Obama's Realist Worldview Recalls George H.W. Bush
In electing Barack Obama, the country traded the foreign policy of the second President Bush for the foreign policy of the first President Bush.
That is the meaning of Obama's apparent decision to keep Robert Gates on as defense secretary and also to select Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
With strong ties to the military and a carefully cultivated image of tough-mindedness, Clinton will protect the incoming president's back from those on the right ready to pounce at any sign of what they see as weakness.
As for Gates, Obama has found the ideal figure to help him organize his planned withdrawal from Iraq, and to bless it.
What's most striking about Obama's approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist who would advance American interests by diplomacy, by working to improve the country's image abroad, and by using military force prudently and cautiously.
This sounds a lot like the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, and it makes perfect sense that Obama has had conversations with the senior Bush's closest foreign policy adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Obama has drawn counsel from many in Scowcroft's circle, and Gates himself was deputy national security adviser under Scowcroft.
The truth about Obama's worldview was hidden in plain sight in his most politically consequential foreign policy speech. Antiwar Democrats cheered Obama for addressing a rally against the Iraq war in Chicago's Federal Plaza on Oct. 2, 2002. His opposition to the war was a major asset in his nomination struggle with Clinton.
Obama did indeed denounce the impending war as "dumb," "rash" and "based not on reason but on passion." But in retrospect, the speech may be most notable for other things Obama said that separated him from some in his antiwar audience.
Not once but five times did Obama declare, "I don't oppose all wars." The first several paragraphs of the speech were devoted to the wars that Obama thought were justified: the Civil War, World War II -- in which, he said, "that arsenal of democracy . . . triumphed over evil" -- and the battle against terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11. "I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again," he said.
The thrust of his argument against the Iraq invasion was a classic realist's critique of a war he denounced as "ideological." It would, he said, "require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences." It also would "fan the flames of the Middle East" and "strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda."
In fact, Obama sounded a great deal like -- Brent Scowcroft. In a widely noted 2002 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, published six weeks before Obama gave his speech, Scowcroft warned that an invasion of Iraq "very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation." Going to Iraq, Scowcroft said, would "divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism," and it could "destabilize Arab regimes in the region," "stifle any cooperation on terrorism" and "even swell the ranks of the terrorists." Clinton, who once said that "we have to be both internationalists and realists," is a natural fit with the new Obama-Scowcroft-Gates establishment. In explaining the appeal of Clinton, a senior Obama adviser recently spoke several times of the president-elect's respect for her "toughness" and described the practical reasons for choosing a figure who would have instant credibility around the world.
Even before the possibility of Clinton's appointment was broached, Obama was relying heavily on foreign policy specialists closely associated with her. For example, Michèle Flournoy, a co-chair of Obama's Defense Department transition team, is president of the Center for a New American Security, which the New York Times observed last year "looks an awful lot like a shadow policy apparatus for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign." The center, in turn, has warm ties with Richard Armitage, another Republican realist who had grave doubts about going into Iraq.
Obama's national security choices are already causing grumbling from parts of the antiwar left, even if Obama made clear six years ago that while he was with them on Iraq, he was not one of them.
Ironically, Obama is likely to show more fidelity to George H.W. Bush's approach to foreign affairs than did the former president's own son. That's change, maybe even change we can believe in, but it's not the change so many expected.