Jonathan Rauch wants to make the case that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is in the old Republican mold of, say, George H.W. Bush. Yet key points Rauch argues actually place Obama closer to the other Bush. Obama can as much take credit for “ending two wars” — yes, Rauch really says that — as Dubya could claim “mission accomplished.”
“He has closed out the war in Iraq on acceptable terms. He is on course to do the same thing in Afghanistan.” Actually, the terms of closing out the war in Iraq were those set by Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister who refused the terms Obama was offering, which would have kept a larger U.S. presence in the country longer. Maliki ended the war in the face of Obama’s desire to continue it. As for Afghanistan, what can anyone think is going to be achieved by 2014 that hasn’t been achieved in the last 11 years? Is 13 the magic number for how many years it takes to establish democracy and human rights in the Hindu Kush?
Here too the parallels to Bush II are most striking: like his Republican predecessor, Obama used a “surge” of troops to bolster the public-relations campaign for the war. And like Bush, Obama finds himself unable to communicate a clear exit strategy – emphasis on “strategy.”
No, there was no realistic chance that Obama was going to get out of Afghanistan overnight — of course not. But there’s no use in pretending that he’s markedly different from George W. Bush in his endgame, or lack thereof. Unlike Bush, he didn’t start these two wars, but he’s no better when it comes to ending them.
On “prosecuting the war on terror,” Rauch is frank about the continuity between the present Democratic and previous Republican administrations: “Obama has been so successful at continuing and refining the most effective elements of Bush’s counterterrorism policy, while taming its provocative excesses, that Republicans don’t even want to raise the issue.”
Try a thought experiment: if it were the case — as it in fact is — that Obama were also “continuing and refining” the “provocative excesses” of Bush, would the Republicans be complaining? A party doesn’t have to switch to the opposite side of a controversy just because its rival chooses to adopt its policy. And in matters such as drone warfare, Obama has certainly gone farther than Bush. How far would he have to go for his policy to qualify as a “provocative excess”?
On other points, particularly “stabilizing relations” with Russia and China, Rauch is on firmer ground, though even here what’s most remarkable is not Obama’s resemblance to the old guard GOP but the post-Bush GOP’s blazing inanity. (Think McCain’s “We are all Georgians now” and Romney’s China-baiting.) Even George W. sounds sober in comparison to McRomney.
Further scrutiny of Rauch’s summary case is in order:
Obama’s realism, like that of Ike and Bush 41 holds that American strength and international cooperation both have their place, but that peace comes from equilibrium between contending forces. To realists, power may not be admirable, but it must always be dealt with; and, in dealing with it, conserving and effectively deploying America’s power, a scarce and precious commodity, is Priority One, for it is the commodity upon which human rights and U.S. hegemony alike ultimately depend.
There’s an important difference here between Obama and Republicans like Eisenhower, Nixon (conspicuously absent from Rauch’s piece), and Bush I. Unlike those Republicans, Obama is not a strategist: his foreign-policy is not realist but merely ad hoc. Realists have to respond to changing circumstances, certainly, but they also have some broad idea of how the country should be positioned in the world and what steps must be taken to get there — how diplomacy, military power, and global economics fit together. The Cold War was all about that, of course, as was George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order.” (See Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy for the grim details.)
George H.W. Bush’s strategy avoided the retrenchment the U.S. should have undertaken after the Cold War, and in fact Bush tried to extend U.S. hegemony, with disastrous consequences for Iraq — whose people suffered under sanctions even as Saddam remained secure in power — and for the U.S. itself, which suffered terrorist blowback. Compared to that, it might seem better not to have a strategy at all. But in failing to give clear direction to American foreign policy, Obama defaults to positions staked by hegemonists and ideologues in earlier administrations. He follows when, after the calamitous leadership of the Bush years, he should be setting another direction altogether. His failure of nerve in this regard not only means the continuation of the last administration’s policies, including its “provocative excesses,” but leaves a strategic vacuum that will be filled by enterprising ideologues sooner or later: if not by Romney’s camorra this year, then by some other Republican’s, or Democrat’s, in a few years’ time.