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.
The story is the same with Afghanistan. President Obama is implementing a strategy based on the successful “surge” in Iraq launched belatedly by his predecessor. The only difference is that Obama established a date for when some sort of reduction must occur, but as I’ve pointed out, this was likely a requirement in order to win the support of Congress and the public at large, and if Bush somehow had a third term, he may well have had to make a similar concession. And if he didn’t, it is quite possible that a reduction of some kind would have come around that time regardless, because of improving conditions and political reasons.
The similarities also apply to other war on terror issues. The closing down of Guantanamo Bay has been delayed until at least 2011 and critics seem to forget that the Bush administration also shared this goal, although it never made the mistake of setting a date that ultimately had to be discarded. The Obama administration has not abandoned the practice of indefinitely detaining enemy combatants either, saying that sometimes those held will not be able to be prosecuted but cannot be released either, drawing the ire of Rachel Maddow. It has even reformed but continued the practice of using military tribunals instead of civilian courts to try certain detainees.
On wiretaps, the Justice Department has taken the side of its predecessor, resulting in vicious criticism from Keith Olbermann. President Obama has issued executive orders that preserve the CIA’s authority to continue renditions, where terrorist suspects are snatched by agency operatives and held in secret prisons run by us or other countries, and officials say such actions may even increase.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t any major differences at all, but they are limited to domestic policy. Even there, though, similarities can be drawn in the growth of the size of government, deficit spending, and support for expanding faith-based initiatives.
George Friedman of the Stratfor intelligence group wrote in February 2008 that “policies have institutionalized themselves over the decades, and shifting those policies has costs that presidents can’t absorb. … Presidents do not simply make policy. Rather, they align themselves with existing reality.” In August, he wrote about these similarities, saying that constraints on presidents limit how much policies change despite the rhetoric of their political campaigns.
There are differences in rhetoric and packaging, and some reforms were implemented as to how things are done, but what is actually being done has remained.