Against the backdrop of today’s joint Obama-al Maliki press conference it is worth noting that perhaps the strongest portion of Obama’s presidential record so far has been his handling of foreign policy. Public opinion polls give the President much higher marks for his conduct of foreign policy than of domestic issues, and some of his most notable policy successes – killing Bin Laden, overthrowing Gadhafi – have taken place abroad. The irony, of course, is that Obama’s success in this policy realm has come largely by building on the foundation laid down by his predecessor George W. Bush rather than dismantling it. And when Obama has sought to deviate from the path charted by Bush, more often than not he’s been unsuccessful. Continuity, then, and not change, has been the byword of Obama’s foreign policy.
The most immediate reminder of this will occur at the end of this month, when after nine years, the last of the U.S military forces in Iraq will return home. At its peak, the U.S. had over 170,000 troops in Iraq – now it is down to about 6,000. (The U.S. will retain a sizable force of military trainers and other civilian support staff, in addition to its diplomatic corps, although the exact size and composition is a matter still under negotiation.) The troop withdrawal, of course, is based on the status of forces agreement negotiated by Bush with the Iraqis – an agreement the Obama administration had hoped to amend to allow some U.S. military forces to remain in Iraq to prevent a return to the sectarian violence that plagued the country in recent years. The Iraqi government, however, proved unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to the U.S., and so Obama will largely adhere to Bush’s original withdrawal schedule. In terms of electoral politics, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing – the U.S. military presence in Iraq was not very popular, and the military withdrawal allows Obama to keep a campaign promise to wind down the Iraqi war.
There are many other areas of continuity between Bush and Obama in the conduct of foreign policy. Obama has expanded Bush’s use of drones as both offensive weapons in the War on Terror, but also in intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance operations. Although Obama purportedly closed secret CIA prisons holding suspected terrorists, he continues the policy of rendition under which suspected terrorists can be sent to foreign prisons for interrogation. He has authorized the use of military commissions to try some terrorists, and – with the courts’ consent – supports the Bush policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely without charge. Despite opposition from both conservative Republicans and many Democrats, he signed a four-year extension of the Patriot act which, among other provisions, provides federal authorities roving wiretap power to listen in on conversations of foreign suspects even when they change phones or locations, and gives the government the authority to investigate foreigners who have no known affiliation with terrorist groups. (To do so, however, requires approval from a secret federal court.)
In some instances, Obama has out-Bushed Bush in the conduct of the war on terror. In Afghanistan, of course, Obama built up the U.S. military presence in order to stabilize a rapidly deteriorating situation there, and thus lay the groundwork for an earlier U.S. withdrawal. To date, Obama appears committed to the withdrawal schedule although his commanders on the ground are fighting a rearguard action in order to extend the U.S. presence there. Perhaps the most notable foreign policy success, of course, was the killing of Bin Laden, which required violating Pakistan’s airspace. And, in perhaps the most dramatic example of Obama’s willingness to push the limits of his authority, he authorized the assassination of an American citizen overseas who was suspected of actively working as a terrorist.
When Obama has sought to step back from Bush-era policies governing the War on Terror, however, he has often been unsuccessful. After months of wrangling with Congress, Obama has implicitly admitted that Guantanamo Bay prison will not be closed, and in fact will continue to hold high value targets who may be caught in the anti-terror campaign. His effort to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civil court collapsed in face of domestic opposition from New York officials. And even Obama’s decree banning the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique is now under reconsideration in the Republican House.
What explains this continuity in foreign policy between a Republican and a Democratic President? Why was Obama largely unsuccessful when he did try to break with his predecessor’s policies? At the most fundamental level, it reflects the common pressures both Bush and Obama feel, as chief executive and commander in chief, to protect the nation against attack. Political scientists have long debated whether the president wields a greater panoply of powers in the foreign versus domestic realm. Depending on who one consults (and when), presidents are either characterized as imperial (think FDR, Nixon or Bush) or imperiled (Ford or Carter) in their ability to conduct foreign policy. I’ve long argued that this debate misses the crucial aspect of foreign policy that differentiates it from domestic issues as seen from the president’s perspective: because the repercussions of a foreign policy failure are far more damaging not to just to him (someday her) – but to the nation, presidents feel they have no choice but to expand their foreign policy powers as much as political constraints allow. Put another way, they don’t feel nearly as powerful in foreign affairs as they think they should be to meet expectations. From the perspective of one sitting in the Oval Office, the constraints on the president’s ability to protect the nation feel far more onerous because the burden of responsibility that weighs on the president is so much greater.
Because Bush was the one in power when 9-11 occurred, he endured most of the political fallout resulting from his desire to meet the new expectations associated with fighting a different type of war. The ensuing debate over how to balance the desire to give the President the powers necessary to prevent another attack with the need to hold him accountable for utilizing those powers was politically costly to Bush, but in the end a framework for balancing energy and accountability was developed. That debate continues today, but mostly in fine tuning the measures negotiated between Bush, Congress and the courts in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The most recent manifestation, of course, is Obama’s threat to veto the military authorization bill because it limits his flexibility in handling suspected terrorists. Obama’s opposition to a provision in the bill allowing Americans captured on American soil to be held in military custody without charge is only partly motivated by a concern for civil liberties. Of greater concern to Obama are the limits the bill places on him in his ability to prosecute the War on Terror.
In this desire for maximum flexibility, Obama is no different from Bush. Indeed, Bush did not just bequeath Obama hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the backdrop of a global war on terror – he also handed over a set of policy tools, forged in heated debate between our governing institutions, for fighting those wars. For the most part, Obama has chosen to use those tools because, as did Bush, he feels more than does anyone else the pressure to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.
When it comes to foreign policy, presidents may appear to be imperial – but they feel anything but.