The More Things Change…

by , January 20, 2009

Well, it looks as if we will soon have a president who is able to string sentences together in a reasonably coherent fashion, if sometimes a little slowly and with lots of pauses. At least Barack Obama, whether it’s true or not, will give the impression that the pauses reflect consideration of the question rather than thoughts such as "Are they buying this?" or "I can’t believe I’m getting away with this."

It seems unlikely that many Americans will do other than breathe a long sigh of relief when George W. Bush finally leaves the White House. His farewell appearances last week were suitably bizarre, suggesting a man of limited capacity for sustained ratiocination, who, like many essentially weak people seeking to camouflage their weakness, views any admission of a mistake, or even a willingness to compromise or consider the views of another, as an unacceptable sign of the vulnerability he knows is there and doesn’t wish to acknowledge.

The simple-mindedness of this strangely unreflective man can be seen especially in his comment during that strange final press conference that there is good and evil in this world, and you simply don’t compromise with evil. Several observers have noted that this reflects a view most of us know from our daily lives, where the truth of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man and woman. Fewer have noted that Bush’s odd formulation instills in him (and all too many of his supporters) a certain self-righteousness that permits him to rationalize almost anything. Once we are defined as good, then anything we do is not only allowable but also right and necessary.

Think of the deceit leading up to the Iraq war, which in most moral systems would qualify as evil. Think of not only authorizing torture but seeing it as somehow noble. Think of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Some political or moral thinkers would see such apparent aberrations as evidence that sometimes, in pursuit of the good, we have to use tactics that are not strictly moral but can be justified on the basis of a careful weighing of ends and means. In Bushworld, however, tactics and strategies that most moralists would view as evil or at least dubious are converted to positively good because the overarching cause is a good one. I am good, therefore I can do no wrong. It is a strange perversion of historic Christianity that is all too common among those who call themselves Christians (and it’s common enough in adherents of other religions as well, to be sure).

As I’ve suggested in various venues recently, however, it does seem likely that when you get down to brass tacks, Barack Obama’s foreign policy, though it will undoubtedly be expressed and defended more eloquently and carried out more deliberately, will not be all that different from what the Bush administration has actually been doing for the last couple of years.

To be sure, there are signs that suggest substantive change. Walter Pincus of the Washington Post has pointed out that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the very symbol of continuity with the Bush regime, has offered comments in recent months that suggest a different path in foreign affairs. Gates has stressed in interviews, for example, Russia’s historic feelings of vulnerability and suggested that viewing Russia as some kind of inexorable enemy or existential threat is misguided. He has said that while jihadist terrorism is a serious problem, the Islamic extremists don’t pose "the kind of threat to the existence of the United States that the Soviet Union did, or of the same kind of threat to freedom around the world." He has suggested that the U.S. can neutralize or even "recruit" disaffected Muslims tempted to become active jihadists through non-military means.

"How did we end up in a place where the country that invented public relations ended up being outcommunicated by a guy in a cave?" Gates asked rhetorically on the Charlie Rose show.

While an Obama administration is likely to have a different tone than the outgoing Bush administration, and will also come into office with a reservoir of good will that may not extend beyond the superficial, much of the evidence is that there will be more continuity than change. His plan for withdrawing from Iraq is not all that different from what the Bush administration has begun to implement, and the likelihood is that even after "combat" troops have been withdrawn there will still be tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq. Obama plans to issue an executive order early on to close the Guantanamo prison camp, but his aides stress that the process of actually doing so will be gradual and difficult and could take a year or so.

Then there’s his apparent conviction that the real central front in what he also calls the "war on terror" (an unfortunate misnomer with implications for how one confronts problems) is in Afghanistan. He has endorsed the idea of a troop "surge" in Afghanistan and even said, "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them [sic] out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out" and "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda."

What will he do once he confronts reality, especially the reality that the Pakistani government is shaky and lately more inclined to posture against India than track down the Taliban? It’s difficult to know. It is probably significant, however, that Gen. David Petraeus, the presumed hero of the "surge" in Iraq (though heaven knows there are other reasons for the decline of violence there, which could prove fleeting), in an interview in Foreign Policy magazine, outlined a plan for sustained nation-building that anticipates a significant U.S. presence for at least a decade.

It amazes me that Americans of various ideological stripes think that a country that has never had a strong central government and has taken no steps to put one together is just aching to have a bunch of Western advisers come in and erect a European-style parliamentary democracy. But there it is.

To be sure, some Obama advisers have suggested that the U.S. military surge is unlikely to be the final answer in Afghanistan but is a way of buying time while Team Obama assesses the situation from the ground up and comes up with a putatively new strategy. How likely do you think it is, however, that the strategy will be to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans?

It’s possible that there will be at least a conditional cease-fire in Gaza when Obama takes the oath of office, but the battle there certainly hasn’t eliminated Hamas or solved Israel’s long-term demographic problems. As almost every American president since Eisenhower has been tempted to do, Obama is likely to consider active U.S. intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, even though the historic U.S. backing of Israel makes it absurd to think of the U.S. as an honest broker

Throw in ongoing problems with Russia, symbolized by the Russian-Ukrainian impasse over natural gas, and changing conditions in China, which has seen its export markets dry up and which may in the long run be more severely affected by the global financial crisis than the U.S. or Western Europe, and you have plenty of situations that might seem to call (depending on your concept of U.S. grand strategy) for active U.S. involvement. Then add the fact that Hillary Clinton, no shrinking violet, will be seeking some kind of capstone to her career that identifies her as genuinely consequential, and it’s not difficult to imagine even more active interventionism in the rest of the world – with a more diplomatic and multilateral flavor than was the case during the lamentable Bush years, but with military action always on the table.

I’d love to see change I could believe in under a new president, and it’s worthwhile to suspend judgment for at least a bit. But the likelihood of an Obama administration actually reducing the U.S. footprint in the world seems rather low.

Read more by Alan Bock