Passing the Baton

with William Inboden,
hosted by Rebecca Burgess

Will Inboden joins host Rebecca Burgess to discuss Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama, a collection of documents related to the 2008–2009 presidential transition.

Brian Smith:

Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. This podcast is a production of the online journal, Law & Liberty, and hosted by our staff. Please visit us at lawliberty.org. And thank you for listening.

Rebecca Burgess:

Welcome and hello to Liberty Law Talk. My name is Rebecca Burgess. I’m the contributing editor with Law & Liberty, a visiting fellow with Independent Women’s Forum, and a few other things. And joining me today is Will Inboden, who is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security, and an assistant professor at the LBJ Policy School, both of which are at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome, Will, to Liberty Law Talk.

Will Inboden:

Thank you, Rebecca. It’s great to be with you.

Rebecca Burgess:

Well, I am very excited to talk about a book, which I’m not sure is on many people’s radar. Because everyone is so excited about your recent Reagan book, they haven’t realized that you have recently put out another edited volume, very large in fact, which is called Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama. Just came out at the very end of February, and Brookings Institution Press published it. I have to say, I was recently at a conference, I had the tome with me on the table, and several people picked it up and passed it around, and they were so excited. Because this book is really novel. It represents about 30 or so different transition memos that the George W. Bush team wrote to the incoming Obama team in 2007/2008, as the new president was getting his team ready to take up the reins of government. And something like this, as far as I know, has never happened. Would you give us a little bit of the story, the summary of what this book is?

Will Inboden:

Yeah. Thanks, Rebecca. And I do think that, at the risk of immodesty, it is a very unique book. I don’t know of any other book there’s ever been like this particular one. If that sounds too grandiose for listeners, I’m not saying it’s the most wonderful book ever, listeners can judge if it’s good or bad. But just the type of book it is. I’ll emphasize what I mean by that.

First, that has all of these declassified transition memos. And to give our listeners some context, these memos, when they were first written at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, most of them were classified top secret, others secret. So high classification levels. And according to standard American government practice, they would not have been declassified for at least 30 years or maybe longer. And so just the fact that we were able to get them declassified after just 15 years, which again, is a while, but not near as long as it normally would’ve been, that is very unusual.

Second thing that we did, which I don’t know if another book that is done, is in addition to taking these declassified memos so that readers can see what did the world look like to outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration in 2008/09, is we had quite a few of the people who had originally written these memos, now write retrospective essays on them. So these are former Bush National Security Council staff, who now 15 years later, looking back saying, “All right, what do we think we got? What do we think we got wrong?” So it’s a little bit of grading your own report card, right? It’s a self-evaluation. But still, a good chance to take some of our own internal thoughts and reflections and put them down on paper.

Then the third thing is we also commissioned some outside scholars, Mel Leffler of University of Virginia, Martha Kumar, one of the most eminent scholars of presidential transitions, Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins SAIS. And it had them write their own evaluation essays saying what do they scholars think the Bush administration got and got wrong on national security, on the transition, and so forth. And so to have all of those documents between the covers of just one volume, like I said, I don’t know of any other volume there’s been like this. And so there’s any number of angles from which people can look at it and digest it.

Rebecca Burgess:

I love that it doesn’t leave to future scholars. It’s almost living history, it seems like. Maybe not quite, but that it’s a certain transparency about it of showing the inner workings of government. And I should mention, because I didn’t previously, who the other editors are that are involved in this volume, and the fact that you have a very nice forward from President George W. Bush himself and a note from Condoleezza Rice. But Stephen Hadley, who had served four years as assistant to the president for National Security Affairs is kind of the main editor. And then assistant editors are Peter Fever, who under Bush, served as the special advisor for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council staff. Yourself, who at the time you were senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff, and you also worked in the state department’s policy planning staff, correct?

Will Inboden:

That’s right, yes. Yeah, and the Bush-

Rebecca Burgess:


Will Inboden:


Rebecca Burgess:

And then Meghan O’Sullivan, who was special assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan. So very well-placed individuals there at the top who were in the middle of all of these things at the time. And I would love to ask in a question, maybe a step back, why does this book happen now? What was the thoughts that you all had that clearly at some point there was conversation, maybe it was over whiskey, maybe it wasn’t. Where you said, “You know what we need to do, is declassify or see if we can declassify some of these transition memos and put it together in a book.” And not just put them together in a book, but also write these postscripts, these kind of evaluations on them. Where does that process come from and what is it trying to do?

Will Inboden:

Yeah. So the process was started, and all credit here, by Steve Hadley himself, who had been the National Security Advisor at the time and had overseen the original drafting of these memos. And also overseen the transition process when Bush is leaving office and the Obama team is coming in, and Hadley advanced that. We’ll want to talk a little bit more about just how important but little understood that process is.

Steve came to me about four or five years ago with the idea for doing this project. And wanting to know if I and Peter and Meghan would be interested in helping him out. One reason Steve originally approached me is I sit on the advisory committee for CIA and another advisory committee for State Department on expediting the declassification of old documents and getting them in the hands of scholars. And so I was already doing this kind of work for the Reagan administration, the Bush 41 administration, the previous administrations, so was able to help Steve with some of the mechanics of getting these documents declassified.

