Less often noted, though, is the extent to which the younger Bush has shifted during his second term away from crazy-ass neoconservatism to a posture more like Bush the elder’s. In dealing with Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, Condi Rice has pursued an aggressively multilateral path to a fault, working collaboratively with Europe, Russia, and China. The administration has put out diplomatic feelers for direct talks with Tehran, reengaged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reached out to Syria, and negotiated with Pakistan to allow aerial strikes against Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistani territory. “Over the past two years,” writes Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, Bush has “quietly repositioned himself as a realist in foreign policy.”
Now, make no mistake, Obama’s incarnation of the new realist consensus will be different in tone and emphasis from the version that Bush has stealthily embraced. The stress on diplomacy will be louder. There will be more explicit talk about “soft power” and a greater focus on issues such as energy, the environment, and the economy as critical to international security. And Obama will surely see closing Guantánamo Bay and renouncing torture as crucial to the rebranding of America abroad.
These differences with Bush are not incidental. They will put Obama in a position to accomplish much that the current president could not—even when there isn’t a dime’s worth of substantive difference between the latter and the former. As Kaplan argues, Obama will benefit enormously from taking office at a moment when America’s position in the world is at a low ebb: He is “buying into a bottomed-out market … just at the point when a number of factors are already set in motion for a recovery.” Would McCain therefore have been able to reap similar gains? I doubt it. Not only is he tarred with the brush of Bush in the eyes of much of the world, but the unilateralism and bellicosity he displayed during the campaign would have set him against the prevailing tide in the realm of global statecraft. There would have been no change dividend for him.
Which, in a funny way, brings us back to Obama and Bush. The president has long seemed to realize that history’s verdict on his tenure will hinge mainly on Iraq—on what transpires there over the coming years, on whether the country emerges, as Bush hoped, as a relatively peaceful, free, democratic place. Not long ago, that outcome seemed ridiculously far-fetched, but now there are plenty of serious people of both parties daring to think it possible. And one of them must be Obama, who soon will have no small amount of political skin in that game. The situation he will inherit is entirely of Bush’s making. The personnel and policy he’s employing to win the peace are almost certainly to Bush’s liking. They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows, and that is true enough. But it’s nothing compared to the bizarreness of the bunk mates that presidencies inspire.