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Is Barack Obama a Republican Realist?

His foreign policy recalls George H.W. Bush—and his domestic policy could be Ike's or Nixon's.
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During the 2012 presidential campaign some of my libertarian friends would revert to the following talking-point: there is really no major difference between the foreign-policy agendas of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Obama has proved to be very different in his diplomacy and national security from the kind of peacenik he was portrayed as during his 2008 run for the White House, with the surge in Afghanistan, confrontation with Iran, military intervention in Libya, failure to challenge Israel, etc.

The bottom line was that Obama and Romney were supposedly cut from the same foreign-policy cloth, with both supporting an interventionist military approach in the Middle East and elsewhere. Therefore libertarians and conservatives who were critical of the neoconservative policies that had been promoted by President George W. Bush should not be fooled in the way some of them were in 2008 and should refrain from casting their ballot for Obama.

In fact, in advancing this Obama-and-Romney-are-foreign-policy-twins narrative, Republicans urged libertarians to vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket. The two Republicans were, after all, advocating more free-market oriented economic policies than the Democratic White House occupant. Many libertarians did that, or supported the presidential candidacy of Gary Johnson.

In retrospect, my personal decision to vote for Obama (which was denounced at the time) makes even more sense to me today, following Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel as his Defense Secretary than it did last November.

Consider this post-Romney victory counterfactual: president-elect Romney nominates John Bolton as his next Secretary of State (after the neocons veto his first choice, Bob Zoellick) and Joe Lieberman as his Pentagon chief (with the Democrats less hostile to this “bipartisan” nominee than the Republicans are in their opposition to the selection of Hagel).

And by the way, the budget deals negotiated between the Romney White House and Congress look not very different from those approved by Congress under Obama.

The point is that American presidents make a difference on issues of war and peace, while they have much less influence on economic and domestic policies. W. could force Congress and the American people into Iraq. He could not force them into privatizing Social Security.

But let me make one thing clear. I voted for Obama in order to deprive Romney and the members of his foreign policy clique from getting us into new military adventures and quagmires that would have made the invasion of Iraq look like a picnic on the shores of the Euphrates. It was either Romney or Obama (and I consider voting for a third-party presidential candidate a form of electoral masturbation: momentarily gratifying but not the real thing).

At the same time, I never considered Obama to be a non-interventionist or a member of the peace movement. In fact, both in terms of his public statements and policies, Obama reminded me of President George H.W. Bush and his top “realist” foreign-policy advisors James Baker and Brent Scrowcroft: favoring pragmatism and a muddling-through approach over the pursuit of grand designs and ideological crusades; selective and preferring short military engagements over full-blown wars; Teddy Roosevelt over Woodrow Wilson.

Indeed, much of Obama’s cautious response to the so-called “Arab Spring” recalled Bush I’s efforts to deal with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. And the decision to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait but not to invade Iraq provided a clear contrast between Bush I’s Realpolitik and the messianic foreign policy of Bush II. From that perspective, Obama’s leading-from-behind in Libya, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, coupled with the acceleration of the military withdrawal from Iraq (and apparently from Afghanistan), are pure Bush I, which explains why many neocons hated Papa Bush with the same intensity with which they now despise Obama.

My more noninterventionist approach explained why I opposed the first Gulf War and the American invasion of Panama, although I applauded the reluctance by Bush I to intervene in the evolving civil war in the former Yugoslavia and his pressure on the then Likud government of Israel to halt the settlements buildup in the West Bank. I wish the father and not the son would have been occupying the White House after 9/11.

With the selection of Republican Hagel, an intellectual heir to the Baker-Scrowcroft Realpolitik tradition, Obama has taken a major step toward transforming his presidency into a replica of the administration of George H.W. Bush, at least when it comes to foreign policy.

In a way, much of what Obama has been advocating on domestic policy is not very different from what a Bush I administration (or Nixon, Ford or Eisenhower) would be doing, ranging from raising taxes, reforming immigration policy, or protecting the environment. Obama, in short, is not a socialist or a even a social-democrat, just a good old centrist Republican.

Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.