And it’s an interesting thing about American law, even though President Bush, as president at the time had complete authority over the classification of these documents. Once he’s out of office, these documents are the property of the United States government, not President Bush himself. And so he could not, now as ex-president just wave a wand and say they’re all declassified. They had to go through a very rigorous process that current National Security Council officials oversaw, which took about a year and a half to two years.

So that was the original genesis of Steve Hadley wanted to do it. And there were two reasons why he wanted it done. The first is transparency and informing the American people of this is how national security is handled during a presidential transition, including a transition from a Republican to a Democrat, and an outgoing two term one, to an incoming one. Where there were real differences over policy, but at same time, I think I shared sense of duty to serve the country and protect the country.

And the second reason is Steve Hadley wanted to produce a pretty extensive record of what was Bush administration foreign policy. We’re recording this as we’re… this week is the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. Obviously, one of the most controversial aspects of Bush foreign policy. And there’s a big section in here on Iraq. But as a way of reminding people, reminding scholars, reminding ordinary citizens that there were a lot of other things that went on during the Bush administration. A lot of other policies that we worked on, some things we got right, some things we got wrong. And putting these documents out there so that people can make up their own minds, but a part of the, I think trying to provide as full of accounting as possible of the Bush administration legacy.

Your listeners will know, I’m hardly objective on this. Right? I served this administration for five years, so I don’t want to pretend to scholarly objectivity. I’m very proud of a lot of what we accomplished. And will also tell you, I think we got a number of things wrong as well. But whatever you think of the Bush administration foreign policy over those eight years, everyone will agree that it was consequential. Right? That some very important things happened, some of the good, some of them bad. And so I think to at least understand that, it helps to have these documents and these essays evaluating them.

US President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama depart the North Portico of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2009, for Obama’s inauguration. (Larry Downing/Reuters/Alamy.com)

Rebecca Burgess:

Absolutely agree. And I think just as a little side note, as you were saying that you’re hardly an objective observer. Sometimes maybe I think we downplay the importance of having people who have been involved actually give their own thoughts and feelings about it. Because at the end of the day, we’re not automatons. Even those who work in government are not automatons, they’re individual human beings who are also using their emotions and their intellect to evaluate. And maybe we can get into this in a little bit, but in writing these memorandum, assessing situations, it’s very much intelligence gathering type of an operation, even though we don’t think about it in those specific terms. And of course, what parameters were you using to make those evaluations are very much based on our personal involvement and with them often.

So I was wondering actually if we can step also back a little bit and talk about transitions, because you were mentioning this, and what goes into a transition between two presidents. That’s one level. The second is between two different parties, Republican and Democrat, as you mentioned. The third with this particular, is there’s war going on. But then also just this basic fact that no president starts with a clean slate. No one gets to come in with an absolutely fresh new virgin landscape of domestic or foreign policy. And foreign policy, it seems to me this is where this really comes into play. The rest of the world is still doing its things. And a new president has to step in.

And how does the country, the United States of America preserve a certain continuity with all those countries when there are different presidents? Is this the role of the agencies? There are so many agencies. I don’t think most Americans could name which agencies are involved in foreign policy, that there’s not just state and the National Security Council, there’s USAID, there’s multiple other of these things. How do you coordinate those activities and how do we start to think about it? And is this where the practice of writing transition memos in a sense starts coming from? Is this what President Bush in 2007 is thinking about? Maybe just walk us through a little bit of some of these things.

Will Inboden:

Yeah, there’s a lot there, and you tee up some really great questions and I have some really good thoughts there. I think the first thing to say is this, is that there is a two and a half month period roughly, for a presidential transition. Right? Between election day, the first Tuesday of November, and then inauguration day, which is almost always January 20th. So it’s about that two-and-a-half-month window. And during that time, you still have one president. Okay, so the outgoing president stays president up until 11:59 AM on inauguration day. However, during that true two-and-a-half month time, the outgoing president is the lame duck, and the incoming president is putting together his, maybe eventually her team has some ideas on the policies they’re going to want to pursue. And so it’s a very complicated and delicate time.

And the bad guys in the world, the threats, the potential terrorist attacks, the great power rivals, Russia and China, the rogue state actors, North Korea and Iran, they do not stop wishing harm on the United States during that transition. They’re not going to pause their activities and their threats. Likewise, at any given time, the United States has hundreds, thousands of sensitive national security endeavors underway around the world. I mean, I’ll just give a bunch of examples. Right? So we have troops deployed around the world. We have troops based in dozens, maybe even close to a hundred countries. During this 2008 time, we had two hot wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, those don’t stop during presidential transition. A lot of other smaller-scale operations going on. We have a vast array of sensitive intelligence collection endeavors underway of covert actions that are underway, that again, that the CIA usually is carrying out. You have lots of diplomatic negotiations underway that the state department is leading. Many of them out of the public limelight. You have the development endeavors underway, the different projects that USAID is funding and implementing. I could go on.

