Has Barack Obama become George W. Bush on foreign policy? If the
president doesn't catch a break on Libya, he may well be on a
glide path to regime change, in yet another indication of how similar
he's become to a president whose policies he wanted to avoid.
Of all the influences on a president's foreign policy, sometimes none
can be greater than the legacy left by his predecessor. Given our
tendency to personalize the presidency, we often believe that
presidents create their own roles; but as Faulkner wrote in Requiem
for a Nun "the past is never over; it's not even past."
Nowhere is this clearer than in Barack Obama's swift conversion to
many of the policies of George W. Bush. A president who was determined
to stand at the antipodes, literally at the other end of the foreign
policy universe from his predecessor, has in the last two years moved
into very close proximity to him on some key issues.
There are fundamental differences to be sure: the president's
tendencies to engage; to work multilaterally; to be contrite about
American power; to see the world not as black or white, but in gray,
the color of diplomacy. But on key issues--Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan,
Guantanamo, Arab-Israeli peacemaking--there's also great continuity.
And in one of the greatest potential ironies of all, Obama could be
heading for Bush 43 redux on getting rid of Gaddafi.
Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. A self-styled
transformative president was determined to transform American policy
and lead it out of the wilderness created by his predecessor. No more
wars of choice. No more Guantanamo. No more constitutional abuses in
the name of America's national security. America was going to listen
to the world--even act contritely--because according to some around the
president, we had much to be contrite about and even to apologize for.
After all, President Obama's emergence symbolized a new page and
chapter in America's relationship with the world. Granting him the
Nobel Peace Prize symbolized the transition. The Europeans, at least,
were eager to accelerate the change. Whatever else the Nobel Prize
meant for a president who had yet to earn it, it clearly said,
"Goodbye and good riddance, George W. Bush; hello Barack Obama, we're
sure glad to see you."
And in many respects, the President moved to be (and was) different.
Engagement was in the air; multilateralism was reborn. Commitment to
resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a key priority and pressure
on Israel's settlement policy promised a different approach. And the
world liked what it saw--an American president who seemed sensitive to
the fact that foreign policy was a two-way street.
But the contrast seemed overtaken by the continuity. On Iran, the
olive branch turned into a stick; and the president was even tougher
on his sanctions policy than his predecessor. On Afghanistan, the good
war, the president doubled down. On Iraq, the bad war, he followed a
script that would have made John McCain proud; on Israel, despite his
toughness, he folded when Netanyahu said no and seemed adrift without
a strategy, bringing him into line with the policies of his
predecessor. And in the war against terror (renamed) and on
Guantanamo, he succumbed to post-9/11 realities.
In the end, the president's conversion was less a matter of being
trapped by the legacy of his predecessor's polices and more by what he
came himself to believe were the right policies in a cruel and
unforgiving world. Perhaps as a young, untested Democratic president,
he had to demonstrate toughness, particularly on Afghanistan. But
Barack Obama's decisions were not driven primarily by knee-jerk
analysis or domestic politics. He reasoned them out for himself and
rationalized them in a way that was consistent with American national
And now, in perhaps the cruelest irony of all, the president has
reluctantly embraced a more activist version of the Freedom Agenda.
This was not his intention or inclination. From the beginning, the
president had been suspicious and wary of his predecessor's commitment
to exporting American exceptionalism, particularly in the Arab world.
Over the last two years, he downplayed it in favor of a more realistic
approach based on his need for Egyptian and Saudi cooperation on other
matters, including the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The sudden onset of the Arab Spring and Winter in Egypt and Tunisia
dragged him in. Potentially transformative politicians cannot simply
stand back in response to transformative events. The President's
response to the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia was quite
appropriate--words rather than deeds, with America largely in support
from the sidelines.
And in response to the Arab Winter in Libya, he has sought to put his
own unique signature on America's policy. Faced with a humanitarian
crisis in Benghazi, instead of acting unilaterally he helped assemble
a coalition around the UN Security Council Resolution, support from
NATO, and the Arab League. But in doing so he may well have trapped
himself and opened the door to moving closer toward his predecessor's
policy on regime change.
The president's stated goal in Libya--protection of civilians--cannot be
achieved without meeting his unstated goal--the defeat of Gaddafi or
his ouster from Libya. Libya is not Iraq. But without a lucky break
and the fracturing of the Gaddafi regime, the president and his
coalition of the willing may well have to move toward a more
aggressive military response to remove Gaddafi. No American boots on
the ground to be sure, but perhaps somebody's.
There is no Obama Doctrine. And that's fortunate because the last
thing we need to do is to set a principle of intervention in Libya.
Still, in the end, the President may well be forced to contradict his
own opposition to regime change laid out in his National Defense University speech and embrace
a key tenet of a president he did not want to become.