As Robert Kagan sees it, Barack Obama’s foreign policy so far is nearly identical to George W. Bush’s. Vigorous engagement with China was a hallmark of the Bush years. So too was the ever “hopeful” but static back-and-forth with Pyongyang on nuclear development — a policy Hillary Clinton has continued. Obama’s sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan is simply a holdover plan from the Bush administration, as is Obama’s commitment to the parameters of our status of forces agreement with Iraq.
Kagan points out that Obama is even following Bush’s example in allowing a gulf to form between rhetoric and policy when it comes to democracy promotion. With all due respect to Kagan, I think he’s being a little unfair to the last president. It’s true; the end of George W. Bush’s second term saw a more meager White House “freedom agenda” than the first, while the language of democracy promotion never ceased. But it’s hard to name a president since Ronald Reagan who did more for the promotion of democracy in foreign lands. Bush liberated tens of millions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and changed the dominant debate in the entire Muslim world to tyranny vs. democracy. The ineffectiveness of Bush’s second term was due in large part to the domestic and international animus incurred by his bold first term.
Moving backward from Bush: While Bill Clinton was right to nourish Russian reform in various ways, hindsight shows he did not make the most of this post-Cold War opportunity. There was nothing left in place to check the rise of a Vladimir Putin or to set a clear path for balancing NATO obligations against keeping Russia on course. Clinton had an outsized faith in the power of free markets to do the work of democratic reform. It’s a faith that guided his China policy as well. He expanded trade with China, but while that country has become more economically dynamic in the intervening years, its human rights progress has been pitiful and its democratic reform minuscule. Just today we read that the chairman of the National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo, declared China to be on the “path of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” adding that “the Western model of a legal system cannot be copied mechanically in establishing our own.” George H. W. Bush, also a proponent of opening global markets, had no specific freedom agenda to speak of. After meeting our international obligation to rid Kuwait of Saddam Hussein, Bush 41 let Kurds and Iraqi Shiites (and, to a less fatal extent, millions of Iraqi Sunnis) continue to suffer under the brutal Baathist regime.
If Barack Obama manages to liberate a fraction of the number of people who now have George W. Bush to thank for their freedom, he will have made himself and his nation proud.