Has Barack Obama become George W. Bush on foreign policy? If thepresident doesn't catch a break on Libya, he may well be on aglide path to regime change, in yet another indication of how similarhe's become to a president whose policies he wanted to avoid.
Of all the influences on a president's foreign policy, sometimes nonecan be greater than the legacy left by his predecessor. Given ourtendency to personalize the presidency, we often believe thatpresidents create their own roles; but as Faulkner wrote in Requiemfor a Nun "the past is never over; it's not even past."
Nowhere is this clearer than in Barack Obama's swift conversion tomany of the policies of George W. Bush. A president who was determinedto stand at the antipodes, literally at the other end of the foreignpolicy universe from his predecessor, has in the last two years movedinto very close proximity to him on some key issues.
There are fundamental differences to be sure: the president'stendencies to engage; to work multilaterally; to be contrite aboutAmerican 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 beheading for Bush 43 redux on getting rid of Gaddafi.
Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. A self-styledtransformative president was determined to transform American policyand lead it out of the wilderness created by his predecessor. No morewars of choice. No more Guantanamo. No more constitutional abuses inthe name of America's national security. America was going to listento the world--even act contritely--because according to some around thepresident, we had much to be contrite about and even to apologize for.
After all, President Obama's emergence symbolized a new page andchapter in America's relationship with the world. Granting him theNobel Peace Prize symbolized the transition. The Europeans, at least,were eager to accelerate the change. Whatever else the Nobel Prizemeant for a president who had yet to earn it, it clearly said,"Goodbye and good riddance, George W. Bush; hello Barack Obama, we'resure 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 toresolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a key priority and pressureon Israel's settlement policy promised a different approach. And theworld liked what it saw--an American president who seemed sensitive tothe fact that foreign policy was a two-way street.
But the contrast seemed overtaken by the continuity. On Iran, theolive branch turned into a stick; and the president was even tougheron his sanctions policy than his predecessor. On Afghanistan, the goodwar, the president doubled down. On Iraq, the bad war, he followed ascript that would have made John McCain proud; on Israel, despite histoughness, he folded when Netanyahu said no and seemed adrift withouta strategy, bringing him into line with the policies of hispredecessor. And in the war against terror (renamed) and onGuantanamo, he succumbed to post-9/11 realities.
In the end, the president's conversion was less a matter of beingtrapped by the legacy of his predecessor's polices and more by what hecame himself to believe were the right policies in a cruel andunforgiving world. Perhaps as a young, untested Democratic president,he had to demonstrate toughness, particularly on Afghanistan. ButBarack Obama's decisions were not driven primarily by knee-jerkanalysis or domestic politics. He reasoned them out for himself andrationalized them in a way that was consistent with American nationalinterests.
And now, in perhaps the cruelest irony of all, the president hasreluctantly embraced a more activist version of the Freedom Agenda.This was not his intention or inclination. From the beginning, thepresident had been suspicious and wary of his predecessor's commitmentto exporting American exceptionalism, particularly in the Arab world.Over the last two years, he downplayed it in favor of a more realisticapproach based on his need for Egyptian and Saudi cooperation on othermatters, including the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The sudden onset of the Arab Spring and Winter in Egypt and Tunisiadragged him in. Potentially transformative politicians cannot simplystand back in response to transformative events. The President'sresponse to the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia was quiteappropriate--words rather than deeds, with America largely in supportfrom the sidelines.
And in response to the Arab Winter in Libya, he has sought to put hisown unique signature on America's policy. Faced with a humanitariancrisis in Benghazi, instead of acting unilaterally he helped assemblea coalition around the UN Security Council Resolution, support fromNATO, and the Arab League. But in doing so he may well have trappedhimself and opened the door to moving closer toward his predecessor'spolicy on regime change.
The president's stated goal in Libya--protection of civilians--cannot beachieved without meeting his unstated goal--the defeat of Gaddafi orhis ouster from Libya. Libya is not Iraq. But without a lucky breakand the fracturing of the Gaddafi regime, the president and hiscoalition of the willing may well have to move toward a moreaggressive military response to remove Gaddafi. No American boots onthe ground to be sure, but perhaps somebody's.
There is no Obama Doctrine. And that's fortunate because the lastthing 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 hisown opposition to regime change laid out in his National Defense University speech and embracea key tenet of a president he did not want to become.