Why Obama's Foreign Policy Looks So Much Like Bush's

Thanks to the U.S. constitution and political realities, mercifully we will never know what a third Bush term would have looked like.  But judging from the last year of the Bush administration, it’s possible to have some sense of what Bush would have done if he had stayed in office beyond January 2009.  It’s not hard to imagine that Bush would have committed to gradual rather than complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and an increased effort — Bush might have used the term “surge” — in Afghanistan.  A Bush-Medvedev summit in 2009 might well have resulted in a moderate commitment to reducing nuclear weapons; words, but no action, on democracy and the superiority of the American system to the Russian one; and an agreement to disagree about issues such as NATO expansion and Georgia.

And yet the policies outlined above are essentially those that the Obama administration has also pursued. So far, Obama’s foreign policy, at least on some issues, does not look all that different from the last two years of the Bush administration.  Even Obama’s Cairo speech touched on several points — including the religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims in the US, assertions that the US is not at war with Islam, pledges of US support for Israel, calls to end terrorism, the assertion that Islam is largely a peaceful religion but for a few extremist elements, and tributes to the history and culture of the Islamic world -— that would not have sounded out of place coming from George Bush.

In fairness, though, Obama’s foreign policy looks dramatically different from the blustery, militaristic, and oddly moralistic foreign policy of the Bush administration from the period beginning on September 11th, 2001 and ending with the defeat of the Republicans in the midterm elections of 2006.

The 2006 defeat and subsequent adjustment of both the policies and personnel of the Bush administration, most clearly seen in the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld with Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense, meant the end of the neoconservative experiment and a return to a reasonably traditional approach to foreign policy.  In many ways, then, the job of cleaning up the disaster of the middle years of the Bush administration actually began during the last part of the administration, before Obama even took office.

There certainly are some issues where the Obama administration has differed sharply from its predecessor.  It is hard to imagine President Bush pressuring Israel to stop settlements in the West Bank or resisting the seductive but counterproductive urge to take a visible, strong stance against the Iranian government during the demonstrations last month.  Obama has also shown a commitment to a science-based approach to addressing climate change not shared by the Bush administration, to say the least.

And yet the similarities between the two administrations, particularly on Iraq and AfPak, are too strong to be ignored.

There are two explanations.

First is that the last two years of the Bush administration were already something of a correction of the middle four — a point overlooked during the campaign because John McCain positioned himself as a continuation of the worst parts of Bush’s foreign policy.  McCain’s inability to see anything but good news or to understand that the U. S. could sometimes be wrong, as well as his tendency to reduce complicated issues to overly simple questions of good/evil and right/wrong, were reminiscent of the worst of the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Cheney approach of the Bush years and made candidate McCain the last relevant neoconservative hawk in Washington. The result was that by late 2008, Obama and Bush were more similar on many foreign policy issues than Bush and McCain were.

The other reason is that America’s policy options are more limited than we would like. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. could either call for a pullout and cut troop levels, as the Obama administration has done, or announce that we were staying, though with fewer troops, as the Bush administration would have.  That these two options, of course, are pretty much exactly the same is a reflection of how narrow the range of choices actually are.

What we’ll be seeing is that the major differences between Obama and Bush will be in the margins and all about context.  Though Obama’s Cairo speech touched on many of the same points Bush often raised when addressing Muslims, they sounded dramatically different coming from Obama.  Similarly, though Obama’s recent statements on Georgian sovereignty were as strong as anything Bush (although perhaps not McCain) has ever said, coming from Obama, they were not perceived by Russia as being as confrontational.

Truly transformative foreign policy cannot rely entirely on margins and on context, and it’s ironic that the U.S. finds itself with such a limited range of options in an era of soft, even smart, power.  Soft power and smart power are not enough on their own.  Having a range of incentives, development programs, trade agreements, and security deals is only valuable if they are part of a broader strategic approach.  It is not enough to have smart power; it must be used smartly.  This is the real challenge the Obama administration now faces in many regions of the world.