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Published on: May 19, 2011
Obama Embraces His Inner Bush

President Obama’s speech to State Department employees today was billed as a major address on recasting American foreign policy in the Middle East. It lived up to its billing.  President Obama has deep-sixed the ‘realism’ that marked the first two years of his approach to the Middle East.  He has returned to the foreign policy […]

President Obama’s speech to State Department employees today was billed as a major address on recasting American foreign policy in the Middle East.

It lived up to its billing.  President Obama has deep-sixed the ‘realism’ that marked the first two years of his approach to the Middle East.  He has returned to the foreign policy of George W. Bush.

George Bush and Barack Obama in the Oval Office (Wikimedia)

The United States is no longer, the President told us in words he could have borrowed from his predecessor, a status quo power in the Middle East.  The realist course of cooperating with oppressive regimes in a quest for international calm is a dead end.  It breeds toxic resentment against the United States; it stores up fuel for an inevitable conflagration when the oppressors weaken; it stokes anti-Israel resentment when hatred of Israel becomes the only form of political activism open to ordinary people; it strengthens the hold of extremist religion and strangles the growth of liberal forces.

More, he attacked Iran.  All that talk about avoiding polarization with Iran is gone.  Instead, President Obama singled out Iran as an oppressive, tyrannical regime supporting terror and running an “illicit nuclear program” as well.

He also followed Bush in attacking some US allies, calling on Bahrain and Yemen to make changes.  It was a speech that enraged almost every powerful actor in the Middle East and put America out on a limb.  Like Bush, Obama is willing to confront some of America’s closest allies (the Saudis, who back the crackdown in Bahrain).  Like Bush, he hailed Iraq as an example of democracy and pluralism that can play a vital role in the transformation of the region. Like Bush, he proposes to work with opposition groups in friendly countries.

His policy on Israel-Palestine is also looking Bushesque.  Like Bush, he wants a sovereign but demilitarized Palestinian state.  Like Bush, he believes that the 1967 lines with minor and mutually agreed changes should be the basis for the permanent boundaries between the two countries — and like Bush he set Jerusalem and the refugees to one side.

The President is nailing his colors to the mast of the Anglo-American revolutionary tradition.  Open societies, open economies, religious freedom, minority rights: these are revolutionary ideas in much of the world.  Americans have often been globally isolated as we stand for the rights of ordinary people (like immigrant African chambermaids in New York hotels) against the privilege of elites.  A faith in the capacity of the common woman and the common man to make good decisions (and in their right to make those decisions even if they are sometimes wrong) is the basis of America’s political faith; President Obama proclaimed today that this needs to be the basis of our policy in the Middle East.

In Power, Terror, Peace, and War, I wrote that the Bush administration had articulated a post 9/11 national strategy for the United States that was not only right, it was inescapable.  But the Bush administration’s tactical errors and profoundly wrongheaded public diplomacy undermined support for those policies at home and abroad.

President Obama has long hesitated between the idea that Bush had the wrong strategy and the idea that the strategy was sound but that the tactics and presentation was poor.  He seems now to have come down firmly on the side of the core elements of the Bush strategy.  This frankly is more or less where I thought he would end up; American interests, American values and the state of the region don’t actually leave us that many alternatives.

The question President Obama — and we — now face is whether he can advance this strategy more effectively than President Bush did.  I very much hope so, but the obstacles are high.  President Obama offended and annoyed virtually every important leader in the Middle East during his short speech.  Some of the objectives he outlined (in particular, for successful economic development in Egypt) are horribly difficult to achieve.  Our open enemies and many of our so-called ‘friends’ in the region will be working to foil our plans.  One of the President’s assets, his relative popularity in the Arab world, is in free-fall as the latest Pew Survey reveals.

President Bush was and President Obama is, I believe, right to proclaim that history, even in the Middle East, is on America’s side.  But history doesn’t always move on America’s timetable.

Obama & Bush combined
show comments
  • Btesh

    [vulgar expression suggestive of contemptuous dismissal deleted –ed]

  • jkljkljkl

    Look on the bright side. At least he’s alienating Israel! That’s a change.

    And, as you’ve pointed out in previous columns, nothing makes a middle east peace deal LESS likely than positioning America firmly in the Palestinian camp. They saw little reason to come to the negotiating table before… why should they engage in talks now, when the US is giving them everything they want for free?

    As for the rest, the US position for the past two years makes President Obama’s belated support for the Arab Spring seem like a transparent attempt to get out in front of events which have spiraled out of his control.

    President Obama is looking more and more like Louis Napoleon– trapped between conflicting ideals, confusing rhetoric for action, and dangerously out of his depth. In short, a dilettante.