Those things don’t stop during a presidential transition. And as the outgoing president is on the way out, he is handing over a responsibility for those to the incoming team. The incoming president will then, as commander-in-chief, as diplomat-in-chief, and so on, have authority to maybe change or revisit a number of those operations. But about 90% of them will continue, even with a new president of a new party. And so it’s a very complicated question, how do you keep some continuity going? Those things all, just as the threats to our country don’t stop, those operations and endeavors are not going to stop either. And the National Security Council, as the president’s main advisory and coordinating body for everything related to national security is the nerve center for keeping those going, and thus ensuring a smooth transition. A peaceful transition of power and the continuity of all of these different operations and endeavors.

And so that is the backdrop for that very important, but sensitive and complex time, those two and a half months. And so what we had done with these memos originally is think all right, in addition to the different operations going on, we, I say we as both an American but also the Bush administration official, we had a responsibility to hand over as much of our institutional knowledge, our memory, our evaluations of policies to the incoming Obama team as we could. Again, it was going to be up to them to decide what they wanted to do with this or not, but we owed it to them to at least give them as much information as possible.

And there wasn’t real partisanship involved in this. I mean, we knew that they had run their campaign in a lot of ways, very critical of Bush administration foreign policy. We thought some of those criticisms were unfair and some of them were fair. We knew ourselves about a number of things that we had had messed up, but also thought we had some good things going that we would encourage them to continue. And so we owed it to them to give them as much of this information as possible, and then they could decide what they will do with it. And part of this came from previous presidential transitions had been a little more messy on the foreign policy. The Carter to Reagan transition, which I treat a little bit in my other book, which you mentioned, was a pretty messy one, that was a pretty acrimonious one. The Clinton to Bush 43 transition, which Steve Hadley had been a part of as incoming one, had been fairly messy. Of course there’d been the disputed Florida recount efforts and things like that.

And so President Bush had decided early on in his second term that when it came time for him to do a transition, not even knowing yet that it was going to be Obama, not even knowing who the next one was going to be, that he owed it to his successor to make this as smooth as possible.

Rebecca Burgess:

Well, I think now all the experts who studied presidential transitions look to the Bush 43 transition to Obama as a kind of textbook handoff. And I’m glad you mentioned the Clinton to Bush because, so I’m in maybe grade school or maybe high school at the point when that happens, and I ended up having to spend a lot of time in doctor’s offices. And I looked at a lot of Newsweeks and Time magazines. And I remember the political cartoons of the things that the Bush administration stepped into, everything from missing Ws on keyboards and things like that.

And that what’s in my head, and that’s one of the first questions I remember when I saw this book being published was, does that effort, does President Bush is a slight impulsion to do it better because of how messy it was, at least on the outside, when he came into office. And how much of several steps back that can put an administration, if you’re trying to just get up to speed on something, you’re not quite ready to handle certain things. And I do believe, I think at some point, one of the authors of the book mentions this in regards to September 11th that there’s a, I don’t want to say a reason why, but part of the reason is that wasn’t a lot of a good transition of information going on there. And so September 11th happens because things fall in the crack. Anyway, just maybe some of your thoughts on that.

Will Inboden:

I do think certainly a part of President Bush’s commitment to doing a smooth and nonpartisan a transition as possible, did stem from his perception that his own earlier transition eight years earlier, the handover from Clinton to him had not gone so well. And again, it had been a disputed election. And there were some other factors too. I was finishing up graduate school at the time and was making some plans to eventually join the Bush administration, but I was not there firsthand for that 2000/2001 one. I think I read some of the same Newsweek articles you did.

I will say, on the 9/11 attacks, and again, this is before I officially joined the administration, there probably is something to the messiness of the transition nine months earlier. That said, as you’ll see in here, Bush administration veterans would also admit that they… we, I guess I should say, had not fully appreciated or taken the terrorist threat as seriously as it needed to be. And then you did have someone like Richard Clark, Dick Clark a who had been on the Clinton NSC staff, then continued on the Bush NSC staff, who had been raising the alarms about this as a more serious threat. And he was frustrated that he wasn’t listened to as much. So there may be something to it, but I wouldn’t want to go too far and blame the Clinton administration for the messy transition on how 9/11 came about. There was also, as we know, poor information sharing between the FBI and CIA, and a whole host of other factors, which we learned very painfully.

Rebecca Burgess:

Once again, the multiple factors and agencies involved doing foreign policy national security complicate things all the time.

Will Inboden:


Rebecca Burgess:

In moderation of course, in assigning blame is always good. And generous and humility are good things. And so maybe a way to get into some of the content of the memos and the thoughts about them, I was thinking it would be helpful to just remind ourselves or situate ourselves in that kind of 2000 moment when Bush becomes president, and think through some of the big national security forum policy things that happened. And I remember, so September 11th happens, it’s my first day as a senior in high school. And then decisions to go to war to Iraq, this happens freshman year of college. My career ends up now here in Washington, DC. But for 20 years I’m kind of becoming an adult growing into what this world is that America’s dealing with and partly creating and responding to. And while you’re living through it, you’re aware of it, but you’re also not aware.

And I remember a few years ago I was with my then colleague from AI, Gary Schmidt, and we were at the George W. Bush Presidential Library for going to work on some veterans military families issues. And we’re just going through that exhibit. And it was a revelation to our own selves about all the different things and the decisions and the course, I don’t want to say corrections, but pivots that happened, that Bush did not run his elections on. And so I did a quick little list here just to help remind ourselves. So the whole recount issue, Bush actually becomes inaugurated in January of 2000. Almost immediately there is the spy plane issue that happens over China.

