Bush and Barack, Bedfellows

Illustration by André Carrilho

By all accounts, including the president’s, the postelection courtesies extended by George W. Bush and his people to Barack Obama and his team have included everything short of rolling out a welcome mat in front of the White House. “I worked hard to make this transition a smooth transition; I want him to succeed,” Bush declared the other day at an American Enterprise Institute event. Bush went on to note that when he met his successor face-to-face last month, he was “impressed by the questions [Obama] asked,” though he refused to divulge details. “I told him I wouldn’t reveal them, so that if he ever asked for my advice again, he’d feel comfortable doing it knowing that it wouldn’t be out there for public consumption.”

The idea that 44 might in the future continue to seek the counsel of 43 would until recently have struck partisans on both ends of the ideological spectrum as absurd. But that was before the transition commenced and Obama began to tip his hand in the area of foreign policy. Before the appointment of the power troika of Bob Gates, Jim Jones, and Hillary Clinton, each of whom plausibly could have filled the very same jobs in a John McCain regime. Before the hints that Obama might not be fully, rigidly committed to the rapid timetable for drawing down combat troops in Iraq that he advocated during the campaign. Before, in other words, the pat assumptions of the right and the left were blown to smithereens.

That all this has come as such a shock to so many owes to a misreading of Obama as a starry-eyed idealist—when there was ample evidence that lurking just beneath the surface was a hard-eyed, sometimes hawkish realist. One obvious implication here is that the next four years may be marked as much by continuity with Bush’s policies as by radical departures from them. But a less conspicuous consequence is that, although the president and his supporters shared a dim view of Obama as a prospective commander-in-chief, the supposedly woolly-minded, lily-livered Democrat may wind up doing more to salvage Bush’s legacy than the grizzled Republican nominee ever would, or could, have done.

If that happens, there will be poetic justice to it—and no small irony, too—for the truth is that Obama’s debt to Bush is greater than he would ever care to admit. No one can say what the situation in Iraq would be today had Bush not persisted, against the odds and the opposition of the national-security Establishment, with his troop-surge plan at the start of 2007. What’s impossible to dispute, however, is that the surge has worked and that its success bore unexpected benefits for Obama in his contest against McCain. With Iraq demonstrably on the mend (and, of course, the financial system melting down), the war was reduced to insignificance as a campaign issue. And so was the salience of the single question—who would make a better commander-in-chief?—on which McCain might just conceivably have eked out a victory.

The surge, moreover, continues to aid Obama as he prepares to take office. Were Iraq still aflame, the new president would find it immeasurably more difficult to make good on his campaign promises to bring an end to the war there. But with conditions on the ground dramatically improved, and local and national elections in the months ahead, Obama is now free to contemplate an orderly withdrawal with less risk of seeing the country descend into sectarian chaos. The stability bred by the surge, and the broader strategies enacted by Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, have given him options that are sound both as politics and policy.

Yet Obama appears to appreciate that Iraq is forever volatile. And although he says he remains committed to his goal of pulling out all U.S. combat troops by spring 2010, he has left himself plenty of wiggle room for deviations from that schedule—as Gates pointedly stressed at a recent press conference. “[Obama has] repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within sixteen months,” Gates allowed. “But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown, and he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders.”

Gates was making the point that there is no daylight between him and Obama on the Iraq-drawdown timetable—but the same could be said about Obama and Bush. And this is true on a larger range of issues than you might imagine. It’s been noted by writers ranging from Fareed Zakaria to E. J. Dionne that Obama’s foreign-policy instincts bear a strong resemblance to those of George H.W. Bush, whose pragmatic realism looks more and more like the essence of an emerging new consensus in foreign policy. Indeed, the president-elect has said himself that he has “enormous sympathy” for 41’s global approach.

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.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Bush and Barack, Bedfellows