Former president George W. Bush said during the unveiling of his official portrait Thursday at the White House that President Obama can now look at his picture in times of peril and ask, “What would George do?”
It was a joke.
Obama came into office (and more specifically, won the 2008 Democratic primary) with a dovish message promising to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reach out to the Muslim world, and criticizing the Bush administration’s foreign policy as arrogant and over-extended.
He also talked about “crushing” al-Qaeda and authorizing strikes in Pakistan without that government’s knowledge (as it proved when Obama launched the U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden).
But overall, the picture was one of a guy who would roll back the United States’s wide-ranging foreign policy involvement.
In recent weeks, though, a series of accounts have painted the picture of a president making some very tough life-or-death decisions in the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
* A New York Times story today reports that Obama ordered a series of cyber attacks on computer systems that run Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
* A Times story from Monday on Obama’s so-called “kill list” — the suspected terrorists he has personally authorized to be killed if found overseas — that quotes national security adviser Thomas Donilon and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. The Times story described Obama’s “evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.”
* The same Day, Newsweek and the Daily Beast published a lengthy excerpt of Daniel Klaidman’s new book, “Kill or Capture,” all about the administration’s adjustment to embracing overseas strikes.
The confluence hasn’t gone unnoticed, and the books that will soon be released by Klaidman and the Times’s David E. Sanger (title: “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power”) are only likely to further the evolution of Obama’s image on foreign policy. They also, notably, follow on some controversy over whether Obama and his campaign have been thumping their chests a little too proudly over the killing of bin Laden.
Obama’s foreign policy has certainly been less in-your-face than Bush’s (see: “Smoke ‘em out,” “With us or against us,” etc.) and more focused on covert activities than wars, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be viewed as tough.
“The image of the president reflects his record, and after three years, he has an extraordinary record on counterterrorism,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman at the National Security Council.
Foreign policy isn’t a top-of-mind issue for the vast majority of American voters, but these reports pointing to the tough decisions the president has made on overseas issues and his willingness to play the role of executioner build the picture of an involved and deliberate commander-in-chief who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty abroad.
Such is the responsibility of any president — especially in wartime — but the way in which his foreign policy image has shifted in recent years (and weeks) is certainly significant.
And it’s starting to look a bit like his predecessor.
The images of Obama now and then aren’t necessarily at odds with each other; in a lot of ways, he previewed his focus on tactical strikes rather than boots on the ground.
But the image of a dovish Obama that won the 2008 Democratic presidential primary on an anti-war message is becoming a thing of the past.