"Change" was the magic word of this year's campaign. In his speech to the Republican convention, John McCain—a 26-year Washington veteran—promised to change "almost everything" that the U.S. government does. Barack Obama, of course, put the word "change" into seemingly every campaign sign, TV ad, and sound bite. (Story continued below...)
Yet there are some things the next president shouldn't change. George W. Bush hasn't gotten much good press in recent years, but he's accomplished some important things that the next president would do well to preserve and extend.
Consider three in particular:
1. The emerging U.S.-India strategic partnership. Since 1995, there have been more than a dozen joint U.S.-Indian military exercises, but the size and importance of these operations has expanded dramatically under Bush. In 2007, the two countries conducted a three-week Special Forces counterinsurgency training exercise. That same year, Indian warships joined two U.S. aircraft carriers and warships from Australia, Japan and Singapore to practice maneuvers. India has begun buying U.S. military hardware, requesting more than a billion dollars in arms in 2007 and acquiring what is now the second-largest ship in the Indian navy: the I.N.S. Jalashva, formerly the U.S.S. Trenton, an amphibious transport vessel. And the United States and India have negotiated a new deal granting New Delhi access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes.
India isn't always an easy partner. New Delhi's strategic interests sometimes don't align with Washington's—witness India's comfortable relationship with Iran. And India is always sensitive to any hint it is being treated as anything less than an absolute equal. But with China becoming more assertive, India —along with Vietnam and other states on China's seacoast—shares some vital interests with the United States. The next U.S. president should therefore build on Bush's India legacy by drawing New Delhi into a closer defense relationship—not because Washington expects conflict with China, but in order to deter conflict.
2. A more equal partnership with Latin America. During this decade, the big countries of South America turned to the left. Former union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidency of Brazil in 2002. The populist husband-and-wife team of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner has governed Argentina since 2003. Michelle Bachelet, a center-left leader, governs Chile.
In the past, leftist Latin governments have clashed with conservative U.S. administrations. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez has gleefully goaded Washington, hoping to justify his increasingly authoritarian rule by inciting a clash with the colossus of the North. But the Bush administration frustrated Chávez with something unexpected: nothing. Instead of snapping at Chávez's bait, Washington largely ignored him. (Except for one bad day, when it briefly seemed to countenance an attempted anti-Chávez coup—a mistake swiftly corrected.)
Given enough rope to hang himself, Chávez quickly alienated his democratic left neighbors, even as Washington showed it was ready to do business with them. The economic policies of the Latin left may have slowed growth and stoked inflation, but there is good reason to hope that South American states have now developed the political means to correct such errors—without crisis or violence. The Latins themselves deserve most of the credit for this. But for the first time since the McKinley administration, Washington under Bush can fairly claim that it didn't get in the way. The next president could learn a lesson from Bush's restraint—and perhaps apply it to Cuba, where five decades of U.S. isolation have failed to achieve much.
3. The determination to do counterinsurgency right. The Bush administration made many serious mistakes in Iraq, but the president got the big thing right. Faced with defeat, his administration first acted to cut off foreign support for the Iraqi insurgency by arresting and (covertly) killing Iranian operatives inside Iraq. It then developed unexpected new allies among the Sunni tribes, adopted effective new counterinsurgency tactics and deployed large reinforcements. The result was an unexpected success that has opened the way for political reconciliation.
The next president will face a very similar problem in Afghanistan. Covertly aided by Pakistan, a nasty insurgency by the resurgent Taliban has taken shape there. While the mission retains broad support in the United States, many NATO allies are under serious domestic pressure to cut their losses and withdraw.
Bush's Iraq model should be reapplied: pressure Pakistan into ending its assistance to the insurgents, send in more troops and adopt new tactics. The job will be tough. But the new president should know that if the last one could do it in Iraq, surely he can do it in Afghanistan.