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« Four scary words: Egypt after Hosni Mubarak | Main | World still needs America to lead »
Sunday
Dec212008

Obama is not Bush's third term

The Wall Street Journal has been running an editorial campaign designed to convince the American public that the Barack Obama administration will constitute a third Bush term in foreign policy. Arguing that the president-elect's cabinet choices in national security portend more continuation than change, we are treated to a highly deceptive repackaging of the Bush legacy.

The truth is that the Bush administration bankrupted America's international standing through a half-decade of vigorous unilateralism that began before 9/11 and was turbocharged thereafter, the most stunning example being our government's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in December 2001 - the first time we've ever broken a strategic arms limitation agreement.

Yes, the Bush White House went through the motions of multilateralism in many cases, such as having Secretary of State Colin Powell present our greatly tainted intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs to the United Nations Security Council. And yes, our government continued to cooperate with the world on a host of smaller, less controversial issues like disease prevention and disrupting terrorist financing.

But the fact remains that on basically every big call, Bush-Cheney went out of their way to assert America's perceived primacy in great-power politics.

We toppled Saddam on our timetable and ran the postwar occupation with no regard to the interests of other states.

Based on our own declarations of authority, we have routinely intervened militarily inside numerous sovereign states in search of terrorists of our own designation, killing them at will.

When we've caught these terrorists, we've imprisoned them and sought their prosecution in our own military tribunals, ignoring the growing jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

And, when that wasn't convenient, our government has summarily "rendered" them to allies we know will torture them.

These initial steps weren't wrong in every instance. History has periodically demanded innovative U.S. leadership in international security affairs.

But the Bush administration went out of its way - time and time again - to tell the world that America would do what it must to protect itself in its self-declared "global war" and that, if our actions weren't welcome by other governments, well - that was just too damn bad.

Being as powerful and angry as we were after 9/11, the rest of the world basically got out of our way for the next three years. In turn, we dug our own graves with this persistent unilateralism, forcing our troops to fight two distant wars under the worst strategic situation: beset on all sides by spoilers and increasingly denuded of allies.

And when our cost in blood and treasure became prohibitively high, and it became clear even to the White House that America was being contained and counter-balanced and thwarted by other great powers in further attempts at unilateral actions - such as Bush-Cheney's open toying with the notion of military strikes on Iran, then and only then did this tiger change its stripes.

After the Republicans lost both houses of Congress in the 2006 midterm election, our Mr. Hyde was decisively subsumed within Dr. Jeckyl and the Iraq War was basically outsourced to those military leaders who had long championed a change in strategy there.

We now witness a similarly sensible resetting of strategy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush-Cheney's stunning course correction unfolded under conditions of extreme duress; the world having figuratively thrown its shoes at America's head of state, our leadership was lame enough to duck.

But worse, by our example we have encouraged copycat behavior by other great powers, such as Russia vis-a-vis Georgia or - God forbid - possibly soon India against Pakistan.

If Obama's national security picks - a true team of pragmatists - signals anything, it's that our incoming administration clearly recognizes just how out of synch with the rest of the world's great powers America has become.

There'll be no more swimming against the tide.

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