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 interests.
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.
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