  • Brett

    Vulgar expression suggestive of contemptuous dismissal.

    Ditto that.

  • S P Dudley

    Actually I think Obama’s turn of policy is a very good thing for the USA, as it means that we’re getting much closer on a consensus on foreign policy again and not the sharply divided views we’ve had since Vietnam. It’s true that he’s close the gap between the Bush and his own earlier policies, but there’s still bones that he throws out to the left (such as Palestinian statehood, like he did today).

    BHO’s problem, however, is that as a personality he’s far too analytical and calculating and he’s truly not the bold visionary he was billed as during the ’08 elections. Upon realizing that the idealistic plans for world peace disintegrated upon contact with reality after his election, he’s fallen back on established policy from his predecessor (and one could argue that Bush himself fell back on Clinton’s policies in several cases).

    While his motivations might be political, the effect is to help create a bi-partisan foreign policy. Add to that the continuation of Gates as SecDef for the last three years and not the radical military cutbacks that were projected at the beginning of his term, and you can see the formation of a unified security policy among the more serious leaders of both the Democrats and Republicans.

    Despite this, I do still see that Obama has a big problem with the “3AM call” scenario, as he doesn’t react quickly or well to rapid developments, and now with today’s speech what response he gives is often schizophrenic and way too late to be truly meaningful. Our more perceptive opponents will see this as a point of weakness that can be exploited and they would be right.

  • http://Paterzplace.blogspot.com DonM

    Bush’s policies were not the best policies possible. They were the only policies possible.

  • MaxMBJ

    Liberalism in all its form is officially dead. Strauss-Kahn has unveiled the ugly demon underlying socialism, Obama has unveiled the vacuity underlying, well, Obamaism. There is no liberal voice left, at least none worth noting.

    Fukuyama got it right: the sexy part of human history is over. It’s now an actuary’s game of nudging the tax rate this way a few degrees, then that.

    May all the starry-eyed idealists that swooned in Grant Park avoid the sad fate of most reality-encountering idealists: cynicism. It is what it is, folks. Dig it.

  • teapartydoc

    The very sameness that some have found comfort in disturbs me. Those who have said in the past that it doesn’t really matter whether you vote for a Republican or a Democrat have been proven largely correct. We have an establishment that maintains a status quo that is increasingly sclerotic and incapable of creative adaptation. Its options and modes of thinking are static. We have a good basic Constitution that is ignored in the same basic ways by all of our leaders and even more so by the unanswerable elites that run our government institutions. We may as well be living under an absolute monarchy, because all of the ingredients are in place. Where’s Marc Antony when you need him?

  • Peter

    Bush and Obamba, Tweedledee and Tweedledum –both are of the elite and ready to sellout out U.S. sovereignty (especially Obama) and squander U.S. taxpayer money in hell holes around the world just for the sake of them looking important.

  • Andrew in Toronto

    Abbas is also hailing Obama on this. [Link to Weasel Zippers]
    http://tinyurl.com/3lqmjkn

    As is one of his lieutenants who praises this step forward to a “final solution on the core issues according to an agreed timetable.”

  • kevino

    RE: ” The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

    Why? Other than tempting the Palestinians to return to negotiations with a huge prize, why does resetting the borders to 1967 make any sense to anyone? The population of Israel hasn’t changed since 1967? The PLO, hiding under the protection of Jordan, repeatedly attacked Israel, and both parties succeeded in getting Egypt involved. The rest is history. Mess with the bull, get the horns.

    Having lost, the Palestinians want a mulligan for the Six-Day War.

    RE: “The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

    And what if they use their right to govern themselves to decide to attack Israel? What if their potential is to tunnel into Israel and blow up innocent people?

    This speech by President Obama is the same speech given by several past Presidents: it starts with flowery talk about the future, and it winds up with a plan for peace that starts with Israel giving up territory in exchange for vague promises for peace — promises that have been continually broken by the Palestinians.

    Obama is like President Bush? Yes, and this program is also similar to President Carter and Clinton.

  • Luke Lea

    On the road, but I thought it was a good speech. Maybe the best he as given.

  • nadine

    There was nothing Bushesque about Obama’s pronouncements on Israel today. Nothing.

    Obama thinks there is, but that’s because he is too ignorant, ideological, and just plain dumb to know what he is saying about Israel/Pal. Recall, if you will, his 2008 endorsement of a united Jerusalem, only to retract the statement the following day when his aides informed him what his words actually meant.

    Today Obama stuck to his core policy of appeasement — if the Palestinians have spent two years refusing to do ANYTHING you have asked them for, and have just formed a unity agreement with a terrorist organization, Hamas, why then, it’s time to hand them another big concession — here, have the 1967 borders for free!

