Barack Obama has more in common with his predecessor, George W. Bush, than he might want to acknowledge. Like Bush, Obama is convinced of the righteousness of his own judgment, and lets all of us know it.
While Republicans accuse Obama of everything from being crypto-Muslim to foreign-born to committing high crimes and misdemeanors, the reality is that Obama is running American foreign policy from a watered-down version of the Bush playbook. Drones, check; NSA surveillance, check; overreach, check.
If the rap on Bush 43 was that he wanted to be policeman to the world, Obama seems to have the same ambition—only to do it on the cheap. Bush failed at his “mission accomplished” while spending a lot of money; Obama is failing while spending less.
Yes, Obama presided over the withdrawal American forces from Iraq, and announced a timetable for their pullout from Afghanistan. Still, he seeks to project U.S. force around the globe, regardless of priority or magnitude of crisis, as if our military was a hybrid of cops and Hessians. No matter seems too small for Obama’s attention, even if the upside for America is negligible or nonexistent.
Take the Middle East as an example. In Libya, he sought to lead from behind, only to see our embassy in Benghazi sacked by jihadists. In Syria he made chemical weapons a “red line,” and then folded in the face of public outcry and congressional opposition. At no time did Obama lay out what America’s vital interest might be in either hot spot. But it didn’t end there.
More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry wasted his time and prestige in a futile shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah in another failed attempt to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry’s quest was as much rooted in reality as W’s dream of grafting a secular democracy upon a religiously riven Iraq, or transforming the Arab world into something it isn’t and may never be.
Iraq is in chaos as radical Sunnis march toward Baghdad, and American ships move into position to strike. Meanwhile, Syria has transformed itself from a dictatorship into a murderous cesspool, while Palestinians are kidnapping Israeli teenagers, and Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, elected an opponent of the “two-state solution” as the country’s president. In other words, it’s the same Middle East, only worse.
To top it off, an American drone might kill a Sunni militant who was seeking to topple the Iranian-backed Shia-led Iraqi regime. But, if that same Sunni rebel turned westward to Syria he’d be—armed with American weapons—to take on Syria’s Iranian-backed government.
Yet despite the region living up to its reputation, some things have changed here at home for the better. In 2013 the United States produced enough energy to satisfy 84 percent of its needs, a huge jump from its historic 2005 low, according to a report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Energy output rose 18 percent from 2005 to 2013, while our energy use dropped 2.7 percent. In other words, we are not as vulnerable to the whims of sheiks, mullahs, and deranged holy men as we once were.
More and more of our energy is saying “made in the USA.” Shale gas and fracking have made the difference. In practical terms, that means fewer Americans need to die to secure our foreign energy pipelines, and like it or not, dependence on foreign oil has been a driver of our recent wars, especially since the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Yet the Obama administration has been doing its best to block this energy renaissance, in the name of “climate change.” It’s almost enough to make one think that it prefers the good old days, when American policymakers were preoccupied with the Middle East as an energy hub, thus justifying any number of military adventures—and misadventures.
Fortunately, the American public may be imposing needed restraints upon Washington, and the itch to pull on a trigger wherever and whenever trouble arises. According to CBS, more than three in five Americans opposed intervention in Syria. In recent Republican congressional primaries, the rank-and-file has voted “no” to reflexive interventionism. There’s a reason John McCain never became president.
Last week, outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a war hawk, was upended in a surprise primary loss. Significantly, Cantor’s loss was not the first of its kind. Last month incumbent North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones turned back a well-funded challenge from Bush ’43 alumnus Taylor Griffin (not the NBA star). Jones’ sins were his belated opposition to the Iraq War, coupled with his opposition to going at Iran. To Bushworld, Jones was a heretic.
Tellingly, Cantor and Griffin received more financial support from outside their home states than within. Federal Election Commission reports for both men are littered with D.C. and New York ZIP codes. What Wall Street and K Street want, Wall Street and K Street do not necessarily get.
Heading toward 2016, Iraq raises questions for Republicans and Democrats alike. For Jeb Bush it means answering the question of whether his brother made a mistake in invading Iraq. For Hillary Clinton it means answering the questions of whether she was she wrong in boasting about the end of al Qaeda and for pushing for the United States to take a more active role in Libya. For Democrats it means answering whether their opposition to coal and Keystone XL is harming our national security.
Faced with a Middle East in flames, Republicans would do well to hold extensive hearings on what was the president is thinking and hold the administration’s feet to the fire. The Democrats can respond, of course, that it was Bush’s fault, and they would be right. But strictly speaking, that’s not the contemporary GOP’s problem—unless, of course, it chooses to take on the defense of Bush’s actions of 10 years ago as part of its mandate. And that would be both bad policy and politics.