In his most wide-ranging television interview on foreign policy, Obama was asked last week whether he stood by a remark he made in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been constantly shelled by Hamas rockets from the Gaza Strip. Obama said that if his town, where his daughters slept each night, was constantly being attacked by rockets he would want to do something about it.
In the light of Israel##s military campaign in Gaza, the TV interviewer asked if Obama still felt that way? He replied: “That##s a basic principle of any country: that they##ve got to protect their citizens.”
Obama was further asked to differentiate himself as strongly as possible from the Bush administration##s policy of supporting Israel. Would he instead be ushering in a bold new policy? He replied: “If you look not just at the Bush administration but what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach.”
Good grief! These words should shock every true Bush hater in the world. But wait, there##s more.
Obama##s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that the Obama administration would put more emphasis on diplomacy and try to engage Syria and Iran in dialogue. (Just, indeed, as the Bush administration has tried to do.) But, just like Bush, she and the new administration would not take the military option off the table in dealing with Iran.
On Hamas, she said: “You cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements. That is an absolute. That is my position and the president-elect##s position.” It is also one of the most contentious positions of President Bush.
Then there is the US prison in Guantanamo for terror suspects. Obama has pledged to shut it. Indeed, Bush wanted to shut it, too. But Obama##s people now say that doing so might take a year or more, because, like Bush, Obama will face the dilemma of what to do with intractably dangerous people whose countries of origin either won##t have them back under any circumstances or would be likely to torture or kill them if they did take them back.
It would be wrong to suggest there is no difference between Obama and Bush in foreign policy. But from the moment that Obama##s hawkish, almost neo-conservative foreign policy essay appeared in the US journal Foreign Affairs in July 2007, it has been clear that the continuity in US foreign policy from Bush under Obama would vastly outweigh the change.
Obama is even keeping some of Bush##s key personnel, most remarkably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and some key figures in the National Security Council. Obama acknowledges the success of the Bush troop surge in Iraq and wants to imitate it in Afghanistan.
All this is the opposite of the popular stereotype of a bumbling, incompetent Bush producing a train wreck of a foreign policy requiring profound remedial action. So great is the emotional prejudice against Bush that it is almost impossible to get a serious, rational, dispassionate discussion of the Bush foreign policy legacy.
But it is time to take serious stock of what Bush has meant for foreign policy. It is necessary to distinguish different parts of the Bush time in office, between before 9/11 from after 9/11, also to distinguish the first Bush term from the second, for they were very different. None of these complexities normally figures in the celebratory denunciations of Bush constantly emanating from pundits and opinion panjandrums across the world.
One important reality check came from Walter Russell Mead, the Henry Kissinger fellow at the US Council for Foreign Relations, in a recent lecture. Mead is in no sense a Bush partisan or neo-con. He is a non-partisan voice of great elegance and sophistication in US foreign policy. Speaking just after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and in the midst of the global financial crisis, he asserted that he was an optimist about the international scene. He advanced five reasons for his optimism.
One: Financial and banking crises are a regular and perhaps inevitable part of the capitalist system. But the US and the world always recovers from them and life goes on, generally with a better understanding of the way economies work and often, therefore, a better regulatory system.
Two: The failure of Osama bin Laden and his project throughout the Islamic world. This is most evident in Iraq. The Sunni Arabs there saw the US in a sense at its worst – given the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the mismanagement of the early part of the occupation – and al-Qa##ida potentially at its most appealing as the leader of resistance against Western domination. And yet in the Iraqi Sunni awakening, they rejected al-Qa##ida and chose partnership with the West.
Three: The rise of Asia. Mead rejects the intellectually constipated notion that China##s rise equals America##s decline. Instead he thinks that Asia is producing numerous big powers – China, Japan, India – that will naturally balance each other and always seek the involvement of the US as a further balancing and stabilising force.
Four: The enduring strength of American soft power. But surely Bush##s global unpopularity has permanently ruined America##s standing in the world? Not at all, Mead argues. One election, the triumph of Obama, and suddenly the world loves the US again.
Five: The enduring dynamism of US society. No candidate ran in the US presidential election in 2008 as the status quo candidate.
I find Mead##s arguments pretty convincing. If there is even a glimmer of truth to them, they suggest that the world Bush created was not altogether and entirely as evil as contemporary reviews suggest.
The US-China relationship has never been better managed than over the past eight years. China has grown wealthy as a result of the good relationship. At the same time, Washington##s management of Taiwan has been masterful.
The biggest success for the US was India, where it negotiated a new nuclear co-operation agreement that will help the transformation of Indian industry, and incidentally do more than almost any single act of government policy anywhere to counter greenhouse gas emissions. But most importantly it cements the new strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
The US also reinvigorated its alliances with Japan and South Korea. Both contributed substantial troop contingents to Iraq. It also revived its relationship with Indonesia. All of this is a powerfully positive framework for the Obama administration to inherit.
On trade, it is true that the Bush administration was unable to complete the Doha round of trade liberalization. But it never walked down the path of renewed tariff protectionism. It never played the protectionist card against China. And it negotiated free-trade agreements with many countries.
Undoubtedly the hinge point of the Bush administration was the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many of those who now oppose the military aspects of the US##s response supported them at the time. Bush##s mainstream opponents agreed with his decision to intervene in Afghanistan, and Obama is pledged to stay the distance there. Iraq remains the great divider of opinion.
This is no place to rehash all the Iraq arguments but what is absolutely clear is that everyone involved in Iraq policy, in every relevant nation, believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. They believed this partly because Saddam wanted them to, and partly because no other explanation of the facts made sense. But it is legitimate to criticize Bush for a wrong judgment on Iraq; it is not legitimate to say he lied his way into war, as Bush critics have to acknowledge that the WMD beliefs were nearly universally held.
The greatest and most justified criticism of Bush arises from the mismanagement of the early years of the Iraq occupation and the dreadful scandal of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. On the flipside, Bush gets all the credit for the subsequent troop surge, which was opposed by his key advisers and which has given Iraq a chance to emerge independent and semi-democratic.
If you believe that global warming is the surpassing issue of the day, then Bush did not do enough to combat it, though it is clear the Kyoto Protocol was a flawed instrument for attacking this problem and there was never support for it in the US (remember Bill Clinton had recommended against its ratification).
Bush did neither significant harm nor significant good to the UN. That body##s impotence and fatal moral confusion long predate him. But consider Africa. In his first term, Bush tripled US aid to sub-Saharan Africa. And the increases kept coming during Bush##s second term, so that if Obama continues the rate of increase, US aid will again be doubled by 2010.
It##s too early to judge the Bush project in Iraq. But I am sure that, overall, history will judge Bush much more kindly than today##s commentators do.
The Australian (abridged)