Will Inboden:

April of 2001, yeah.

Rebecca Burgess:

Which causes great consternation and tensions and hackles to be raised. And very quickly after that, it’s not April. Oh, it is April, I think. Somewhere around April. Bush actually backs Taiwan over China, saying publicly that if China does ever attack Taiwan, America will go to Taiwan’s aid. So that’s very interesting to remember now considering what our current discussions are. But that’s just a few months into his presidency. And then we have September 11th, and then we have in October, of course, the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. We have the anthrax scare in October, later in October. We have the withdrawal, I think this is also important to remember, in the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty that happens.

Will Inboden:

Yeah. Of the US and Russia. Yeah.

Rebecca Burgess:

Right. Which eventually allows us to start testing anti-ballistic defenses. Well, that we have the creation of another agency, Homeland Security. After this, we have the authorization. Then in October 2002, of the use of force against Iraq. Though, of course, it takes until March for us to actually decide to go in. We have February 2003, a CA director tells us that North Korea possesses a nuclear ballistic missile that’s capable of hitting the US. Then, as I already mentioned, we go to Iraq. 2004, we’re already in another presidential debate cycle with Kerry, and there’s all of that. We have the bird flu scare in 2006. And then we are attacking Al-Qaeda in Somalia in 2007. And then now we’re in 2008. And meanwhile there are all these color revolutions going on and Ukraine and Georgia and Kazakhstan. Is it Kazakhstan? Kyrgyzstan.

Will Inboden:

Kyrgyzstan. Yeah.

Rebecca Burgess:

Kyrgyzstan. So there are multiple things going on throughout those years, and trying to remind ourselves almost. But because there are so many things, it’s helpful I think to step back and to ask what is Bush and the world? And it seems like the volume is slightly organized around that principle. And starting with the soul of it and then the operationalizing of it, and then the stabilization. So what is the soul? What is the soul of the Bush, either foreign policy or Bush’s approach to the world that comes to the fore?

Will Inboden:

Yeah. And I’ll say, I got exhausted just listening to that litany, but let alone having lived them. And I come back very much to your question about the soul of Bush foreign policy. But let me just mention a few others too. Also, in February of 2003, you’ve got Bush announces PEPFAR. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief ends up being this… We just celebrated our 20th anniversary of that too. But one of the most massive humanitarian assistance programs in history now saves some estimates, 25 million lives, like a $100 billion spent. August of 2008, Russia invades Georgia. We had another war breaking out under Bush’s watch, which we can now look back and see was a foreshadowing of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Then September of 2008, you have the global financial crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. So a lot of things were going on.

Okay. So the soul of Bush foreign policy. There’s a number of directions I could take that, but I will say it is best found in the first substantive chapter of this volume, the one on the Freedom Agenda. And this was Bush’s desire or conviction, if you will, that freedom should be a universal right, available to all people. It comes from in part from his Christian faith, his belief in universal human dignity. And also more pragmatic or realist reasons of he just realized that America’s best allies and partners are almost always democracies, and America’s adversaries are almost always are dictatorships or authoritarian powers. These weren’t strong convictions he held on inauguration day when he is first sworn in. It’s something that he’d rather develops over the next couple of years.

Largely in response to 9/11. Right? The 9/11 attacks, when he starts asking what are some of the root causes of terrorism? Why is it that these Islamic radicals are bent on murdering thousands of innocents? Where do they get these beliefs? Where do they come from? And realizing that some of it at least stems from growing up in authoritarian sclerotic societies without opportunity. Some of this also comes from his just reading of history, seeing those color revolutions breaking out to 2003, 2004, 2005. Rose Revolution in Georgia, Orange Revolution in Ukraine. We could go through those. And it’s most robust expression you can find in his second inaugural address from January of 2005. Much criticized in some circles, I think much misunderstood. But that is certainly, I think the disbelief in universal human dignity and liberty is certainly an animating spirit or a through line for Bush foreign policy.

A couple of other things I could mention are more specifically on Bush dooctrine on counterterrorism, is not distinguishing between the terrorists themselves and the state sponsors, by holding them accountable. Another one is not allowing problems to fester, but trying to take early action to address them before they become even more significant threats. He was always encouraging us, “Think big. Let’s think big, let’s think forward. We don’t want to hand over a ton of lingering problems to my successor, we want to address as many as we can now.”

And I think there’s a certain nobility and sense of responsibility to those aspirations. But as we experienced, and as your listeners may be thinking, those can also lead you, as Steve Hadley has put it before, to our reach exceeding our grasp. Right? To take it on too many things. To maybe being a little more reckless when some of these things would’ve been better to let festering. Quite a few problems in international politics can’t necessarily be solved. But they shouldn’t be ignored either, sometimes they just need to be managed. But those would be a few of the features I would put to the animating spirit, as you had asked about Bush foreign policy.

Rebecca Burgess:

Yeah, so could you maybe talk a little bit more about the Freedom Agenda. A little bit more in depth, but what that means for Bush.

