Why Obama Continues Bush’s Foreign Policy

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.


  1. I think you are missing some nuances. The overall thrust of Obama’s foreign policy has been to disengage us from the Bush wars – that is to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan in politically acceptable form – and to begin to address the central issues the US will face in the 21st century, which are to set limits to and at the same time avoid direct confrontation with China. His recent symbolic commitment to Australia, Hilary’s visit to Burma and our first-time ever participation in the East Asian summit are all early steps in this major pirouette from the Middle East to the Pacific, the area which will be at the center of what’s important to America’s central interests for decades to come.

    All the stuff about the war on terror is increasingly passé but had to be carried on, for security as well as domestic political reasons, till the back of Al Quaeda had been broken. Obama’s interview yesterday on 60 minutes suggests it pretty much has been, allowing him new freedom of movement, if – and that’s a very big if – the US can avoid a war with Iran, whose consequences would be calamitous.

    I would say that getting us out of Bush’s costly over-commitment in the Middle East, in spite of domestic counter- pressures, and gradually redirecting US focus to the Pacific in his first term will in time be seen as a good deal more than a mere continuation of Bush’s overreactive and costly foreign policy!

  2. George,

    I’m tempted to reply “I don’t do nuance”, but then, that’s your point, isn’t it? Compared to his predecessor, Obama does do nuance. In thinking about your response, it might be best to differentiate security policy from diplomacy (although they are clearly linked). To paraphrase Max Weber, diplomacy is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. As you well know, it takes time to reorient a nation’s diplomatic orientation, and the work involved is difficult, tedious and under appreciated by most. The steps that Hillary has taken, under Obama’s direction, to shift U.S. policy toward what you describe as the central issues of the 21st are important ones, although like much diplomacy, we may not see the fruits of her labors for some time yet.

    Where I think we disagree is whether the war on terror (no longer called that, of course!) is increasingly passé. Certainly we have made tremendous progress, and are more secure today than we were a decade ago. But that is in large part because Obama has carried out many of the security policies initiated by Bush – often more successfully. In embracing Bush’s policies, he has in some instances – witness his decision to hold enemy combatants without charge – repudiated his campaign platform. And that’s my point – once in office, security concerns take on an urgency that factors into everything a president does in a way that often seems inconceivable when one is on the campaign trail.

    Of course, it is premature to render a full judgment on Obama’s foreign policy – diplomatic or security. Right now I think it is the strongest part of his resume, but history will be judge based in part on those fruits. I confess that I am less sanguine than you regarding Obama’s ability to lessen our commitment to the Mideast. Events have a way of forcing a president’s hand – witness candidate Bush’s promise not to engage in costly nation building! It is not clear to me that the Arab spring is an unalloyed blessing and, in addition to Iran and nuclear weapons, we have the Syria issue and those pesky “invented” people to deal with. We may turn to the Pacific, but these other problems won’t go away.

  3. You are comparing a fascist warmongering crony practiced in the art of cronyism cheney + halberton with a President who has bent over backwards to try to do what is right for the people and has been blocked every step of the way by the ones you compare him to.. I do not understand your reasoning sir! Do you work for the Koch Brothers.

  4. It pains me that I arrived a little too late to this website. However, I feel obligated to leave this comment in support of what Pat wrote in the first sentence above.

    One of my great regrets to date is that I did not vote for Obama. The enormity of this regret became clearer when I noticed the methodical and intelligent way he went about his foreign policy. He did not believe that world recognition comes through wars and a winner-takes-all stance in international politics. The ability to negotiate intelligently, concede some grounds in search of peace and equilibrium is what makes a leader to be seen as astute. However, the constant flexing of muscles – albeit weakened ones – as the present president is wont to regularly do, never achieves any tangible peace, stability or respect in the eyes of the international community. Fear has ceased to be an effective weapon in peer-to-peer diplomacy.

    Secondly, it would be a miraculous feat if any leader could survive under the atmosphere that Obama was made to operate in. The man was blocked in all things, not because there was a reason to do so, but just to score cheap political points and possibly to exhibit certain underlying racism, which many would swear was not the case. Hence, in any discourse on the performance of Obama, be it in foreign policy or any other aspect of leadership, every factor must be considered.

    Paul Baxter

  5. Paul – It’s never too late to comment! I do wonder how many Trump voters (and I’m not saying you are one) will view their 2016 choice with regret. I suspect not many, although it is difficult to estimate the impact the coronavirus, and the government’s response to it, will have on the 2020 election. Re: Obama’s foreign policy – it is interesting how much support Trump got for his promise to step back from the commitments made by his predecessor in Afghanistan and the Middle EAst in the name of fighting terror. Obama is on record as saying his early decision to escalate the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan was the most difficult of his presidency. Despite promises to extricate the U.S. from that commitment, Trump has found it difficult to do so in full – a reflection of the difficult predicament that both Bush and Obama faced.

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