Nothing gets talk radio hosts in a tizzy more than when I say that I don’t see any decisive change in the national security policies of the Obama and Bush administrations. Democrats hate it because I’m comparing their president of change to one of the guys they hate most, and Republicans hate it because I’m not being tough enough on Obama. Being Ryan Mauro can be a lonely task sometimes.
The biggest two foreign policy differences on the surface are the war in Iraq and direct diplomacy with rogue states. Yes, President Obama is withdrawing all the combat soldiers from Iraq, but as the Bush administration came to a close, it signed a timetable to pull out U.S. forces by 2012 at the insistence of the elected Iraqi government. The current administration is completing the withdrawal on a faster timetable than required by the treaty (but slower than what he originally pledged), but the reality is that with the security situation improving and the Iraqis exerting pressure to remove forces as soon as safely possible, this is likely not much different than what the Bush administration would have done. It’s not like President Bush wanted to keep soldiers in harm’s way when it isn’t necessary. And it remains to be seen how many residual forces are left behind, relabeled from “combat forces” to “advisors” still fully capable of defending themselves and intervening when needed.
There isn’t as much of a difference on the issue of diplomacy with rogue states either. Granted, President Bush would never have a face-to-face meeting with Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Kim Jong-Il unless some unlikely changes were made in their conduct, but President Obama has not done so and there are no public indications that this will happen anytime soon. In fact, the Obama administration reversed its decision to send an ambassador to Syria because of the belief that it would facilitate their “security blackmail.” The Iranian regime has rejected an overture by Senator Kerry and is not reacting in any positive way to Obama’s declaration that the U.S. would “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
And it would be wrong to assert that the previous administration did not engage in diplomacy with rogue countries. Multilateral talks formed the basis of Bush’s North Korea policy, and it was an open secret that backdoor talks with the Iranians and Syrians were ongoing through third parties. Europe took the lead in negotiating with Iran and American and Iranian representatives did meet in May 2007 for the first time in nearly 30 years to discuss Iraq. When it comes down to it, both administrations negotiated and the differences are relatively slight given the heavy emphasis put on them.
On Iran, both administrations simultaneously wanted to use a mixture of diplomatic pressure and sanctions to try to change the regime’s behavior, while leaving open the option to use military force. Although Obama was initially reluctant to speak in support of the Iranian people standing against the regime, this quickly changed and he’s given them some encouraging words. But like his predecessor, these words aren’t being followed by the action to help them that is needed.