Near the end, when the Watergate bloodhounds were baying at his heels and the sword of impeachment hung over him, Richard Nixon sought solace, refuge and redemption in foreign affairs and foreign travel.
This week, President George W. Bush made a half-hearted stab, officially described as “low-key”, at brokering peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and cobbling together a bit of a legacy that doesn’t revolve around crusades in Muslim countries.
This after seven bloody years during which he paid little attention to this long-festering sore. What little attention he has paid — supporting Israel’s ill-conceived and poorly executed 2006 invasion of Lebanon, giving Saddam Hussein's old spot in the axis of evil to Syria and pushing for democratic elections among the Palestinians that were won by the militant Islamic group Hamas — has only made things worse.
Beyond a couple of photo-ops with Israeli President Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas — whose names Bush couldn't even pronounce — and an opening address that contained no new ideas, no commitment and no way forward, the president stayed away from the talks.
Good thing, too. Had the president applied his diplomatic skills ("You're either with us or you're against us") and his keen character judgment (think Vladimir Putin and Pervez Musharraf), the Middle East might now be in flames.
The fact that the meeting coincided with Bush’s approval of an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki that lays the foundation for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq and a long-term American military presence there wasn't lost on the Arab representatives in Annapolis. The details of the deal will be negotiated next year, doubtless bypassing Congress once more, and whoever replaces Bush in a year and a bit will have to live with them.
The elephant in the room in Annapolis was Iraq and the grotesque American failure — only real foreign policy legacy of the Bush presidency — that it represents. The consequences of that invasion and nearly five years of war have been to strengthen and hearten the wrong side in a vital and volatile region.
Buoyed by an illusory slam-dunk victory in Afghanistan, the president ordered a poorly planned and unnecessary charge into Iraq to plant democracy in infertile soil and an American flag in hostile territory.
The result, setting intentions aside, has been the resurgence of Iran and Syria, as well as violent actors Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Not to mention a big boost in recruiting and reality-based training for Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorists.
None of those outcomes adds anything to the prospects for peace in the Middle East or for America's standing as an honest broker of that scarce commodity. The gathering in Annapolis reminded me of an old Texas saying that the president ought to appreciate: A day late and a dollar short.
Meanwhile, in two countries that may prove to be far more important to our national security interests than Iraq ever was — Pakistan and Afghanistan — the situation is unraveling right before our eyes.
Afghanistan, the only righteous war the Bush administration fought, was always Job One. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, however, indulged in a premature victory dance there in late 2001 and early 2002, and then turned all their attention and all our resources to invading Iraq.
Five years later, Taliban guerrillas control more than half of Afghanistan as a weak, U.S.-backed national government tries to make itself felt anywhere outside the city limits of Kabul. More than 160,000 American troops occupy Iraq, but we can spare fewer than 20,000 for Afghanistan, preferring to lean on our NATO allies, some of whom are highly casualty-averse and timid in a harsh and increasingly deadly environment.
Ironically, Afghanistan’s greatest success is a dubious one at best: With the connivance and control of both the warlords and the Taliban, the country recently harvested a world-record opium crop, some of it bound for American streets as heroin. The hashish crop is booming, too.
When he turned away from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, President Bush placed all his bets and billions in American aid on Pakistani President Musharraf in the hope that he'd deny sanctuary to al Qaeda and the Taliban in the wild tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and tamp down fundamentalist Islam and the madrassas that prepare jihadists for campaigns across the border — and maybe beyond.
But Musharraf and his army bit off more than they could, or would, chew, losing thousands killed, wounded and kidnapped in failed attempts to conquer a region and a people who've held off far better enemies throughout their history.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban have only grown stronger and more dangerous, and Pakistanis have grown increasingly restive under the general’s thumb. The stakes are higher, and the prospects more frightening, when you consider that Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
When Richard Nixon grasped at the straw of foreign policy near the end, he did so because he knew something about the world and understood, if imperfectly at times, that the exercise of power in that world is hemmed in by both history and reality.
The same cannot be said of George W. Bush, who'll leave behind a world far more hostile and dangerous than the one he inherited in 2001.