in diplomacy; Bush saw only military might. Because of his Manichean worldview, George Bush had no use for the State Department and his administration managed foreign policy through the Department of Defense. In Afghanistan the primary emphasis of Bush policy was to eliminate the Taliban and, therefore, few funds were allocated to rebuild civil society, a key element in ensuring the spread of democracy. 

Obama has reinvigorated the State Department and reinforced the primary role of diplomacy in negotiating U.S. interests around the globe. 

When Bush considered the invasion of Iraq, then Secretary of State Colin Powell warned him of the consequences and cited the Pottery Barn Rule—“you break it, you own it.” Bush ignored Powell’s sage advice and authorized an invasion that fractured Iraq. And, after March 20, 2003, American foreign policy was broken as well. As a consequence of the global outpouring of support after 9/11, Bush had an opportunity to strengthen the world community to address common problems such as terrorism and global climate change. Instead, he chose to lead America on an abortive Christian crusade, turning off most of America’s potential allies. 

Now Barack Obama has to fix what George Bush broke. The good news is that Obama understands this. The bad news is that there is a huge amount of work to do. During his recent visit to Russia, Obama had breakfast with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Reports indicated that at one point, Putin launched into a 50-minute soliloquy about U.S.-Russia relations. No doubt the wily prime minister said he formed his assessment of Bush’s character by doing more than looking into his eyes. Putin noted his actions and concluded Dubya was the kind of person who said one thing and did the opposite. Putin probably asked Obama, “After eight years of the Bush administration, why should the United States be trusted?” 

That’s the legacy of Pottery Barn foreign policy. George Bush didn’t care if the rest of the world trusted the United States. Now Barack Obama has to reestablish our credibility before America can again take its position as leader of the free world. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at