Obama's Break With Bush On Foreign Policy Is Real But Not Total

Based on the Republican presidential candidates’ reactions to Barack Obama’s announcement today that the United States will withdraw all of its military forces from Iraq by the end of the year, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Obama administration’s approach to Iraq was a sharp break from the policies of George W. Bush. There’s just one problem with that theory: The president who got us into that quagmire was the same one who set the deadline to get us out — even if Bush didn’t necessarily mean it when he said America would be gone by the beginning of 2012.

Elected in large part because he promised a departure with the torture, endless wars, and chaos of the early Bush era, Barack Obama’s foreign policy has largely resembled a liberal version of the more moderate track Bush took toward in his final years, keeping on Robert Gates at the Pentagon and continuing with a surge in Afghanistan that bore a remarkable resemblance to the one Bush (somewhat succesfully) engineered in Iraq at the close of 2006.

But to those Republicans seeking to replace him, Obama is a naive fool.

“President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women,” said Mitt Romney in a statement. “The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”

Likewise, the more Tea Party-focused populist right is none too happy.

“President Obama’s decision represents the end of the era of America’s influence in Iraq and the strengthening of Iran’s influence in Iraq with no plan to counter that influence,” said Michele Bachmann in a statement. “We have been ejected from a country by the people that we liberated and that the United States paid for with precious blood and treasure,” she continued, later arguing as she did in a recent debate that we should be compensated for the “liberation” of Iraq and other countries we invade. If we had adhered to this rule when France came to our aid during the American Revolution, it might have brought our young country to its fiscal knees while bailing Louis XVI out of a brutal class war that sank his regime in France.

Then again, the continuity with the somewhat more sane Bush approach 0f 2007-08 (when Bob Gates was the adult in the room and pushed things back to the realism of the first President Bush) is not total. Obama has nudged things in a more progressive direction than they would have taken otherwise, as some of the reporting on the withdrawal deadline shows.

“At the time of the negotiations, it was made clear that it would not be the last agreement, it would be the first,” a defense official close to the 2008 talks told The Huffington Post in July. “But there was never a contemplation that we would walk out of Iraq at end of 2011 like we did at the end of Vietnam. The SOFA was a bridge document to get us to end of 2011.”

We see this same slight progressive shift in other areas of foreign policy that the president has failed to dramatically change as promised. He didn’t close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, but he did reduce the number of inmates by nearly 30 percent and tried and failed to actually shut the thing down. He hasn’t halted all renditions, but he did end some of the most abusive terrorism tactics, including the use of waterboarding (aka torture).

But will such a mixed and muddled record sell to Democratic voters frustrated with the president when he seeks their enthusiasm next fall? That remains perhaps the greatest question unanswered.


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