How Obama and Bush Traded Places

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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.

Above all, the challenge of 9/11 called for something that Bush had little time for but Obama loves--international consensus-building. At a moment in history when the United States faced the most subtle sort of global threat, when the lone superpower needed not just a willingness to use military force but also a leader who would carefully study a little-understood enemy, we got a man who actually took pride in his lack of studiousness. Bush declared he didn't "do nuance." He never once presided over a grand-strategy session to divine the nature of al-Qaida, and he ended up lumping Saddam and every Islamist insurgent and terrorist group together with Osama bin Laden.

Bush thus managed to alienate a world that America desperately needed on its side, thus leaving U.S. alone with the entire burden and generations' worth of bills to pay. Obama, by contrast, is all about nuance and careful deliberation--not to mention cost control.

Perhaps one reason neither man has done very well with what might be deemed his rival's problems is that both were slow to adapt to the presidency they got, compared with the presidency they wanted.

Oddly enough, Bush more or less began his presidential run in a place close to where Obama is now. During the 2000 campaign Bush attacked the Clinton administration and his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, for "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions," especially nation-building, and he spoke of a new "division of labor" with the Europeans--precisely what Obama is trying to get the French and British to do through NATO now.

The tragedy of 9/11 changed that, but Bush was so convinced he had to hammer an enemy state (rather than a transnational force, which is what al-Qaida was), and so reluctant to give up his campaign stance against nation-building that it was years before he began to get the policies right--and far too late, as Obama discovered when he inherited Bush's half-hearted approach to Afghanistan. Obama, in turn, has been reluctant to discard his campaign promises against military intervention or to turn against the Arab regimes he was once so intent on appeasing.

This is all something of a caricature, of course. Obama believes in freedom and democracy around the world, and Bush, at least by the end of his second term, had grown fond of working diplomatically with the "international community" he once slighted, especially as he began to grapple with the strains on the U.S. military in Iraq. Bush also grew weary of democracy promotion, even cutting a deal with Qaddafi in exchange for his nuclear program.

Still, perhaps we all might have be better off if Barack Obama had been "43" and George W. Bush had taken his place as "44."

Just a thought.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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