    Man, that’ll bring them them to the negotiating table, huh? Not hardly. It will bring them to the UN in September to claim an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza WITHOUT negotiations, renunciation of terror, or recognition of Israel’s right to exist. And it will give permission to all of Europe to vote ‘yes’ on it.

    If Obama really hates Israel, he knows what he just did. But I suspect he is too stupid to understand it, and will be surprised at the outrage he has generated in Israel and in the US Congress. Does he even comprehend that he is asking Israel to take existential risks based on US promises of support, when he himself has reneged on all previous US administrations’ promises of support?

    Re: “vulgar expression suggestive of contemptuous dismissal” May I second the motion?

  • John

    Vulgar expression suggestive of contemptuous dismissal.

    Double Ditto that.

  • S. Clark

    “Like Bush, he wants a sovereign but demilitarized Palestinian state. Like Bush, he believes that the 1967 lines with minor and mutually agreed changes should be the basis for the permanent boundaries between the two countries — and like Bush he set Jerusalem and the refugees to one side.”

    And this is why the Obama administration will be as successful as all prior administrations in resolving the dispute.

    Until the US and other powerful actors take a clear public stand on the issue of refugees, the “right of return”, with which Israel can agree the conflict will drag on indefinitely. This is an existential issue whose solution can only be imposed and since a solution being imposed that leads to the extinction of Israel as a Jewish state seems unlikely, a solution if one exists will be imposed on the Palestinians.

    If the years since ’48 have taught anything it ought to be that the Palestinans can not be expected to concede the “right of return” to the Israelis except under duress from more than the Israelis and Americans. Until America and Europe expend the capital, concrete and political, necessary to bring this about nothing will change except the faces.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I think that two points you mentioned in an earlier article “that some solution to the refugee problem must be addressed” and “that unless Israel can trust the US they will dig in their heels and won’t negotiate” have both been lost. Israel isn’t going to trust Obama at all after this latest 1967 border position, any more than they obeyed his order to stop building new settlements. And as far as I can see, Obama has accepted the “right of return” implicitly.
    You can never give Barbarians tribute, as there isn’t enough gold in the world to satisfy them. The Palestinians and the Arabs in general are all Barbarians, and can’t be placated for more than a moment.

  • Haim

    1967 borders? Like Bush?? Are you kidding???

  • FlashHarry

    Any consideration of the current president should begin with an understanding of the fact that virtually the entire paper trail of his existence has never been released or allowed to be subjected to any sort of scrutiny.

    Barack Obama was presented in 2008 as a brilliant intellectual with stellar Ivy League credentials whose cool low key style would transform the culture of Washington, leading America into a new harmonious postracial era with an administration of great transparency, all while achieving miracles of bipartisan cooperation.

    Hope and Change, remember?

    It has become quite apparent to rational people of all political persuasions how that ridiculously naive wishful fantasy has really played out.

    There exists a widespread and growing international speculation that an objective examination of Obama’s extensive hidden paper trail would clearly reveal that his meteoric rise up the educational and career ladders was largely the result of multiple affirmative action preferences and an adoring uncritical mainstream media, and that his vaunted intellect was greatly exaggerated.

    In short, Barack Obama is just another left-posing big city machine politician, one with more than a touch of narcissism and a proven record of ruthless self-serving dealmaking, who has amply demonstrated his allegiance to powerful corporate and financial interests.

    Obama and his handlers were able to hide his past and explain away and minimize his relationships with highly controversial individuals and groups during their 2008 campaign.

    Will they be able to effectively repeat this deception between now and 6 November 2012?

    Only if you let them.

  • ARH

    Why do we all equate the United States foreign policy apparatus with a pair of roller blades; something a new President can strap on in an instant and begin racing around as he wishes? At best, the foreign policy machine is a massive cargo ship with a tiny rudder that the President uses to shift the angle of progression. One of the most important, but least discussed parts of statecraft is the relationship between an administration’s priorities, and the institutional inertia of the bureaucracy tasked with executing them.

    Liberals who thought Obama would make massive adjustments to existing policy, and conservatives who feared a retreat to fortress America and massive defense cuts were deluding themselves. I know this site eschews pure power politics, but in the absence of external power pushing back on US actions, the trajectory of our foreign policies will be inexorably outward; reaching further and influencing deeper. The internal ability of a President, a Secretary of State, or a National Security Advisor to restrain courses of action requires such disproportionate amounts of political capital that they inevitably take the path of least resistance.

