Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

George Bush III

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on July 16, 2009
Former President Bush and newly-elected President Obama are more similar than many think

The Bush-Obama connection is stronger than most people think

On January 21, 2009, Americans across the country reflected on both the successes, and failures, of President George W. Bush’s administration.  While most Americans ostensibly perceived this day as a celebratory moment for the country’s first African-American president, others inside academic and policymaking circles labeled the inauguration as something much more than a transfer of executive power.  Rather than merely continuing a deeply-held Washington tradition- the president-elect standing beside the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, raising his right hand while repeating the words of the White House oath- the inauguration marked the first time in modern history that America’s foreign policy took on a drastically different face.  No other period in modern presidential history has the foreign-policy community witnessed such turbulence as in the two month period between November of 2008 and January of 2009.

So the common analyses goes, Washington under President Obama is now embracing a far more benign and friendly posture towards the world at large.  Military force is now being replaced by policies of mutual respect and unconditional dialogue.  Unquestioned support for Israel is now being confronted with a tone of neutrality towards Jerusalem and its continued fight against Islamic fundamentalists.  Rogue states, such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea, will now be dealt with in a calm and hopeful manner, absent the belligerent rhetoric that was so frequently used to describe the former president’s character.  The days of the American superpower engaging in crude and uncompromising behavior is now a figment of its history.  When taking all of these policy changes into perspective, Mr. Obama’s ascendance to the Oval Office is much more than a simple modification of personality…it is a new era that radically departs from President Bush and Vice President Cheney’s neoconservative logic.

While America’s pacifying shift in behavior towards global challenges certainly contrasts from the last eight years of Republican rule, a closer examination reveals surprising similarities between the unpopular predecessor and the current candidate of hope:

1)  Regime Change remains one of the most influential policy alternatives in the Washington establishment.  Throughout President Bush’s tenure in office, the former governor made it absolutely clear that the United States of America would confront any danger and/or threat with a coercive response.  After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this recommendation rose to a new apex in both Mr. Bush’s administration and the Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress.  No longer could Washington and its allies wait for another barbaric strike on American soil, either from Al’Qaeda or another like-minded group that aimed to destroy western hegemony.  Indiscriminate bloodshed, either at home or abroad, would no longer be tolerated.  Minimalistic air-strikes on individual terrorist camps, largely undertaken by President Clinton, would be overhauled by a more enduring shift in official U.S. policy.  States who both harbored terrorists and governments that promoted terrorism as a foreign-policy tool were seen as terrorists themselves…susceptible to military punishment.  Diplomacy, sanctions, multilateralism and formal international declarations were seen as hindrances to the U.S armed forces…an obstacle that the White House had the right to avoid in order to take necessary precautions against Islamic zealots.  The end result of this doctrine:  the forceful overthrow of the Taliban Regime in Afghanistan, and the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

President Obama in his first six months is no different than his predecessor.    While it is true that Mr. Obama recently flew to Cairo and pledged to the Muslim-world that “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on another,” he has failed to back up his statements with concrete actions.  Sure, the United States may be far less hostile to rogue nations (such as Iran and Syria) than under the Bush administration:  the fact that Mr. Obama has routinely stressed his desire to meet face-to-face with the Iranian leadership is an appropriate example of this behavioral adaptation.  However, there is no conclusive evidence that U.S. policy towards rogue nations in particular is taking on a more pragmatic nature.  There is a realistic possibility that Mr. Obama’s diplomatic overtures is simply a smokescreen for his true objective in the region… acknowledging, improving, and eventually maintaining Washington’s ties with pro-western Arab governments (specifically Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and now Iraq).

