The iron fist failed. Then the velvet glove failed.
That's undoubtedly a simplistic verdict on the foreign policy records of the past two presidents, George W. ("iron fist") Bush and Barack ("velvet glove") Obama. But it now appears inevitable that the 2016 foreign policy debate will unfold against a widespread sense that America's world position eroded under both Bush's go-it-alone assertiveness and Obama's deliberative multilateralism. "There will be a groping on both sides toward a new synthesis," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.
Although Bush rallied the public with his resolute response to the September 11 attacks, disillusionment over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars undermined confidence in his foreign policy. Bush intended the Iraq invasion to convince rogue regimes that it was too costly to defy international standards. Instead, the chaotic aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall, combined with continuing instability in Afghanistan, convinced most Americans that we could not remake the world at an acceptable price. In a 2008 Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations poll, a resounding 71 percent said they believed global respect for America was declining.
In office, Obama extended, to an unexpected extent, Bush's policies aimed at terrorism (drone strikes, intrusive electronic surveillance). But in most ways, Obama has functioned internationally as the anti-Bush. Where Bush was quick to act, Obama has been painstaking. Where Bush was frequently accused of ignoring allies, Obama has consulted exhaustively.
Most important, where Bush launched a war of choice in Iraq, Obama has resisted not only military intervention but even lesser forms of involvement in crises such as Syria's. In his recent West Point commencement speech, Obama bookended Bush's ringing calls for spreading democracy with an alternative doctrine: "Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint," Obama declared, "but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences."
That sentiment actually aligns Obama with the public's post-Iraq mood: Polls consistently find most Americans opposed to involvement in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, or other hot spots now boiling over. But those blazes are simultaneously melting public confidence in Obama's management of global affairs. And in both parties, the same foreign policy leaders who judged Bush as too reckless now largely view Obama as too cautious. Thinkers in both parties echo Marshall when he says the president has overcorrected from Bush's course and "underestimated the cost of standing aloof from crises that get much worse" in places like Syria and Ukraine. In perfect symmetry, the latest Pew/CFR poll found last fall that after improving when Obama first took office, the share of Americans who believe the nation is losing respect internationally has almost spiked back to its Bush-era level.
All of the potential 2016 presidential contenders must navigate between this parallel disenchantment with both of their predecessors. Hillary Clinton began that process with her memoir Hard Choices, in which she signaled she would have been tougher than Obama on Syria and Russia—but also unambiguously renounced her support for the Iraq War. In balancing diplomacy and force, aspiration and restraint, Clinton seems determined to seek what one top Democratic security thinker calls "an intermediate point between Bush and Obama."
Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, meanwhile, are already channeling Ronald Reagan's arguments against Jimmy Carter by insisting that Obama has invited disorder by failing to provide "clear, decisive, and morally unambiguous American leadership." But Rubio (and like-minded Republicans) face a mountainous hurdle Reagan didn't: Many Americans now equate that brand of leadership with the discredited Iraq War. For that reason, Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on Bush's National Security Council, says Republicans ultimately can't sell a more assertive approach than Obama's without reversing the widespread conclusion that Iraq was a historic blunder. "You have to make the argument that sins of omission can be as bad or worse than sins of commission," Feaver says.
Even hawkish Republicans may balk at that mission. Just defending Iraq inside the GOP could be tough enough. Likely 2016 contender Rand Paul is building the most forceful challenge to Republican internationalism since Sen. Robert Taft in the 1950s. Paul blames today's Mideast turmoil on mistakes by both Bush and Obama ("both sides," the Senator insists, "continue to get foreign policy wrong"), and pledges an isolationist-tinged foreign policy that "puts America first."
For all the consternation, Bush and Obama (so far) have each achieved their single highest goal of preventing another major terrorist attack on the homeland. But after the two men's utterly antithetical foreign policy approaches produced so many other disappointments, the hard question is whether any strategy can meaningfully increase America's ability to shape global events.
In a "rise of the rest" world of diffusing power, every future U.S. president may need to blend cooperation and confrontation with chastened expectations.
This article appears in the July 26, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as World of Hurt.