As John and Jonathan have already noted, today’s speech at the State Department marks Barack Obama’s emergence as a full-fledged, born-again neocon firmly in the George W. Bush mold.
Bush, recall, was no “neocon” when he entered office—he promised to pursue a narrow, interests-based foreign policy and avoid adventures in nation building. The fact that he came to be seen as an arch neocon—meaning a policymaker who put ideals at the center of his foreign policy—was ironic and unexpected. His numerous critics, including Senator Obama and many of his supporters, rushed to explain his transformation by pointing to the supposed work of a cabal of shadowy neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.
All this was, of course, nonsense; second-tier officials like Wolfowitz and Feith did not determine Bush’s foreign policy. What made the difference was simply the march of events—9/11 above all—which showed the severe limitations of the previous American policy in the region which had put stability above all other concerns and which had countenanced countless deals with dictators as long as they provided oil or military cooperation.
Now, after slightly more than two years in office, Obama has made the same transformation. And, again, it was not some shadowy cabal that made the difference; claims today that an “estrogen” brigade of Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power have transformed Obama are just as nonsensical as the claims that were once made about the Bush administration. Obama, like Bush, is a neocon because he has been mugged by events—in his case by the Arab Spring which has exposed the fragility of dictatorships that he once thought, in the fashion of his predecessor’s father, George H.W. Bush, he could make deals with.
Gone now is the apologetic tone of Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, where he denied that America was “ at war with Islam”; proclaimed, in light of Iraq, that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”; and even tried to make amends for the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953.
Instead today at the State Department he spoke from a position of moral authority, telling Middle Eastern dictators that the U.S. will no longer tolerate a situation where “in too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few.” He even specifically repudiated the Realpolitik policy he had once favored, saying that “we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.” From now on, he announced, “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”
Also of great symbolic importance was the fact that Obama relegated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—once the centerpiece of his Middle Eastern policy—to the last part of his speech. This, too, is reflective of the same shift that Bush made before him, and for much the same reason: Once in office a president quickly finds that obsessive interest in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian deal (the mania of the foreign policy establishment) is not only unproductive but counterproductive because it serves as a distraction from broader challenges across the region.
But while Obama’s transformation is to be applauded, the import of this shift should be not exaggerated. Recall that Bush, under the influence of Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice and the State Department, took a more Realpolitik turn in his second term and even in his first term his rhetoric always exceeded his actions. The challenge going forward will be to see how Obama implements the lofty rhetoric we heard today.
Given that the State Department and military bureaucracies both reflexively favor the status quo ante, pushing them in a different direction will require a monumental commitment on the commander-in-chief’s part. In short, it will take more than one speech. But if there has been a problem with the Obama approach, especially on Afghanistan, it is that too often he has not shown the sustained commitment to sell his own policies to a skeptical public. That will have to change if he is to avoid some of the frustrations of Bush’s second term.