How Obama and Bush Traded Places

In matters of foreign policy, the president finds himself in his predecessor's shoes

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credit: PR NewsFoto/Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Eric Charbonneau

It began as a tale of two utterly opposed presidencies, but today it's more reminiscent of one of those Hollywood comedies about body-switching, like Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan in "Freaky Friday." How in the world did Barack Obama end up in George W. Bush's presidency, and the other way around?

Every president begins his tenure by distancing himself from his predecessor. But as the rhetorical "poetry" of campaigning turns into the pedestrian "prose" of governing, the new leader usually finds that perhaps his predecessor wasn't so wrong about every issue after all. Yet what we are witnessing today in foreign policy is far more dramatic.

Obama, who wanted to keep his distance from democracy promotion in the Arab world, finds pro-democracy movements blooming out of control in the region. Obama, who wanted nothing to do with military interventions abroad -- especially in Arab countries -- finds himself harassed into doing so. And by the French, of all people! The president is so leery of getting dragged deeper into Libya -- even though he almost certainly will be -- that he even seems to be somewhat in denial about America's utterly dominant role in NATO.

The alliance has taken over operations in support of Libyan rebels but with scant U.S. help, provoking surprising criticism this week. In a complete turnabout from the Iraq war, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet suggested that without greater U.S. participation in direct operations, it would not be possible to "to loosen the noose around Misrata," a key rebel holdout against Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces.

"You talk about NATO as if it is some extraterrestrial being from another planet with which you have occasional meetings," one questioner told acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner at a news conference on Tuesday. ("We feel like we've contributed a great deal to the success of this operation thus far, and by no means would I ever refer to NATO as an extraterrestrial being," Toner responded.)

It's hard to imagine Bush standing for this kind of criticism; his treatment of NATO, especially in his first term, was just the opposite: He simply ignored offers of help from the allies. When NATO invoked its Article V for the first time ever after 9/11, defining the attack on the United States as an attack on all its members, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dispatched his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to declare that this would not be necessary because "the mission would define the coalition."

By contrast, considering what we know about Obama's desire to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the subtle threat represented by al-Qaida, 9/11 might have been more his kind of issue. It was a challenge that called for delicate cultivation of alliances and international organizations, a surgical military response in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and assiduous attention and sustained nation-building afterward--all the things with which Bush, for his own reasons, was never satisfied. Certainly we can be reasonably sure that Obama never would have invaded Iraq on such scanty evidence.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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