Other Points of Contention:

a)  The Bush and Obama administrations are virtually pursuing the same exact logic with respect to North Korea and its continued defiance against the United Nations.  In response to Kim Jon-il’s ballistic missile tests and nuclear proliferation, additional sanctions have been endorsed by both Washington and the U.N. Security Council… possibly in the hopes of further isolating the North from its only remaining ally, China.   Although far-fetched, one could also make the argument that the recent array of sanctions carries on Bush’s regime-change doctrine…either by fomenting unrest between Kim Jon-il and his people or by instigating a military coup by North Korea’s million-man army.

b)  President Obama has refused (to good avail) to take the military option off the table when dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.  Vowing to Israeli lobbyists that he will do everything in his power to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear capability, the Obama White House has wholeheartedly decided to continue George Bush’s dogma of preventive war.  Are we to believe that the president, if given the opportunity to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, would not capitalize a step further by decimating the Iranian leadership?  Surely, Americans are smarter than that.

c)  Even Syria, a country that the United States is wooing inch by inch, is experiencing an extension of the Bush doctrine.  Despite Mr. Obama’s talks of peace between the Americans and the Syrians, and despite  his  order to re-establish official diplomatic recognition between the two countries, the same economic sanctions originally formulated by President Bush have been renewed by Obama’s foreign-policy team.  If the president was indeed genuine in his calls for warming Washington-Damascus relations, why would he implement a package of punishments that could severely restrain the prospects for normalization?

2)  Hostility Towards Tehran:  Like President Bush, the current Commander-in-Chief is desperately trying to isolate and distance Iran from its Arab neighbors…for the sole purpose of promoting American and Israeli influence in the region.  The American plea for unconditional dialogue with the Syrians is not simply for dialogue’s sake:  the White House has a vested interest in persuading Mr. Assad to break his alliance with Tehran’s clerics.  While he may not be advocating an outright military invasion of Iran, President Obama is certainly not giving up on his desire to weaken the Persian power.  In effect, the Obama administration’s goal with respect to Iran is the same exact goal officials in the Bush White House wished to achieve.

By promising western investment, technology, and diplomatic normalization, the U.S.-Israel camp aims to cajole the Syrians away from the extensive arms of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  This strategy, while at first peaceful, has essentially the same effect as overthrowing the Islamic regime by force:  it discredits the legitimacy of Khamenei and his conservative allies.  What better way to expand American hegemony in the Middle East than to defeat one of your most principle adversaries?  Whether one supports Obama’s “re-alignment” design or Bush’s militaristic approach, the result is identical.  The United States is continuing to place all of their chips in one hand…betting that a friendly Middle East is dependent upon Iran’s demise.

3)  “The Surge” is transforming into one of President Obama’s most important policies in the War on Terror.  Just as President Bush ordered an additional 30,000 American soldiers on the streets of Baghdad to pacify the Iraqi civil-war, the Obama administration has ordered an increase in troop levels to salvage the U.S.-mission in Afghanistan.  The new “Af-Pak” counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. Defense Department released is heavily associated with Mr. Bush’s experiences in Iraq:  “clear, hold and build,” while American and coalition troops train home-grown forces to take primary responsibility for their own security.

As U.S. troop casualties’ rise to previously unforeseen levels in Afghanistan, it is conceivable that members of the press corps will exert great pressure on President Obama; questioning his very ability to bring victory closer to Afghanistan’s fragile environment.  Ironically, this is the same swath of criticism that President Bush was forced to endure when sectarian killings in Iraq were at an all-time high.  Who knows…if the violence level in Afghanistan resembles anything close to Iraq’s 2005-2007 civil war, Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy may be defined as a four-year stint that strove (with no great avail) to formulate a new chapter in American history.

All of these examples point to one overarching conclusion:  while different in some of their approaches, the status-quo in American foreign-policy remains embedded in the White House, Congress, the State Department, and the Defense Department.  Any attempt to distinguish Mr. Obama’s first six-months in office from Mr. Bush’s eight years would not only be premature…it would show the international community that a vast portion of the American electorate was dooped into believing a policy of “change.”

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor and Steven E. Miller of the International Security Program contributed to this blog.       

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