Bush outfoxes Obama with policy shifts

Barack Obama wants to sound like the voice of reason on U.S. foreign policy — the guy who would abandon Bush administration policies he sees as shortsighted, self-defeating or just plain wrong. Problem is, George Bush keeps beating him to it.

The administration’s turnabout on a timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal in Iraq and its new willingness to sit down and talk with adversaries Iran and North Korea make it hard for Obama to define himself as the clear alternative.

The shifts don’t help John McCain, either.

As the White House blurs formerly sharp lines, Bush’s would-be Republican inheritor is left to defend positions that the administration has left behind. In the case of Iraq, McCain now stakes a position more absolute than Bush and less popular with voters.

McCain is opposed to setting any timeline for withdrawals and says going to war was the right decision. Polls show a majority of Americans think the U.S. should have stayed out of the war.

In the space of about a week, Bush has reversed course and agreed to set a "general time horizon" for bringing home more U.S. troops and sent envoys to meet face to face with Iranian and North Korean diplomats under terms he once rejected.

Obama is poised to be the first black presidential nominee of a major party, and the need for change is the mantra of his campaign.

But the Illinois Democrat is losing his high contrast on signal foreign policy matters just as he tries to buff his thin foreign policy experience with a grand tour of Afghanistan, the Mideast and Europe.

He stuck to generalities Thursday during a speech in Berlin that implicitly cast him as redeemer of European faith bruised by the Iraq war and Bush anti-terror tactics widely opposed in Europe.

Europeans sometimes view America as "part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right," Obama said.

Obama has opposed the Iraq war from the start. He predicted that Bush’s troop surge would fail and insists he’d bring most troops home within 16 months.

Looking forward, though, his major policy difference with the Bush administration is blurry gray instead of black and white: Would a timetable for troops withdrawal be flexible or fixed?

The converging policies on Iran and North Korea leave even more mush. Talks are likely to continue with both of those members of Bush’s old "axis of evil" through the administration’s waning months, under rules that sound pretty much like those Obama would impose.

Obama also mouthed all the ritual political catechisms expected of U.S. presidential candidates when touring Israel and the West Bank this week, including a firm endorsement of Israel’s right to defend itself that was intended to please Jewish voters at home. He said if elected he’d work harder and faster for peace than his predecessor but said little to suggest his tactics or goals would be much different.

Obama is being pushed to the pragmatic middle of the road by the need to appeal to a wider audience as he looks to the fall election and by the imperatives of foreign policy problems that are a lot more complicated up close.

Bush is going there willingly in an apparent attempt to pocket a foreign policy victory or two before he leaves office.

If it’s hard to imagine how Obama can suddenly seem same-old, same-old, it’s even more difficult to fathom how quickly Bush has walked away from positions that once seemed immutable.

"I think the parallels are uncanny," between the new Bush administration positions on Iran and North Korea, said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush.

"We started out with both, thinking the solution to the problem in both North Korea and Iran was regime change. And we have abandoned it in both cases."

Scowcroft, speaking this week at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, approved of the policy shifts as pragmatic or flexible, although he said the administration remains internally conflicted over what to do about the potential threat of a rising Iran.

"We’ve backed away from regime change but not toward much of anything else," he said.

Iran nuclear talks attended by one of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s top deputies produced no immediate results, and Rice seemed miffed to have stuck her neck out. Until last weekend’s session in Europe, the Bush administration had refused to join negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program unless Iran shelved the most worrisome parts of the program before coming to the table.

Iran hasn’t shut off the nuclear centrifuges that scare the West and Israel and may not have to under either a Bush or Obama administration.

Days later, Rice herself was at a table in Asia with North Korea’s foreign minister, hand-picked envoy of a man Bush once called a "tyrant," hereditary leader Kim Jong Il. Of course, North Korea called Bush a tyrant and an imbecile, so there were insults to go around.

It was mostly a small-talk session, but Rice said she used the highest-level contact between the two nations in more than four years to say that North Korea isn’t out of the diplomatic woods.

"I don’t think the North Koreans left with any illusions about the fact that the ball was in their court," to prove they are telling the truth about the extent of their shuttered nuclear weapons program, Rice said Thursday in Singapore.

The talking has started, however, and Rice is winning an administration argument over dealing with North Korea gently in the interest of dismantling a program the North Koreans have proved can make bombs.

The administration was also ready to invite a visiting Syrian delegation for a chat-up with a top U.S. diplomat this week and only changed its mind when the most prominent member of the Syrian group dropped out.

The 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group criticized the Bush administration’s diplomatic freeze on Iran and Syria as counterproductive. Gradual shifts began not long after, with the administration agreeing to talk to both nations about what the U.S. calls their meddlesome or deadly activities inside Iraq.


Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affair for The Associated Press.


  1. RichardKanePA


    I will be glad if Bush decides to get out of Iraq before the ’08 election even if he helps John McCain in the process.

    Who knows, perhaps Venezuela and Iran will slowing back down (Cuba already doing so even though no one notices) and McCain will seem a success like Reagan did when the USSR slowly backed down. However, all McCain’s brinkmanship will cost money even if it works, like it did under Reagan.

    So if the dollar collapses and we are starving, McCain successfully making changes in Venezuela and Iran won’t seem important and al Qaeda is have the last laugh after all.

  2. pollchecker

    George W Bush is so full of himself he loves to hear himself talk. And he hates the fact that nobody is listening and that he is considered the worst POTUS ever. He hates the fact that Americans hate him and are not paying attention to him.

    Bust will say ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING he can but it is all lies.

    For instance, he TALKS about pulling troops out of Iraq to redeploy in Afghanistan, but makes it politically IMPOSSIBLE TO DO!

    The good news is that 70% of the country doesn’t give a hoot what he has to say. He has no political power whatsoever except to veto….and every time he vetoes a bill that would help people and McCain and the Republicans enable him, they are just sinking their own ship.

    Oh, by the way, contrary to pictures, GW hates McCain and really doesn’t want him to win. Secretly, the plan is to leave Obama and the Dems with such a mess that it will be EXTREMELY DIFFICULT for them to turn things around and give the Genuises of Propaganda(GOP) fodder for 2012 when Jeb Bush decides to run! They want to be the only family in History with 3 presidents!

  3. neondesert

    Considering his recent policy flips, has Bush adopted the Costanza strategy?

    “Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable. I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It all became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s often wrong.”
    – George Costanza, in “The Opposite”

  4. pollchecker

    George Costanza from Seinfeld, eh? Good analogy except for one part….

    My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.

    That is simply not true. His life is everything he meant it to be. He is completely happy with his life and his decisions. The only thing he isn’t happy about is that nobody likes him because he is like George Costanza when he said in an early episode of Seinfeld…

    yes, everyone must like me!

    Narcissitic is a perfect adjective for GW! It fits him perfectly. Problem is that most Americans don’t have clue the definition of the word Narcissism!

  5. neondesert

    You’re pretty much dead on, if it was meant to be an analogy. However, it was not meant to be an analogy, but an amateur politi-phsychological analysis.

    Most people, when things are going wrong, take a closer look at the decisions they’ve made and attempt to analyze where their thinking went wrong. I don’t think Bush has that attitude. I think failure – rather than forcing him to examine his situational awareness and his methods of analysis and solution and recognize the faults in it – merely prompts Bush to lazily just try the opposite, without the effort of cognizant re-evaluation. A “Just do the opposite” policy (ergo, “The Costanza Policy”). After 7 years of things going wrong, it seems likely that by now he’s already working with a pre-emptive hypocrisy strategy.

    I included the quote merely to illustrate what “the Costanza policy” referred to. Likening him to George Costanza I think gives Bush too much credit for introspection.

  6. pollchecker

    Likening him to George Costanza I think gives Bush too much credit for introspection.

    You are correct on this. GW doesn’t do introspection….never has, never will.

    And he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions…which is why he blames everything on other people like Al Qaeda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congress, etc.

    But he does have this need to be liked. That’s what is really killing him right now. He will go down in history as the most hated president in history. Hell, he is hated more than Nixon.

  7. JudyB

    Bush and introspection??? I laughed so hard when I thought about what Pollchecker wrote,that I choked on my iced tea. Bush does not know the meaning of the word “introspection”, how to pronouce or spell it, nor does he have the mental capacity and reasoning ability it requires for one to be “introspective” Besides, as the “decider” he don’t need no dam “Inerspectshun’

  8. JudyB

    Could it be Bush is shifting (for now) his views because
    a week or so ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ask for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops? The next day, his National security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie reiterated, saying publicly that Iraq would reject any security pact if the USA does not give a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops. Bush has always maintained that we were in Iraq at their request and if at anytime they asked us to leave, we would leave. Now that Iraq has made this very specific request (quite LOUD & CLEAR by the way) we’ll just have to wait and see what will happen and when it will happen. Bush has never before seemed eager to leave that oil rich nation no matter how loud & clear his fellow Americans made that same request…..ummm me thinks this could get even more convoluted..ya think?

  9. incog99

    The bottom line is the oil deal for the Exxons of the world. Allow them to take 75% of Iraq’s oil before any money is paid to the Iraqis. You know the Iraqis must pay for our destruction of their country.

    Anything else is pure prattle. Since when could you believe a word Dumbya utters? Come on people.

    The only good I can see from his lies is that it undermines McCain’s hawkish stance and makes him the fool.