Some Things Just Won't Change

Some Things Just Won't Change
March 2nd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Some Things Just Won't Change

Some Things Just Won't Change
Washington Post
March 2, 2008
Pg. B3
By Michael Abramowitz
As you might have heard, the big theme of the 2008 election thus far is change. But when it comes to foreign policy, the Democratic Party's eager, galvanized base may wind up getting a whole lot less change than they'd hoped for if their party takes the White House. Sweeping oratory aside, a President Barack Obama or a President Hillary Rodham Clinton -- let alone a President John McCain -- might chart a course in the world that's surprisingly similar to that of George W. Bush in his second term.
Consider a panel of (mostly Democratic) foreign policy thinkers that was held last summer at the centrist Center for a New American Security. Peter D. Feaver, who was then just leaving a post on Bush's National Security Council staff, asked several leading Democrats if they could identify any policies laid out by President Bush that the next administration would continue "more or less the same way" -- and he got plenty of takers. Princeton University political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned Bush's support of democracy around the world and his doubling of foreign aid. Kurt Campbell, a Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, cited the Bush team's efforts to protect the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks and the strengthening of alliances with countries such as Japan and India. James B. Steinberg, a deputy national security adviser during President Bill Clinton's second term, said he was impressed with Bush's efforts to work with Democrats on trade.
The panel's moderator was Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy who has become a top adviser to Obama and is often mentioned as a contender for secretary of defense or national security adviser. Even while describing himself as "fiercely critical"of first-term Bush decisions, Danzig praised the administration's strategy of using sanctions and diplomatic pressure to dissuade Iran from going after the bomb. "That path may fail," Danzig pointed out. "But the administration, I think, has basically followed the right course in efforts in this regard, even if they have had very limited success up until now."
Of course, Democrats still love to beat up on Bush for his failures around the world. But the comments of Danzig and his co-panelists, made before the rhetoric of the presidential campaign turned white-hot, suggest that something subtler is going on in the real world of hard foreign policy choices.
The next president will inherit a turbulent, intractable world that sharply constrains the room for creative new U.S. initiatives, according to many foreign policy experts of varying ideological persuasions. Despite the sharp campaign jousting, it's not hard to imagine the next president -- even a Democrat -- pursuing basically the same set of policies as Bush has in recent years on such big subjects as North Korea's nuclear program, Arab-Israeli peace talks, development and conflict in Africa, Russia's increasing belligerence and China's integration into the world.
"The truth is, a combination of realities . . . make a certain degree of continuity more likely than not," Campbell told me.
Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor who served for two years as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, echoed that thought. Obama and Clinton's "critique in general of the administration, aside from Iraq, is we are going to be more competent and collegial," he said. "They don't really debate many of the underlying premises of the administration's current policies."
Even on Iraq and Iran, where the Democrats have promised dramatic new departures, the next president seems likely to wind up grappling with the same set of unpalatable choices that Bush and his advisers have struggled with in recent years. As the veteran former State Department Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller puts it, it will take a while to "dig out" from what Bush has wrought in the broader Middle East.
Many Democratic foreign policy pooh-bahs (not for the record, of course) think that thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for years to come, on the theory that a complete withdrawal would be too dangerous. While both Clinton and Obama have promised significant troop reductions upon taking office, they have also left themselves enough wiggle room that they could leave plenty of troops to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq or other missions without violating a campaign promise.
All this does not mean that we won't see some genuine changes when the next president is sworn in, not least because simply having a new face in the Oval Office will probably please much of a world that's fed up with Bush. So his successor, whether Republican or Democrat, will almost certainly enjoy a honeymoon on the international stage and is likely to make a major move to reach out to countries and peoples long wary of the Bush administration. Obama, for example, has promised that he would travel to a "major Islamic forum" in the first 100 days of his administration and deliver an address making it clear that the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, not with Muslims in general. Under a McCain administration, one possible diplomatic rescue mission would be an early push to bring the United States more in line with its allies' desire to enact new limits on carbon dioxide emissions, or quickly shutting down the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that Bush has used to hold suspected terrorists. Both Democrats have suggested a more aggressive diplomatic campaign to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.
But history also tells us to be cautious about using campaign rhetoric to predict how presidents will operate on the world stage. In 1992, Bill Clinton famously attacked George H.W. Bush for coddling "the butchers of Beijing," only to revert to the long-term U.S. strategy of patiently trying to engage China. In 2000, George W. Bush sharply condemned Clinton's approach to "nation-building" -- only to engage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in two of the biggest nation-building projects in U.S. history.
Here's another good reason to be dubious about grandiose promises of foreign policy change: Bush himself has shifted course. After his wholesale repudiation of all things Clinton in his more ideologically charged first term, Bush moved to reorient his foreign policy along more traditional, realist lines, experts say. He has opened nuclear negotiations with North Korea, sought to repair frayed relations with key European allies, backed off from pressuring friendly Arab regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to democratize, and made a new diplomatic offer to Iran over its nuclear program. So far, he has resisted pressure to open a third war front by bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.
In the past year, Bush has even tried to reengage more seriously to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, getting back into just the sort of peace-processing for which he scorned Bill Clinton. Although Bush has been criticized from all sides for a lack of personal involvement until very late in his term, there's no sign from any of the remaining 2008 candidates that they disagree with his basic approach of trying to create a Palestinian state and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all: Obama's aides, for instance, make it clear that his pledge to talk to U.S. adversaries does not extend to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip and stands in the way of a final settlement.
Dennis Ross, who handled Middle East peace negotiations for GOP and Democratic presidents and has offered advice to several of the presidential candidates, says that the next president could build upon the framework Bush creates in his final months. "The structure the administration has set up could make sense if you invest it with content," Ross said. "One of the great weaknesses of this administration has been they don't know how to implement."
Indeed, the basic line from all three would-be presidents and their top advisers is simply that they would do diplomacy better, work with allies more closely and generally execute foreign policy more effectively. Come to think of it, that's also what advocates of George W. Bush said eight years ago.
Michael Abramowitz is a Washington Post White House reporter.

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