    Take defense spending for example. If a President wants to reduce defense budgets by 5%, they do not wave a magical wand and declare it so. They have to pass changes through Congress, and when virtually every state has a defense micro constituency that produces something in the supply chain, they hit an absolute wall of resistance. Many other factors play into this, but I promise you nearly all of their trajectories point away from restraint. Personally, I think fairly high levels of defense spending is a good thing for national good; although, working in the finance community of DoD, we could go for a little more ‘tail to tooth.’

    I don’t disagree with America supporting democratic movements around the world, but I do take issue with the casual belief that we’re just out there ‘fighting the good fight.’ With that attitude, and the external inertia of the foreign policy establishment, we invite clash after clash with situations that are marginally in our interest at best. Just wait for the neoconservative/liberal internationalist consensus to form around China as they inevitably try to establish some semblance of their own Monroe Doctrine. Give that human rights abusing regime one inch off their own coast line and it’ll be ‘appeasement city’ and ‘friend abandonment’ as far as the eye can see.

    Also, like with too much government support at home, a dependency forms when the US takes up the security burden for much of the rest of the world. Why not expand the welfare state in Europe when the US will pick the that majority of the tab for NATO?

    It’s not that I don’t believe in the exceptionalism of our systems or the sincerity of individual intensions. I just feel our current foreign policy apparatus is taking on too much risk into the US government’s (and world’s) portfolio. If the US suffers some massive bond market shock tomorrow (or next decade, or in 2087), and we are forced to hastily pull back our foreign footprint, the chaos left in our wake could be sever. Unlike with the collapse of the British Empire, there will no new liberal Anglo state emerging to catch the ball. Only by gradually allowing the world’s nations to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ can we minimize overall systemic risk, and allow them dignity of providing for themselves.

  • Anthony

    ARH @ 18 makes good sense vis-a-vis administration priorities and institutional inertia. Such is the constitutional mechanism by which The President remains guardian of American corporate interests at home and abroad. As WRM says President Obama is nailing his colors to the mast of the Anglo-American…, open economics…. Seldom considered is President Obama’s role as representative of American capitalism when foreign policy choices exhibit ‘surprised’ consistency.

    The president is the embodiment of the executive-centered political system by which class interests and class power continues to be served via NSC, DOD, DOS, etc. through international arrangements. President Obama through his speech on the Middle East attempts to blend the class/power interests and the Middle East current distemper with a moment in history when these interests meet; all the while linking Americans values with the interests of the region.

  • Ana Freebird

    As long as we have people writing drivel like this we remain facing a clear and present danger: a determined ideologue who is out to end US power, limit it’s sovereignty, give away money the US does not have, ignore the needs and wants of it’s people, retire the Constitution along with all precedent in Judiciary and Executive in favor of Socialist/Communist activist procedures, grow the Federal Gov’t with non producing Govt workers, eliminate all focus on Judeo Christian underpinnings of our US, rewrite history from an Afrocentric viewpoint, manipulate and control all private economies including your pocketbook and mine.

    Meanwhile people keep writing drivel making political comparisons.

    This started a long time ago and unfortunately Bush did not step all the way up to the plate to end the erosion in education, foreign policy, etc.

    Instead, all parties seem to think that throwing money at problems solves them.

    I am not hopeful about the outcome but rational people must remain focused and try to oust this smooth talking “Dreams of my FaTHER” NIGHTMARE.
    We do need hope and change but not his brand of it.

  • ARH

    Why is everyone so peeved about the President’s speech advocating borders along pre-1967 lines, with land swaps? Aside from the Israeli right, nobody in the entire world, to include the United States, has advocated anything different. I empathize with Israel, I really do. I try to imagine sense of vulnerability in trying to protect such a small land mass. Little room to fall back and regroup should an invasion force attack. There’s not a lot of room to buffer rockets as their range exceeds those of mortars. Throw in many tragic chapters in the history if it’s people’s religion, and you have a powerful cocktail instilling a sense of vulnerability.

    Still though, I don’t understand what Israeli supporters think about the status quo 20, 30, or 50 years down the road. There is a large group of people living in land, with no self determination for themselves, and unequal governance by those who administer most of the land. WRM has made the point that Israeli’s have used settlement building as a form of pressure on the Palestinians to come to an agreement. I think it’s safe to admit that many in the Israeli right would like to fully annex Judea and Samaria, which will inevitably happen if the status quo continues long enough. So what then? Push the Palestinians into Jordan and Egypt? Allow them to live in designated areas under Israeli security and/or administrative control like they are now? Or, just stop beating around the bush and declare Israeli sovereignty over the whole thing, and deny political rights to a large portion of its inhabitants?

