Via Meadia has remarked before on the close similarities between the Bush and Obama approaches to America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and other aspects of the active defense of our nation. With only a couple exceptions, both administrations relied on similar tactics. A timeline from left-leaning ProPublica puts everything in perspective.
As ProPublica notes, President Obama has renewed the Patriot Act, enacted by Bush after 9/11. Under Bush, Congress made allowances for the wiretapping of international communications by the NSA without warrants; Obama has continued that policy. Obama hasn’t close Guantanamo. Obama has continued targeted killings of individuals posing a threat to US security, like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen killed in Yemen; Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, has publicly justified the continuation of that policy. Predator drone strikes have not only continued; as he pledged during the campaign, President Obama stepped them up in Pakistan and he has also greatly expanded the use of this new weapon in a range of countries. President Obama has even publicly acknowledged them, something that never happened in the Bush years. Only enhanced interrogation and the use of secret prisons have been stopped or closed under Obama.
The ProPublica list is incomplete; the administration has used military force to replace a hostile dictator with an unstable if nominally democratic successor regime (Libya); it has embraced the central principle of Bush’s Middle Eastern policy and made the promotion of democracy the strategic centerpiece of its approach. It has restated Bush’s determination to fight a war with Iran rather than allowing an Iranian bomb, and after a brief (and not very successful) experiment with reconciliation with Iran it has stepped up US and international sanctions.
It has continued the dramatic tilt toward India that Bush initiated, even at the cost of the US relationship with Pakistan in the midst of the Afghan war. After experimenting with the “reset” with Russia, the Obama has essentially returned to the Bush policy vis a vis Moscow.
In some areas, most notably in international public relations, the Obama administration has done a much better job than its predecessor. Bush always said he wanted to close Guantanamo but couldn’t; the world cursed him and called him a hypocrite. President Obama has ended up in the exact same place but Guantanamo has largely disappeared from international politics.
Arguably, the Obama administration has played Ike to Bush’s Truman. President Truman was essentially driven from office by public unhappiness with his foreign policy. (Like Lyndon Johnson in 1968 he gave up his quest for re-election in 1952 after a stinging failure in the New Hampshire primary.) President Eisenhower campaigned against the failed policies of the Truman years, and once in the White House he moved swiftly to bring an end to the Korean War even as he institutionalized most of the major features of the Truman policies. (Like Obama, Eisenhower also attacked his predecessor for not doing enough in Asia — though here too his policies were visibly a continuation of the key Truman themes.)
Then as now American politics were bitterly polarized; Republicans attacked Democrats as, literally, a party of treason (for sheltering Alger Hiss and other Soviet agents real and imagined). Ike’s strategy of harshly attacking the failed policies of the Truman administration while implementing most of their key features helped make those policies acceptable to the American center — and the public perception that Eisenhower was a strong and capable foreign policy leader did wonders for his poll numbers.
President Obama has institutionalized the key features of Bush’s war on terror strategy even as he unceasingly denounces his predecessor. In Iraq and now in Afghanistan he wants to end unpopular wars while preserving the essence of Bush’s grand strategy. Just as Eisenhower denounced “containment” while pursuing a containment policy, President Obama has ditched the “war on terror” label while fighting a war on terror that is recognizably Bushesque.
Don’t expect either party to talk much about it this year, but American foreign policy today is about as bipartisan as it ever gets. Foreign policy bipartisanship doesn’t mean that the parties stop denouncing each other and attacking the other side as either warmongers or wimps. It just means that beneath the froth and the wild accusations, leaders in both parties respond to some clear strategic imperatives.