Will Inboden:

And I do encourage our listeners to, if you can, take a look at the book and read this chapter. The retrospective chapter in the book as co-authored by the late Mike Gerson. Mike just died I think just a couple months ago. And then Pete Wehner, who had both been Bush speech writers and played a key in role in this.

But the Freedom Agenda, another one of its antecedents, which is less appreciated, is actually the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And as Bush was taking a fresh look at that conflict and asking if there’s any possibilities for negotiations, he realized that a core problem there was Yasser Arafat, who was a dictator ruling the Palestinian people, was not democratically elected, and was a terrorist. Right? And he just decided that there is no possibility or no prospect or no hope for a permanent stable settlement between the two sides if the Palestinians don’t have some voice in their own government, some voice in their own future. And so he develops kind of a grand bargain. He becomes the first president to officially call for a Palestinian state, a two-state solution. But he ties that very much to, “You Palestinians, you got to get rid of Arafat. Because that guy is not a responsible leader and there’s no possibility for peace while he’s there.”

So it starts with that strategic calculation, if you will, about the right and wrong conditions for a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. But out of that becomes that broader strategic logic of realizing many of the security threats the United States faces, North Korea, Syria, Iran, China, now Russia. Also happened to be authoritarian or dictatorships of some sort. Meanwhile, more positively, as Bush was looking at what we might call successful or well-functioning countries and societies, almost all them have some form of democracies, some form of self-government, of self-rule. And they usually are going to have healthier economies. They’ll be less prone to going to war against each other or engaging in destabilizing behavior.

And so as a combination of these principled and practical reasons, why he decides he doesn’t just want to be managing the downstream bad fruits of these dictatorships and terrorist groups and others, but rather how can we go after some of the root causes and how can we support the possibility of a better life for those people, many of the people living under these.

I should also say that Bush here was shaped quite a bit I think by recent history. Because again, as we’re talking about this now in the year 2023, as you and I both know, democracy globally has not had a great run. The last 15, 16 years, it’s been on a steady decline. You see this in the Freedom House Index and other indices. And I think many Americans have grown rather skeptical or less enthusiastic about the possibility of promoting it.

But from the vantage point of the year 2001 or 2002, when Bush is first developing these ideas, look at what the previous 15, 20 years of world history had looked like you know, the 1980s and 1990s. Those had been a golden era for democracy. Right? There had previously been a notion in, “Oh, those Catholic countries, they can never be democratic.” Because they’re, I’m being a little crude here, but they’re loyal to the Pope and they don’t think for themselves. And again, listeners, I don’t believe this, but this is what some of the caricature was. But then you had seen a wave of democratization in prominently Catholic countries, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, others in the 1980s. And realization, “Okay, so we shouldn’t have made that exception for Catholic countries.”

Then there’d been a belief, well, those Asian countries, they can’t have democracy because they’re Confucian, they’re hierarchical, they don’t believe in empowerment to the individual. But again, in the 1980s and 1990s, you had Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, all democratized. I could go on. But then of course, you’d also had the, and I will go on, you had the peaceful end of the Cold War. Right? Where all of sudden these countries, Central and Eastern Europe, who had all lived under communist dictatorship for four or five decades, undergo peaceful transitions to democracy. And so if you were watching world events or reading the tides of history in the early 2000s, and then you’re seeing these new color revolutions of more democracies, it does seem like that is the tide of history. And better for the United States to be supporting and encouraging that, rather than necessarily resisting it.

One final important point on this, is the first real strong statement you hear from Bush on democracy is in November of 2003, he gives a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on the net, on one of their big anniversaries. And this is when he comes out and says, “For several decades the United States has pursued a policy in the Middle East of supporting dictatorships and monarchies there, thinking that it would give us stability.” But he said, “We’ve learned since 9/11 that trying to purchase stability at the price of liberty will give you neither stability or liberty.” Now we look at the world today, we can see the Middle East still is a pretty troubled place without very many at all models of functioning democracies.

But he was correct, I think, in his diagnosis. And that in a lot of ways, seven years before the Arab Spring breaks out, predicted this current model of these dictatorships and autocracies is pretty brittle. Right? The people are not very happy there. It’s not giving them a good life economically. It’s not giving them opportunity and freedom of expression that they want. And it’s something of a breeding ground for jihadist terrorism too. So that was an important part of his diagnosis as well. I’m sure no one wanted a winded answer.

Rebecca Burgess:

No. No, it was great. I mean, you could have gone on. I’m sure you have an entire semester in fact, that’s probably about all of these things. Because you could. But I think it’s both helpful and actually quite powerful to give that grounding. Because once again, presidential decisions, statesman’s decisions, matters of foreign policy don’t come out of the blue. Or very, very rarely are they these abstract things that just happen in a person’s brain and then they say them. They’re influenced and shaped by observing how things have happened.

And as you were speaking, I was even wondering to what extent the entire experience of 9/11 happening so early and thinking, we have these people who are warning us, and we didn’t pay enough attention how much that experience alone just shaped then the responses that happened with other individuals in other countries and other situations. And saying, we need to just take care of this right now, because otherwise we’re going to have, as we often heard, another 9/11 on our hands. And that was something that was simply couldn’t happen and no one wanted to happen. I mean, in a way I’m almost, I feel like I need 10 minutes to just recoup my thoughts about all of that in a way.

