Charles Krauthammer notes, as many have lately, the remarkable similarity between the Obama foreign policy and the Bush foreign policy he campaigned against so vociferously.  He cleverly dubs it the “Obama three-step: (a) excoriate the Bush policy, (b) ostentatiously unveil cosmetic changes, (c) adopt the Bush policy. “

His take on what it means, though, is intriguing:

Democratic hypocrisy and demagoguery? Sure, but in Washington, opportunism and cynicism are hardly news.


The genius of democracy is that the rotation of power forces the opposition to come to its senses when it takes over. When the new guys, brought to power by popular will, then adopt the policies of the old guys, a national consensus is forged and a new legitimacy established.

That’s happening before our eyes. The Bush policies in the war on terror won’t have to await vindication by historians. Obama is doing it day by day. His denials mean nothing. Look at his deeds.

I agree with all of that, with a crucial caveat: the most eggregious of the Bush policies had long since been ended by Bush himself — in some cases, under court order.  Obama campaigned against Bush policy circa 2004, eliding the fact that it had evolved. 

As Blake Hounshel and Chris Brose note, while Dick Cheney has emerged as the preeminent defender of the Bush administration in the early days of the Obama administration, he had ceased being a guiding light of its foreign policy as the traditional Realists Condoleeza Rice and Bob Gates took over.  Thus, as Brose puts it, “Cheney’s argument is with Bush as much as it is with Obama.”

Whatever one thinks of a given president, the fact of the matter is that foreign policy is mostly crafted by career bureaucrats and a rotating Washington policy elite who share a remarkably similar vision of things regardless of political party or domestic ideology.  Because of a strange confluence of events (the dramatic shock of 9/11, the dissimilarity of the threat we faced from the state actors we’d traditionally fought, and a president wishing to break radically from what he perceived as the fecklessness of his predecessor’s approach) neophyte ideologues (in this case, the loudest of the neocons) managed to  briefly gain control.  Their approach was soon revealed to be radically flawed and the foreign policy elite got up to speed on the issues and reasserted their dominance.

So, yes, the realities of office mean President Obama is much less of a change than Candidate Obama promised and, yes, many of President Bush’s hard choices are thereby affirmed as necessary even if undesirable.  It does not, however, follow that those policies Bush himself abandoned are thus vindicated.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: James Joyner