The Parallel Failures of Obama’s and Bush’s Foreign Policy Doctrines

What comes after the parallel failures of Bush’s and Obama’s antithetical foreign policy doctrines?

Left- U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during the signing ceremony of a new Medicare legislation December 8, 2003 at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. President Bush signed into law a new $400 billion Medicare plan that adds prescription drug coverage to America's seniors.   Right- In this handout from the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai from his vehicle outside the Jane E. Lawton Community Center March 11, 2012 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. According to reports March 15, 2012,  Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants Afghan forces to take over a year earlier in 2013 and wants U.S.  troops to pull out of villages after a U.S. soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians.  
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.”

(Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages, left; Pete Souza/White House Photo, right)

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.

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