Saturday, January 17, 2009

Watch for the Bush in Barack Obama

Only days are left before the departure of George W. Bush, and already the word out is that, in the Middle East, the new boss, Barack Obama, may be like the old boss. The only disagreement is who that old boss is. Is it Bush himself, or is it Bill Clinton, in whose administrations many of those now expected to decide the region's affairs once served?

Barack Obama's enthusiasm for change only seems to extend to the Clinton years. We will again hear familiar names such as Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Kurtzer, critics point out, all of whom served in some capacity on Middle Eastern affairs during the 1990s, mainly in the peace process. Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Peace Accord for Bosnia-Herzegovina, is another former Clinton official who might get the call to deal with broader regional matters. He is being tipped as Obama's envoy to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That this recycling of old faces should seem odd is itself odd. There has been only one Democratic president since 1980, so you would expect Obama to reach for expertise in his administrations, even if this makes fresh ideas less likely. For our misfortune, the president-elect has also relied on the counsel of castaways from the Jimmy Carter shipwreck, notably Zbigniew Brzezinski. If in Hollywood you're only as good as your last movie, in Washington you're only as bad as the media's attention span. Few journalists today ask how Carter's failures in Iran and Afghanistan entitle Brzezinski to be considered a sage on the Middle East.

Let me offer a hypothesis: The old boss that Obama will end up imitating most is not Bill Clinton, regardless of the fact that Mrs. Clinton will be secretary of state, but George W. Bush. Even the idea that Bush was unique as a war-monger may have to be adjusted once Obama escalates American military intervention in Afghanistan, and once he discovers that taking to Iran "without conditions" (his delusion, not mine) is unlikely to stop it from developing a nuclear weapons capacity.

Obama will not channel Bush because he's a closet neoconservative. Rather, he will do so because the Bush we watched during his second term displayed few neoconservative instincts at all. And what are these major neoconservative instincts? If we examine Bush's first-term behavior and pair that with a reading of the National Security Strategy of 2002, an essential vessel of neocon thought (though it also contains plenty of conventional "realist" wisdom), we could pair it down to a few loud ideas: reliance on American pre-emption to neutralize emerging global threats; the retention of American predominance over other states or group of states; and a willingness to rely on power, particularly military power, in a unilateral way if necessary, to advance American interests.

The writer Paul Berman caught another essential aspect of the neoconservative moment when he drew attention to its style, remarking that it embodied a great many things, not least "a kind of nationalist swagger." That swagger could be heard in Bush's cretinous "Bring 'em on" phrase goading the Iraqi insurgents in July 2003. The president, far too scattered an individual to be tied down by doctrine, was never really a neocon, but he had certainly internalized their triumphalism.

As we look back on Bush's second term, however, almost all the neocon foreign policy guidelines have evaporated – as has the swagger. In the Middle East the United States has been so pervasively multilateral in its actions, that it has been unable to get very much done. On Iran, working through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations has gone nowhere. If a prop of neocon thought was to act against growing threats preemptively--and Iran's nuclear program would seem to qualify as such a threat--then in 2007 the Bush administration undermined that rule by releasing a National Intelligence Estimate that derailed the chances of a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. Indeed, the US went further and warned Israel against launching an attack.

In Afghanistan, American cooperation with the UN and its military efforts through NATO have also faltered. Recall that the Afghan intervention came in the heyday of neocon affirmation in Washington. Yet the US went about it multilaterally, with all the right certificates of international good behavior. And in Lebanon, as of 2004, the US created a bodyguard of UN resolutions to protect the country from Syria and to contain Hezbollah. Yet that hasn't prevented Damascus from systematically violating those resolutions and undermining Lebanese sovereignty; nor has it prevented Hezbollah from doing the same by rearming via Syrian territory.

In none of these countries – Iran, Afghanistan, and Lebanon – did the US go it alone. The Bush administration locked itself into an international consensus that left room open for others to limit American actions. That squared little with the neocon yearning that no state or group of states should balance America off in the pursuit of its national objectives.

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, too, the US has been militantly multilateral, and the net result has again been stalemate. The so-called Quartet, including the US, the UN, Russia, and the European Union, has been ineffectual largely because domestic Palestinian and Israeli dynamics have thwarted a breakthrough. The sad irony is that Obama may finally inherit some movement on the track because of the butchery in Gaza, which may weaken Hamas. The conflict, for all the death it has rained down, especially on Palestinians, may yet turn into a meeting point between neocons, who favor the transformative possibilities of military ventures like Israel's, and the peace process mavens of the Obama administration, who seek to renew Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The reason Barack Obama will resemble George W. Bush in the Middle East is that Bush hardly resembled himself during his second term; in fact, he resembled what Obama claims he will become: a president who worked with other states consensually; who made use of international law and institutions; who dealt with emerging threats through diplomacy; and, less openly, who ignored all the above when the US could do better for itself that way. Obama's first test will be Gaza. Does he allow Hamas to be beaten, and then cash in on the results? Or does he step in and demand an immediate ceasefire? My money is on Obama's George W. Bush reflex.

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