That’s not change, it’s more of the same
By Christian Brose There’s a couple of good pieces recently about how Obama isn’t delivering his much-promised change, but rather "more of the same." Jackson Diehl had one take this weekend on styles of leadership. And Bob Kagan has a similar take today when it comes to foreign policy. I’m happy to see that commentators are coming around to ...
By Christian Brose
By Christian Brose
There’s a couple of good pieces recently about how Obama isn’t delivering his much-promised change, but rather "more of the same." Jackson Diehl had one take this weekend on styles of leadership. And Bob Kagan has a similar take today when it comes to foreign policy. I’m happy to see that commentators are coming around to this argument, which I published three months ago. Heck, Diehl even swiped the title of my article: "George W. Obama." I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
I recount this not to claim credit (well, maybe a little…), but rather as a way in to talk about this interesting reported piece by Spencer Ackerman on the state of conservative foreign policy debate. It’s not spoiling anything to say that the article’s conclusion is that the right is adrift. As you’ll see, I offered Spencer my two cents on the record, but even despite that, his article is worth pondering.
Here’s the lede:
During his first 45 days in office, President Obama has made several sharp departures from the foreign policies of the Bush administration that were shaped in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama has announced a timetable for staggered withdrawal from Iraq. He has ordered 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and engaged in a wide-ranging review of U.S. war aims. And he has begun exploring direct negotiations with the Iranian government.
And the response from the conservative movement and the Republican Party — which turned or sought to turn every election after 9/11 into a referendum on foreign policy and national security — has largely been either silence or agreement.
Now, if this is evidence of a "sharp departure", then I think Democrats have more to answer for than Republicans. As I see it, Obama is simply taking the next logical step on Iraq that was made possible by the surge and the Status of Forces Agreement. It remains to be seen where he’ll end up on Afghanistan, but it’ll likely be a better-resourced version of the strategy the Bush administration pursued at one time (2003-05) and realized it had to recapture by 2008. And on Iran, Obama seems to have adopted Bush’s sticks-and-carrots approach, just with the possibility of more carrots. For that to work, though, Obama will need more sticks, and as Kristen Silverberg has argued, he’s missing his window to get them.
If this is change, then conservatives should be feeling pretty good. Of course there are things to disagree with, and readers of this blog will know them well. But those disagreements look pretty tactical to me. Should we make a deal with Russia on Iran and missile defense? Should we continue to support representative government for Afghanistan? How might we have cast our Iraq withdrawal differently? All important questions, but not exactly differences of grand strategy. At this point at least, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, on foreign policy, the Obama administration is shaping up to look a whole lot like the third term of George W. Bush.
Spencer’s article suggests that the "Republican consensus" on foreign policy has collapsed, and that the most energetic debates are now occurring on the left. I think this gets it almost backwards. There never was anything remotely like a foreign policy consensus on the right. The debates between neo-cons and realists, unilateralists and multilateralists, retrenchers and interveners, or myriad others are old and unresolved. This was true throughout the Bush administration, and it’s still true today.
As for debates on the left, they’re certainly vibrant, but do they actually change anything? I don’t see much evidence that Democrats are not still following the lead of Republicans on foreign policy and national security, just as they largely have for eight years now. For better or for worse, Democrats did not put forward some appealing, realistic alternative to Bush’s first term foreign policies. And then, when many of those first-term policies began proving untenable or just plain counterproductive, it was largely the Bush administration that corrected itself during its second term. And now, after much talk of alternative worldviews and strategies over the past four years, the Democrats are finally back in power, and what are they doing? Basically continuing with the shifted course that Bush charted in his second term — with a few changes here and there that are neither broadly strategic nor utterly disagreeable (for now, that is).
Indeed, it might even be asked whether U.S. foreign policy as it is now conceived and practiced is almost entirely the product of the lessons the Bush administration learned from its own successes and screw-ups.
As for what comes next, I hope this blog can help figure that out. Because even if I am correct, and Bush’s foreign policy circa 2008 was right for that time and the present one, it won’t always be that way. And as I see it, the biggest challenge for thinking about foreign policy when you’re not actually making it is that you become unhinged from reality and live only in the past. You assume the world and its challenges are the same as they were the last time you were in power. (See Clinton 1993 and Bush 2001.) That’s a mistake Republicans must avoid, even as they point out, rightly, how little Obama is actually changing the foreign policy he inherited.
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