So I’m just kind of following the breakdown in the book itself of how it’s organized in these parts. And we have, as you said, the soul of the Freedom Agenda, but then also we have the things that everyone is going to be looking to this book for. Of course, Al-Qaeda, the fight against Al-Qaeda, the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, even Pakistan. And then of course I was like, “Oh, there’s one on Columbia. Oh, that’s right, many things are going on in Columbia, are going on in Columbia.” But you also have a chapter of the war of ideas. And I was wondering if you would mention what this is. How you differentiate this within the Freedom Agenda, within the more boots-on-the-ground things that are also happening.

Will Inboden:

Yeah. So war of ideas, this goes back to this core question that Bush had of the root causes of terrorism. And some of this comes out in the first year or so after 9/11. The United States has some pretty robust initial successes in counter-terrorism, right? We kill or capture quite a few of the other architects of the 9/11 attacks. We’ve got the Jihadists on the back heels. We also realize new jihadists are being created. New generations of young Muslims in some sectors are becoming radicalized and wanted to take up violence against innocent civilians.

And that’s where Bush wanted to be clear that we see this as not just the problem of one organization, Al-Qaeda, or a few isolated individuals, but rather there’s this whole ideology behind it. Right? The nihilism, the neo-fascism, if you will, of jihadist ideology. And also taking the enemy’s ideas seriously that the Jihadists did have a certain vision of what they wanted, this rather militant intolerant, universal caliphate. And he decided right there, I think that we need to counter this idea rather than just trying to kill or capture our way out of this problem. And so how do we actually defeat this idea?

There’s another important insight here, which is that he decided rightly very early on, this cannot be seen as a war on Islam. Right? We’re not going to go to war against 1 billion people in the world, with the world’s largest religion, spanning every continent. Especially because most Muslims do not support the Jihadists, and so they don’t speak for our faith. And so as part of enlisting a broader coalition against the jihadist, he wanted to support and encourage and empower peaceful Muslims who believed more in pluralism, intolerance, and didn’t believe in that more militant and violent version of their faith.

So that was behind the framing of the battle of ideas. And asking, what can we do to de-legitimize and counter and neutralize jihadist ideology, and in turn, going back to our Freedom Agenda discussion, how can we support a positive alternative of free societies? So that was behind the framing of the battle of ideas.

Rebecca Burgess:

And then this becomes a kind of put into practice with some of the development and aid that becomes part of the agenda. So what were some of the… I mean you mentioned PEPFAR, but there was some other big initiatives which you cover in the book as well.

Will Inboden:

Yeah. And this was all done under the rubric of what we called smart development. Right? So Bush, again, comes into office, I think, rightly skeptical of some of the, if you will, more traditional or twentieth-century development models of large bureaucratic organizations doing state-to-state transfers or big handouts. Right? And you looked and see, all right, over the last few decades, United States had spent time, I don’t know, maybe something like a trillion dollars on economic aid to poor, impoverished and developing countries around the world. And there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to show for it. Okay? Many of these countries were still corrupt and impoverished. But he didn’t want to walk away from the problem entirely, especially after 9/11, again, where he realizes that some of these same impoverished countries are also breeding grounds for terrorism.

And so that’s why he develops a whole suite of new development initiatives under this rubric of smart development, that were designed around principles like accountability, transparency, positive incentives, citizen empowerment. Again, these may sound like just happy talker platitudes, but I’ll give a few examples of what they look like. So he creates the Millennium Challenge Corporation. It’s trying to incentivize other countries to get their governance in order so that they can then receive additional economic aid from the United States. So it’s say, all right, you first have to meet certain benchmarks on anti-corruption, on transparency, on good governance, before you’ll then be eligible for these economic aid grants. So tying it much more to accountability and good governance there.

Where PEPFAR, as we’ve mentioned, again, a whole suite of activities, but not designed to support economic growth or other state bureaucracies, but rather just to save lives. Realizing that these countries primarily in Africa are not going to have much hope of economic growth and development if their most young and vulnerable are dying or given a death sentence from being born with HIV/AIDS or if their young, most productive members of society are again being given this death sentence. And so designed to do these health interventions, all right, if we can save lives, then these people can be productive economic actors and help put their countries on a better path.

So those were a couple of features of this broader smart development agenda. A lot of which continues today. So I think that is certainly one of the positive features of the Bush legacy.

Rebecca Burgess:

Well, once again, so much there to think about and to delve into. But I wanted to ask one very pointed question, and then one that hopefully ties into… You end the book on emerging challenges and great power competition and a lot of things that we now are hearing every day and multiple times a day. But before we get there, I just wanted to ask, as you and the team, your fellow editors were going through these memos and thinking about them, at any point did you step back and ask yourself one of the biggest elements of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and something we talk about in the civil military relations community a lot is this, the military went to war and America went to the mall. And that was a product of a very conscious decision on Bush’s and the Bush administration’s part, at least as far as I understand, of trying to encourage Americans to not stop their lives and to continue living and involving themselves in the economy, strengthening our economy and our democracy in those ways, those economic ways.

