Dispatch August 2009

Be Like Bush

Finesse alone won't get Obama through the challenges ahead. He needs to become more like his predecessor.

The word that best describes President Barack Obama is “finesse,” implying delicate skill, subtlety, and grace—all attributes that former President George W. Bush seemingly lacked. Obama is truly the great finesser: he has finessed his way through life. To exude this quality is to be the opposite of an ideologue – something that comes close to describing Bush. And being the opposite of Bush would seem a good thing, right? Wrong.

The greatest, most obvious mistake that American administrations make is to overcompensate for the flaws of the previous one. The pendulum should come to rest in the middle, not swing to the other extreme. Bush's fundamental mistake was in becoming the anti-Bill Clinton, rather than merely steering away from his predecessor's roughest edges. Clinton had been obsessed with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, so rather than focusing on it to a moderate degree, Bush would have none of it at all. Big mistake. Clinton seemingly believed in nothing, so Bush would believe fervently despite the facts. Again, big mistake. Now it looks as though Obama is making a similar blunder. Finesse alone will not get him through the challenges ahead. He's got to become a bit more like Bush. He's got to make clear that he fervently believes in and cares about certain things, and he has to communicate that belief starkly: the challenges of health care, Israeli settlements, and particularly the war in Afghanistan demand no less.

Regarding health care, the more he says, the less impact he seems to have. That's because he's not talking about it in crushing moral terms, which he needs to do. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy will always be remembered for the issue because he cast health care as a basic right, not a privilege. Obama needs to communicate a similar austerity of belief.

As far as Israeli settlements are concerned, Obama will never have as much political capital to spend on the issue as he does now. He is early in his term, and won’t need to slip into campaign mode for years, so he can afford to let his approval ratings dip in response to tough stances on controversial issues. If halting settlement activity requires applying strong pressure on Israel, he has no time to waste. He has to be steadfast and incorrigible: he has to be a bit like Bush. If there truly is a peace settlement to be had, this is no issue that can be finessed.

Then there’s Afghanistan. During the campaign, Obama portrayed Afghanistan as the good war. Whatever his intentions in doing so, that position served to paint Iraq as the bad war, while at the same time liberating Democrats from the calumny that they have been perennially soft on national security. But actually winning the war – as opposed to taking deft stances toward it – will require the same level of stick-to-itiveness and willingness to sustain high degrees of unpopularity that Bush displayed when he doubled-down on his bets in Iraq, and that President Abraham Lincoln displayed during the Civil War.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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