Whither the Obama of Hope?

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Appeared in The Mark News

“What happened to hope?”

That’s the question many of President Barack Obama’s supporters are asking three years after a campaign that criticized “wars of choice” and the PATRIOT Act, promised to “finish the fight” in Afghanistan, and vowed to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and use “tough direct diplomacy” to break prevent Iran from deploying nuclear weapons.

When it comes to foreign and defence policy, the answer is simple: the message of hope and change collided with reality. In short, Obama’s supporters are learning that conducting U.S. foreign policy is far more difficult than simply critiquing it. As a consequence, on the central foreign policy and national security issue of the day—the global struggle against jihadists and their patrons and partners—there is far more common ground between Obama and former President George W. Bush than Obama’s supporters expected, and less change than his opponents feared.

To be sure, there are important differences in other areas of foreign policy (the divergent approaches to Russia, missile defence and America’s leadership role in NATO, for example). And without question, the Bush-Obama continuity on counterterrorism is often overshadowed by Obama’s rhetoric, sprinkled with references to “the failed policies of the previous administration.” But in the fight against terrorists with a global reach, actions speak louder than words.

It pays to recall that one of Obama’s first acts after his election was to hire Bush’s defence secretary, Robert Gates, who helped plan the revised mission for Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) under Bush and carried out the successful surge strategy in Iraq. Part of the revised AfPak mission crafted by Gates and other national-security leaders from the Bush era was the so-called “drone war,” the controversial yet effective use of unmanned planes to strike enemy targets in Pakistan, which began under Bush and has been expanded under Obama.

Even upon Gates’ retirement, Obama selected in Leon Panetta someone who seems to be more comfortable with Bush’s polices than candidate Obama’s rhetoric.

For example, while others in the Obama administration made a concerted effort to expunge the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements, Panetta, who served as CIA director before taking over at the Pentagon, refused to engage in the rhetorical games over word choice. “There’s no question this is a war,” he bluntly said of the struggle against jihadist terrorism.

While others in the Obama administration talked about talking Iran out of its drive for nukes, Panetta told it like it was, reporting that Iran has “enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons.”

To top it all off, during a recent visit to Iraq, Obama’s newly minted defence secretary explained to the troops, “The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked…And we’ve been fighting as a result of that.”

As The Washington Post observed, Panetta’s view “echoed comments made by Bush and his administration.”

Panetta’s point—and Bush’s—is not that Saddam Hussein perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities, but that 9/11 taught Washington a grim lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same way, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how America waged the Cold War against Stalin and his successors.

Speaking of Iraq, candidate Obama pounded his predecessor for a “go it alone” war of choice against Saddam Hussein. Iraq was indeed a war of choice—most U.S. wars are—but Bush did not “go it alone” in Iraq. In fact, there were 27 nations with boots on the ground in Iraq.

However, Obama did go it alone in Pakistan when he sent U.S. forces to strike Osama bin Laden. And the president is currently engaging in a war of choice in Libya.

In both instances, a strong argument can be made that the president chose the right policy. Again, what’s intriguing to many observers—and no doubt frustrating to Obama’s supporters—is how much President Obama’s actions contrast with candidate Obama’s words.

In 2007, as rumors swirled that Bush was planning to bomb Iran, Obama emphatically declared that “the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Yet that’s exactly what Obama did in Libya. To this day, after almost five months of bombing, Obama has not received congressional authorization for U.S. participation in NATO’s air war.

Similarly, Obama criticized the Bush administration for acting unilaterally, alienating allies and launching military operations without UN approval. Yet the bin Laden strike failed to meet any of these standards: It was not authorized by the UN. In fact, some observers even condemned it as illegal. It not only alienated the Pakistanis; it humiliated them. Recall that Islamabad was notified of the operation only after U.S. forces had left Pakistani airspace. And it was completely unilateral. Pakistani forces didn’t even participate in the operation, which happened just 40 miles outside their capital city. In fact, contingencies were in place for the U.S. strike team to fight its way out of Pakistan.

Finally, at the intersection of foreign policy, national security and domestic policy, Obama, who once criticized the PATRIOT Act, has signed legislation extending it.

In a similar vein, he ordered the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (commonly known as “Gitmo”). Yet even this policy change highlights the continuity between Bush and Obama, albeit in an unintended way.

On January 22, 2009, just two days into his administration, Obama issued a presidential directive to close Gitmo “no later than one year from the date of this order.” That deadline has come and gone, as bipartisan majorities in Congress have overwhelmingly blocked the movement of Gitmo detainees into the United States. And the Obama administration has relented.

Some of Obama’s supporters say the high ground is eroding beneath the president’s feet every day that Gitmo remains open. But when it comes to defence and security issues, Obama and his disappointed supporters are learning that the high ground disappears when the governing begins, leaving a new president on common ground with his predecessor.

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