Was that the right decision to make kind of that dichotomy? And was there ever, even in 2008, as you all are writing these memos, is there already a thought of maybe we should have nuanced that in a better way or not made that distinction? So that’s my pointed question.

Will Inboden:

Yeah. No, it’s a very good one. And it’s hard to think back to… And by the way, just to clarify, I left administration at the end of 2007, so I wasn’t there for the actual production of these memos. But I’ll answer your question more directly. So I’ll say that decision early on after 9/11, to encourage people to go about their daily lives. I will say it was understandable at the time, and I’ll explain why. And then I’ll also say that in hindsight it is one that I regret. Absolutely. So I hope that can be an honest answer for your listeners.

But first, on why it was… I will say it was understandable at the time, really two reasons. One is you had mentioned being in high school when 9/11 happened. I had moved back to DC a week before. I was actually at AI the day it happened, with our mutual friend, Gary Schmidt, among others. It’s a few blocks from the White House. I had passed right by the Pentagon an hour before the first plane hit. So this is very vivid. I bring that up because the months after 9/11, the sense of terror did not go away. All of us in DC believed that it was not a matter of if we get hit again, it is when will we get hit again. Right? And you’re just in this constant state of siege. And what Bush wanted to do was find a way for the country to have a very robust and vigorous counter-terrorism response to go kill those bad guys who had hurt us and to stop others from doing it again.

But also for the country itself, the 300 million plus Americans, whatever our population was at the time, to not live the next several decades in a constant state of terror and siege. Right? And that is the worst part of terrorism. It’s not just the material costs or the people it kills, is the way it plays with your mind. The way that it takes away the possibility of even living a free life, and instead you are in a constant state of quite literally terror. Okay? So that was one goal he had.

Then the other more practical one was, after the 9/11 attacks, the economy goes into recession, the stock market plunges, we are in really, really bad shape. And you realize, look, if everyone stops working and stops producing and stops shopping and stops consuming, our economy will never recover. And so there’s a very practical… And a political leader’s responsibility is to help maintain confidence in markets and confidence in economic activity. And so those were the two, I think understandable reasons why the encouragement to go back to your daily lives and go back to your shopping and your working, they were part of this broader principle of we can’t let the terrorists defeat us, we’ve got to still be living as Americans.

But, as you rightly point out, what over time becomes the effect of that, it’s that a tiny minority of the American population, almost exclusively those serving in active duty military, to this I would also add a number of intelligence officers who spent vast amounts of time overseas, a number of diplomats, other national security professionals, that less than 1% of the country carries the vast majority of the burden, the actual burden of the fighting. Whether it’s the literal kinetic fighting or the overseas deployments or the stresses of all the different counter-terrorism problems. And over time, I think that relieved too many of the rest of us Americans of our own responsibilities for some sense of sacrifice, even if it’s not necessarily putting on the uniform and deploying down range. But yeah, so over time I do think that became a pretty corrosive effect.

Rebecca Burgess:

Just to that point about the sense of terror that didn’t go away. I mean, October of 2001, there’s the DC shooter. There were, what, the two different planes that failed over New York, Manhattan, or that area, and people thought it was another attack. I mean, this all-

Will Inboden:

The impact that you mentioned, yeah, it was literally a terrifying time for the next year.

Rebecca Burgess:

And that movie, The Pitch, I’m pretty sure it’s called The Pitch, about Bush going out to Yankee Stadium and delivering the first pitch, which he gives a strike and he’s wearing body armor. And so one, I think it’s a beautiful little film, but it helps remind you about all of those different things. And how powerful and unifying that one moment was when President of the United States without fear walks onto baseballs, and everyone is back in the stadium and saying…

So the larger question I had is maybe a little more complicated or not. So about two years ago, the twentieth anniversary of September 11th, Law & Liberty that hosts this podcast, they do these things called forums every month. And they have one big essay, and then they invite people to respond. And they had a historian, William, I’m going to get his name wrong, William Anthony Hay, wrote the lead essay. And it was essentially saying that our decision to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq afterwards is the one reason why America isn’t prepared to deal with everything from China to Russia to all these things. So essentially it was a mistake. In my response I said, “I don’t believe that’s true. I think it showed for us once that we had to start taking foreign policy, national security things seriously again. That we had real enemies. That deterrence, by responding militarily, is a real thing, amongst these things.”

But I do have to ask and I do have to wonder, reading through this book and realizing where it ends and where we are today with China and Russia and things that seem to have been constantly in the subterranean ground, I guess, of post-Cold War. Simply we’re not taking care of or not paid attention to. Or maybe that’s our perception. Maybe they were, and maybe that’s what we can find in these transition memos. Is there a way while you’re working within an administration on these of-the-moment questions, like war, to also pay attention to these longer-term festers so that we don’t end up in 2023 with a near war, potentially on our hands with China and Russia, and Russia and Ukraine again? Or is it just simply that, as you mentioned, we can’t solve all foreign policy problems, sometimes we can just manage them and sometimes we don’t pay attention to them?

