Is Obama Following In Bush's Footsteps?

President Obama speaks about the efforts to coordinate American charitable aid to the   earthquake victims in Haiti as former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (not pictured) listen in the Rose Garden of the White House Jan. 16, 2010.

President Obama speaks about the efforts to coordinate American charitable aid to the earthquake victims in Haiti as former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (not pictured) listen in the Rose Garden of the White House Jan. 16, 2010. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Toward the end of George W. Bush's presidency, he and his advisers repeatedly suggested that his foreign policy agenda — which was then widely unpopular — would ultimately be vindicated by history.

In light of the killing of al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the rise of democracy movements across the Muslim world this year, some members of his former administration are saying that vindication is now at hand.

"This is a victory across presidencies," Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush's secretary of state, said on CNN Sunday of bin Laden's death. "There's no doubt that ... President Bush had to make some very, very hard calls that frankly helped to set this up."

There are differences of opinion about whether Bush deserves significant credit either for finding bin Laden's trail or setting the stage for the "Arab spring" revolutions. But many analysts argue that President Obama has followed a foreign policy course that, in many ways, resembles the one blazed by Bush.

"The two administrations and their foreign policies are probably closer than supporters of either man would sometimes want to admit," says Fredrik Logevall, a specialist on U.S. foreign relations at Cornell University.

Continuity And Change

As a candidate in 2008, Obama signaled that he would forge a far different foreign policy strategy from Bush, whom he implicitly criticized for launching a "dumb" war in Iraq. He also pledged to put an end to torture and to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

In office, however, Obama has pursued several policies that resemble Bush's. Although Obama has put greater emphasis on Afghanistan than Iraq, his plans in Afghanistan resemble strategies Bush eventually adopted in Iraq — including a big increase in the number of troops on the ground.

Many of the counterterrorism tactics Obama has used, such as targeting financing and strengthening intelligence-gathering, are holdovers from the Bush era. In some cases, Obama has turned to Bush's old advisers and generals to implement such policies.

"In a way, we shouldn't be surprised," Logevall says. "Historically, going back to World War II and the Cold War era, when the White House changed hands, you found remarkable amounts of continuity."

Obama's War Tactics

One of Obama's signatures in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been the use of unmanned predator drones — a tactic that had been approved and put into use by Bush toward the end of his time in office.

"That was a decision President George W. Bush had made and that President Obama expanded," says Timothy Naftali, the author of Blind Spot, a book about counterterrorism.

Working The Refs

Every president is surrounded by public relations pros and image handlers. Every ex-president, it seems, has his advocates, too.

In recent days, veterans of George W. Bush's White House have been all over the media, claiming that his policies led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

"They know that this is a very positive political development for anyone who can identify himself with it," says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.

It's natural for people who worked for an earlier president to try to take credit for policies that pay off long after he has left office, says Timothy Naftali, another presidential scholar. People who worked for Bush's father and former President Ronald Reagan are still competing about which man deserves more credit for winning the Cold War, he says.

Reagan supporters have worked assiduously to build up his historical image, launching campaigns to have buildings and monuments named for him all over the country. In this, they were imitating the way John F. Kennedy's reputation was enhanced through association with important structures.

Fredrik Logevall, an international studies scholar at Cornell University, notes that former Kennedy aides were able to lend luster to his name by publishing laudatory biographies soon after his death.

"Their efforts to bolster Kennedy's reputation were both broad-ranging and effective in influencing how the public and scholars viewed his policies," Logevall says. "This is what acolytes and former officials so often do."

— Alan Greenblatt

Obama did inherit the war in Afghanistan from Bush, but the extent to which he has followed the same approach shouldn't be overstated, suggests Jack Goldstone, director of the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University.

Bush was "haphazard" and "neglectful" in regard to Afghanistan, while Obama has made it more of a focus, Goldstone says, by putting in more resources and following a more carefully thought-out plan.

"Obama's policies in Afghanistan look similar, but are very different," he says. "His policies are better and more effective than anything Bush did in the Afghan theater."

Hunting Bin Laden

Considerable debate has taken place in the media over the past week about how much credit Bush deserves for the killing of bin Laden more than two years after he left office.

"If you just look at the bin Laden raid, that is the culmination of everything we did since 9/11," says James Carafano, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

But not everyone agrees that Obama owes Bush in this regard. Obama, as a candidate, pledged to take action against bin Laden, with or without the cooperation of Pakistan, if actionable intelligence placed him there. Bush criticized the statement and suggested that unilateral action in that country would be a mistake.

Bush and his advisers expended considerable time and effort looking for bin Laden, but Bush opened himself up to criticism in this regard when he said during his first term he was "not concerned" about bin Laden's whereabouts and didn't think about him that much.

"The whole narrative of the Bush people and the neoconservatives is that Obama is weak and inexperienced," says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, who advised the Obama campaign. "This undermines that narrative, so they have to say he couldn't have done it without Bush."

Bush's Freedom Agenda

In recent months, figures from Bush's administration also have occasionally credited their old boss for laying the groundwork for the Arab spring revolutions, noting his insistence on the need to promote democracy in that part of the world.

A rain-soaked sign sits on the ground in front of the gated Dallas  neighborhood of former President George W. Bush in  Dallas, Texas, on  May 2 after President Obama announced that  Osama bin Laden was killed in an operation led by the United States.

A rain-soaked sign sits on the ground in front of the gated Dallas neighborhood of former President George W. Bush in Dallas, Texas, on May 2 after President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was killed in an operation led by the United States. M Otero/AP hide caption

itoggle caption M Otero/AP

"The U.S. action in Iraq had an impact," says Charles Hill, a lecturer at Yale University who advised Republican secretaries of state prior to the Bush administration. "For all the bungles, it really shook up the region."

Hill says the Arab spring is "traceable" to Bush's promotion of a "freedom agenda" for the region. He contends that the 2005 "Cedar Revolution," which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, arose in response to the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

But democracy in Iraq was the product of invasion, while this year's uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt were homegrown affairs. Bush did speak to the desire for democracy in a region long dominated by dictators, Naftali notes. But he also points out that none of this year's protesters were carrying pictures of Bush.

"Our brand was in such decline in the Middle East because of Iraq that it's hard for me to imagine these people who wanted freedom were doing so because an unpopular American leader told them they should," Naftali says.

Where Obama Differs

Obama hasn't followed Bush's approach at every turn. The limits he has placed on U.S. military involvement in Libya — and the fact that he has looked to European nations to take the lead — is a very different tack than Bush would have taken, analysts from across the political spectrum agree.

But those with different leanings are also struck by how similar Obama's overall counterterrorism strategy has been to Bush's. Some are pleased by it, while others are disappointed and blame Congress for tying Obama's hands when it comes to issues such as shutting down the prison at Guantanamo or trying terrorists in civilian courts.

"A lot of this actually does go against the president's impulses and the president's doctrine, which really was to rely more on international institutions and the military less," Carafano says.

Tied Together By Success

Regardless of whether Bush laid the groundwork for Obama's current success, or whether Obama has successfully reordered U.S. priorities in certain regards, both presidents appear to be benefiting politically at the moment.

Despite ongoing disagreements about how much credit Bush deserves for hunting bin Laden or promoting democracy in the Middle East, his image is bound to receive some burnishing from the accomplishment of goals stated during his presidency.

"It's kind of unfinished business that's now finished," Logevall, the Cornell international studies professor, says about bin Laden's killing. "One ironic result of the bin Laden development is that, if this is a boost for Obama, as it surely is, it's also a boost for Bush in terms of his legacy."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.