    I do not deny the strategic lack of foresight on the Palestinian’s part as well, but then I’m not in a forum beating the sitting President over the head for being too tough on the PA. At this point, Israel holds most of the cards. Israel has the weapons, the economic might, and the trained military. For right or wrong, the world will almost always look unfavorably on the powerful when it sees these sorts of asymmetrical situations. If, in the coming decades, America’s political clout decreases relative to the rest of the world, Israel will find it harder and harder to prevent political isolation.

    I implore Israeli supporters to look at the situation holistically. Time moves forward whether we want it or not, and right now, Israeli’s future options do not look great.

  • Engineer

    The similarity of Obama’s policy pronouncements to Bush’s policies was one of the first things that I noticed about Obama’s speech as well. Giving the President the benefit of the doubt that he was sincere in his intentions to all sides as articulated in the speech, the speech had virtually nothing that I, as a conservative US voter, object to.

    However, I don’t think it will advance US policy goals too much in the Middle East for a different reason that I have recognized in Dr. Mead’s summary or the comments above. American norms include a very heavy dose of Enlightenment humanism in them. Thus the President repeatedly articulated statements about shared universal values that we have with the Muslim world including religious toleration and gender equality. That may be a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t square with theo-moral compass of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of devout Muslims. I wish that this profound difference was mere philosophy instead of the animating spring of much of the conflict that marks Muslim/Other interaction.

  • Luke Lea

    One criticism I have of Obama’s speech is that he did not reference Europe’s part in his policy vision. It was all about America — what America will do, the principles America supports, and so on. Just one more way he was like Bush.

  • SY

    Could someone provide the evidence for the claim that Bush backed the 1967 borders? I find that to be unbelievable, but if it is true I suppose that one must believe it.

  • nadine

    It’s not true that Bush backed the 1967 borders. It’s especially not true that Bush backed the 1967 borders as a precondition to negotiations as Obama just did (or as his words will be taken to mean, if that’s not what he meant. His phrasing on this and several other points was very sloppy.) In the 2004 exchange of letters with Israeli PM Ariel Sharon, Bush said,

    “As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
    http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Reference+Documents/Exchange+of+letters+Sharon-Bush+14-Apr-2004.htm

    As Bibi just reminded Obama, this letter was endorsed by Congress. It was not some personal agreement between GW Bush and Arik Sharon, but an agreement between the USA and Israel. Bibi just made in clear in no uncertain terms that before Israel takes any more substantial risks for peace based on US promises of support, he wants to see the previous US promises of support honored instead of being jettisoned as Obama attempted to do. Perhaps President Obama had better go find his inner Bush on this point as well.

  • Bruce

    Anna Freebird above echoed my sentiments. The only thing I disagree with her on is that I don’t find him smooth talking. Without the prompter, it gets painful. Taking what Obama says at face value will result in one looking foolish. Right now, he is trying to look like an American style leader. However, his heart is not in Americanism. It’s nearing election time, folks. Don’t pay attention to what he says now. Pay attention to the past two and 1/2 years. That’s all we need to know.

    If these rebellions around the globe lead to Muslim Brotherhood governments, he will look foolish praising “democracy movements.”

  • gracepmc

    I’m going with the simple, superficial view. In Egypt, M -formerly a useful tool, steps aside and the “democracy movement”, soon to be swallowed by the MB, such as it is runs amuck and attacks the occasional coptic christian. And, not to be crass, but where’s the Google guy? Q/K, makes nice on the nuclear front with Bush, and is now the essence of evil targeted for ouster by the West (read whatever you want into the West)under Obama. Who knew? Considering Egypt, and because he is probably certifiable, Q/K decides to ride it out. And Assad does as well — only he ups the ante by shooting his people in the streets. He is occasionally chastised. Israel — arrogantly called out. Palestians — I don’t see anybody disengaging from Hamas. The Saudis — not so crazy anymore on this oil for security deal.

    This whole Arab Spring thing and democracy really? Some of these countries are still tribal — sort of skips that traditional historical path to democracy. Roll, crawl, walk, run.

    My simple cynicism does not in anyway denigrate those truly fighting for liberty, freedom, and basic human rights. But I seriously doubt that these brave souls will be rewarded with much of that. Revolutions are serious business with sometimes serious unintended consequences for those whose blood is spilled for real hope and change.

    And from here, our newly bold gunslinging Foreign Policy President is going on to see our “old friends” (according to an adoring AP article)in Europe and have “lunch with the Queen”.

    I’m going with the “vulgar expression” guys and Bruce on this one.

  • Doug Page

    Great blog posts on U.S.-Israel policy. And great job on the photo edit. Better than some I’ve seen in the National Enquirer.

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