Will Inboden:

Yeah, it’s a great question. And I will try to give a balanced answer and I’ll try to keep it somewhat succinct so , we can go on for several more hours on this one. But I will say a few top-line points. First, after 9/11, Bush was absolutely correct to make stopping another terrorist attack his overriding priority, and everything else becomes secondary to that. It had to be that way. And we can be lulled into something of a false sense of security, and frankly, a false sense of history. If we look back, now almost 22 years later, as we’re here in 2023 and say, “Oh, well since there hasn’t been another large scale terrorist attack in the United States, therefore it wasn’t much of a threat.” No, that gets it completely wrong. A fundamental reason why there hasn’t been another large-scale terrorist attack in the United States is because of these strategies and doctrines and policies that Bush developed to stop one. Right?

And I’ll continue it out and give credit to the Obama administration or the Trump administration, now even the Biden administration. Every administration since then that has continued to do its part for counterterrorism. There are thousands of jihadist bad guys out there, who for the last 22 years up to now, would love nothing more than to pull off an even larger terrorist attack on the United States than 9/11. Right? So let us not be lulled into, again, like I said, a distorted sense of the threat or history, because we haven’t been attacked again.

Second point is during Bush’s first eight, nine months in office, so throughout most of 2001, before 9/11, it is not that Russia and China were significant threats to the United States at the time, and he started focusing on them, than 9/11 happens and he looked away from them. Rather, he inherited from the previous decade a very different set of challenges and strategic framework for both Russia and China. We’ll start with Russia first.

The Russia problem that Bush inherited was not a strong, aggressive Russia, it was a weak Russia that we worried was essentially a Somalia with nukes. Right? I mean, was a weak and failing state that still had this large nuclear arsenal, but otherwise was on the potential verge of state collapse. And so the challenge for American policy then was how can we help stabilize Russia. And then, in turn, not treat Russia like an enemy. Because if you treat them like an enemy, they’ll certainly become an enemy, but rather help integrate them into the international system and pursue a more constructive relationship with them.

Similarly with China. China wasn’t worried about it being a failed state at the time, but China was still much weaker and was still rising as an economy. And the hope and strategy was, all right, again, let’s treat them more as a friend and hope that they’ll act like a friend, and let’s support this integration of them into the international economic system and so on.

So that’s the strategy that Bush inherited from the Clinton administration. And that’s largely the framework he continued. He was a little more raucous towards China than Clinton had been. You mentioned his promised to defend Taiwan, the tensions over the Hainan Island’s spy plane. He called China more of a competitor than a cooperative relationship, things like that. And then of course, 9/11 happens. So those are the two parts where I’ll defend the Bush administration legacy.

Here’s where I’ll be more critical. And you can see this in some of the book as well. And hope our listeners haven’t given up on me yet. Right? I do think that by the second term, when I’m on the National Security Council staff, there is becoming more of what you might say, an internal debate within the administration about, “Huh, is China on a good path? Is Russia on a good path?” We still see some ways that the engagement strategy may be working, but we’re also seeing some worrisome signs. We’re seeing that China has becoming richer, but not more free. And that it’s putting a lot more money into its military. And that its military seems to be orienting towards the United States as its main threats, even though we didn’t want to be a threat to them.

With Russia, we are seeing that Putin was poisoning dissidents and cracking down on free press. And in 2007 in Munich, he makes some very over-the-top and deranged threats against the West. In 2008, he invades Georgia. And so by the second term, we start to see some initial signs that these two countries are potentially going on in a bad path, a more menacing one towards the United States and our allies.

Bush did some things to hedge. This is a big part of why we launched the strategic partnership with India, which I think is still paying dividends today, is to help balance or hedge against a rise in China that becomes more assertive. But I do think that, this is where I’ll be a little more self-critical of our legacy in the Bush administration, that we, two things, one did not become alert soon enough to just what bad paths Russia and China were going on. And second, even for those within the administration who did become more alert to those and were sounding some of the alarms, in 2007 and 2008, we were so focused on trying to salvage things in Iraq with a surge and seeing conditions deteriorate in Afghanistan, that that’s where significant resources and attention were being paid. And so I think we bear some responsibility there for being overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and less equipped, even if we realized Russia and China were starting to become more menacing to do more about it.

Rebecca Burgess:

I would say that was probably the most tantalizing way of telling our listeners that they need to buy this book and to read the individual memos. That they can come to some of these insights themselves. So once again, that is Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama. That’s Brookings Institution Press. And I would just say on a final, final note that your last remarks reminded me of the passage in Hobbes’ Leviathan, where he’s talking about the state of nature. And he does make a note that international relations or foreign policy as an arena, is an arena of the state of nature all the time.

And that it’s a little bit like, the best way to understand it is in terms of weather. It’s not that it is a rainy day, it’s a rainy climate. And there are showers and water droplets all the time in which you respond to or how big your umbrella is, is the question of statesmanship. That even in a democratic system, presidents who don’t have all the lovers of power in their hands, yet they still set the tone in so many ways for exactly how administration does that.

So this was a wonderful reminder of the complexities of foreign policy, in and of itself, but in democracies. And we are so privileged to have you, Will Inboden, who is the executive director of the Clement Center for National Security, join us on Liberty Law Talk today. Thank you for listening.

Will Inboden:

All right. Thank you very much.

Brian A. Smith:

Thank you for listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk. Be sure to follow us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please visit our journal at lawliberty.org.