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Beyond Bush-How Obama’s Foreign Policy Signals Continuity in a Changing Middle East

Beyond Bush-How Obama’s Foreign Policy Signals Continuity in a Changing Middle East

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Published by Christine Leonard

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Published by: Christine Leonard on Sep 10, 2012
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Beyond Bush: How Obama
Foreign Policy Signals Continuity in a ChangingMiddle East
November 4, 2008 should have marked a major turning point in American foreign policy. Butfour years later, U.S. foreign policy has failed to undergo any significant transformation. Itstill bears the hallmarks of a grand strategy that has remained remarkably consistent since theend of World War II.To be sure, the presidential candidates in 2008 emphasized the supposedly significant policypreferences that divided them. For example, Barack Obamacalled
his predecessor a “patsy”
on confronting Chinese currency manipulation, a claim long levied against presidentialincumbents by Democratic and Republican challengers alike.In reality, however, U.S. foreign policy goals have been largely the same for the past sixdecades. U.S. strategy has always been geared toward preserving access to the globalcommons, preventing a great-power war, and protecting the homeland. In an age of fiscalrestraint and shifting power alliances, presidents will have to balance the need to projectAmerican power abroad -- and be willing to exercise it unilaterally -- while managing,strengthening, and building foreign partnerships. So long as the United States retains thesefundamental foreign policy objectives, its conduct is unlikely to undergo major sea changes.Of course, Obama and President George W. Bush had ideological differences. Although Bushwas characterized by his endorsement of democratic regime change, unilateralism, and pre-emptive war, Obama pledged a policy of multilateralism and an America that would beconscious of its past and present flaws.But, as Obama discovered, the rhetoric of a campaign is difficult to follow in office. For one,the global strategic landscape is increasingly complex. Europe, reeling from the financialcrisis, has sought to focus on domestic challenges, at the expense, many argue, of its foreignengagement. At the same time, new regional powers are emerging in Africa, Asia, and South
America. These new partners’ willingness to support America’s foreign engagements might
be less than that of traditional U.S. allies. Forging international consensus in this environmentis difficult or even impossible.Obama has certainly sought to leverage multilateral partners to rebuild American credibilityabroad, but he has not hesitated to act unilaterally. His tenure illustrates the hard reality thatall presidents must face: pragmatism must often trump ideology when pursuing a foreignpolicy that seeks to maintain American global pre-eminence.
Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in the Middle East, the site of some of America’s
most pressing and complex foreign policy challenges. Despite the radical changes that have
occurred in the region, U.S. foreign policy remains similar to that of the second-term Bushadministration. Relations with Pakistan continue to be strained, for reasons that are directlyattributable to the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. In Iraq, Obama has largely followed theterms of withdrawal that Bush set before he left office. In Afghanistan, further militaryengagement, not retrenchment, has been the recipe for creating lasting regional stability. Andthe administration has continued to support autocratic Gulf states to guarantee U.S. militarypresence in the region.Meanwhile, the current administration has intensified drone warfare. During his two terms,Bush authorized 44 drone strikes. Obama, in less than a full term in office, has alreadyauthorized 239. In 2011 alone, he authorized 1,789 kill-or-capture missions. Drone strikes inPakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, although effective in the near-term goal of debilitating alQaeda, have inflamed local populations and may incite radicalization in the long term.Obama has also faced noteworthy legal dilemmas in prosecuting his fight against al Qaeda.The drone program considers any adult male in the area of strike operations an enemycombatant. Itpermitsstrikes on buildings whose inhabitants are unknown, as long as the
United States observes “suspicious” activity. The Ob
ama administration has also interpretedthe Fifth Amendment to mean that U.S. citizens can be afforded due process through
“internal [White House] deliberations.” That interpretation has allowed the Obama
administration to assert that the United States can kill Americans abroad. The broadconception of legal authority articulated by Obama surrogates such as Harold Koh -- wholong criticized the overextension of executive power under the Bush administration -- permitsthe unilateral killing of targets virtually anywhere at any time.Closer to home, Obama has failed to shut down the prisons at Guantánamo Bay. Hoping toforeshadow a coming foreign policy revolution, Obama signed an executive order closing theprison on his first day in office. Four years later, however, it remains open. Obama has issuedanother executive order reversing his ban on military commissions, and such trials haveresumed. Although those commissions might offer more transparency than a system of indefinite detention, their resumption is a resounding endorsement of the Bushadministration mechanisms for combating terrorism.The administration argues that its hands were tied because of Congress, which has been
unwilling to accept the president’s requests to close the prison. But althoug
h Obama didsupport Guantá
namo’s closure, he never opposed indefinite detention policies or the use of 
military commissions. In fact, even before his plan to close the prison failed, headvocatedaplan that, according to the journalist Sheryl Gay Stolberg, writing in
The New York Times
2009, “would write an entirely new chapter in American law to permit ‘prolonged detention’
-- just as at Guantánamo, but with over
sight by the courts and Congress.” Indeed, like Bush,
Obama now argues that as long as the United States is at war with al Qaeda, it retains the right
to hold prisoners indefinitely for the duration of conflict, even if due process finds theminnocent. During a November 2009 hearing, Eric Holder, the attorney general,toldtheSenate Judiciary Committee that any detainee acquitted by a military tribunal could still be
held by the government “under the laws of war.” And Obama’s unwillingness to use his
surrogates, or his own pulpit, to press Congress more forcefully on the issue, suggests that theprison will remain open for the foreseeable future.This approach extends into other areas of international criminal law. The Obamaadministration has shuttered CIA black sites, but Obama continues to support a renditionpolicy that exports terrorism suspects to foreign countries, effectively outsourcing
interrogation work to foreign allies. As under Bush, this policy relies simply on “diplomaticassurances” to protect against torture.
On Iran, the Bush administration managed to pass three unanimous UN Security Councilresolutions imposing sanctions on the country between 2006 and 2008. It generatedagreement among skeptical players such as Indonesia, Libya, and Qatar, all of whom voted forthe final resolutions. Today, Obama has advanced the very same multilateral strategy througha single Security Council resolution, which was adopted in 2010. He was aided by strongefforts in Congress to impose sanctions through national legislation. With his
push for increased financial enforcement, coupled with sophisticatedcyberattacks against the Iranians, Obama has simply elevated the aggressiveness of existingpunitive measures.
On the campaign trail, Obama’s rhetoric emphasized engaging with Iran on the nuclear issue.
Obama famously said that he would be willing to sit down for face-to-face talks withPresident Ahmadinejad to negotiate a resolution to the crisis, since Bush had refused toengage diplomatically, barring a suspension of uranium enrichment activities. Yet once inoffice, Obama has followed suit. Where China and Russia have been unwilling to engage,Obama has leveraged NATO allies and worked outside of the UN system to expand the scopeof sanctions on the regime.Similarly, the Obama administration has been as reticent as the Bush administration toprovide the full extent of military support to Israel that could hasten a military strike. But ithas also increased defense cooperation between the two countries, signing the United States
Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012, which strengthens the existing defensepartnership.Obama has also demonstrated a willingness to act militarily, mobilizing U.S. forces in thePersian Gulf. The large presence of aircraft carrier strike groups in the region aims to deterIran from provocations that could affect the flow of goods through the Strait of Hormuz. The
carriers also serve to reassure Israel that the United States is ready to strike at a moment’s

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