American presidential election rhetoric always paints the incumbent as incompetent in foreign policy, the challenger insightful and skillful. A look at recent history, however, shows that once the opposition gains office, the world suddenly becomes not so black and white.
The outsider Dwight Eisenhower charged President Harry Truman’s administration with defeatist incompetence in Korea. Yet, in 1953, President Eisenhower continued Democratic war policies, reached a stalemate at the DMZ, and reclaimed Truman’s prior unpopular war policy as his own inspired victory.
Brash-talking John Kennedy claimed by 1960 that the softie Eisenhower had let the Russians take the lead in strategic missiles. When elected, however, a more sober JFK dropped talk of a “missile gap” and continued existing defense planning.
Old pro Richard Nixon, when running for president, was said to have a secret plan to end the Vietnam War — apparently unknown to the clueless Kennedy-Johnson liberals. But for the next five years, President Nixon had no easier time withdrawing than his predecessors without conceding defeat.
Maverick Jimmy Carter claimed that cold warriors Gerald Ford and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had raised tensions with the Soviet Union due to an “inordinate fear of communism.” Soon a red-faced President Carter scrambled to boycott the 1980 Russian Olympics and beef up the Pentagon after global Soviet aggression from Afghanistan to Central America.
After the interventions of the trigger-happy Reagan and Bush Sr., feel-your-pain Bill Clinton was convinced that his charisma could achieve through diplomacy what his predecessors had failed at through their clumsy use of force. But after 1993, President Clinton ended up bombing or shooting Afghans, Iraqis, Serbians, Somalis and Sudanese — without consulting either Congress or the United Nations.
Realist George W. Bush ran on ending Bill Clinton’s nation-building — and ended up spending hundreds of billions of dollars on war and fostering democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
So given that history, don’t expect that President-Elect Barack Obama’s message of hope and change will translate into all that much of either abroad.
Once upon a time, Obama or his supporters variously asserted that Iran was a hyped-up threat, that we could go openly into Pakistan if need be to pursue al-Qaeda, that the surge wouldn’t work, that the Patriot Act and the Guantánamo Bay prison have torn asunder the Constitution, that we have alienated our European allies, that defeating terrorists is more a matter for criminal justice than military force, and that pushing democracy on traditional Islamic societies is culturally chauvinistic and naive.
But like his predecessors, the Obama administration will quickly learn that present U.S. foreign policy is mostly a result of reasonable decisions taken amid bad and worse choices. Therefore, don’t be surprised if a President Obama continues much of what we are now doing — albeit with a kinder, gentler rhetoric of “multilateralism” and “U.N. accords.”
Obama has not assumed office yet, and already Iran has mocked the president-elect’s campaign suggestions for unconditional diplomacy. Already, old-new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has indicated a desire to stabilize Iraq before withdrawing combat forces. Already, commanders have told the president-elect that a simple surge of more troops into Afghanistan offers no magical solution. Already, we are learning that whether we try more aid or ultimatums, Pakistan will remain Pakistan — a radical Islamic, nuclear, failed state that is deeply anti-American rather than merely anti-George Bush.