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.