When Barry Became...George?

A great deal has been written on President Obama’s continuation of many of the Bush administration’s policies in regards to terrorism. Growth in the size and operational tempo of special warfare units, the extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against terrorist targets worldwide, and the National Security Agency's (NSA) ongoing warrantless surveillance programs – all of these began with President Bush. That Obama has not only maintained but accelerated these key components of the Bush foreign policy has frustrated the President’s liberal base to no end. But if it means that their man can stare down an increasingly shrill-sounding Mitt Romney in the fall, I suspect that most on the left will learn to live with the Bush-Obama foreign policy. “But hold on!” you say. “Obama has fought al-Qaeda and friends using Bush’s playbook, but he hasn’t adopted his entire foreign policy – right?” Wrong. For the most part, anyway. Much of the Bush-era ideology has been dropped – and with good reason, many would argue. But on the substantive questions of American foreign policy, Obama either immediately reinforced George W. Bush’s positions, or he shifted to them over time as necessity and convenience dictated. I aim to argue that this is neither the outrage that the left thinks it is (it is, instead, normal), nor the vindication that the neoconservatives wish it was (the ideology of the War on Terror was a decade-long disaster occasioned by severe miscalculation about the strategic threat posed by radical Islam).

The United States was pulled into war on September 11, 2001. It reacted to war as it historically has: with overreaction. Under the Bush administration, we profoundly overestimated Osama bin Laden’s ability to achieve his stated aim: overthrowing governments across the Muslim world in an attempt to reconstitute the Caliphate. That fundamental mistake underpinned the desperate and sometimes seemingly arbitrary measures taken by George W. Bush to remake the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan must be viewed as part of the same ideological project), and fight a global war against often faceless enemies who did not prove as dangerous as we had believed. And historically, this pattern of behavior is normal for the United States. Having swung from isolationist backwater to superpower with very little time in between, we have only rarely been forced to make real, lasting choices when it comes to our foreign policy. Only in extraordinary circumstances – our pre-World War isolation and our post-Cold War exuberance come to mind – do nations have the luxury of behaving arbitrarily. In today’s world, the United States is finding its freedom of action more and more limited. To blame this on the Bush administration would be inaccurate; it would not, however, be a stretch to say that post-9/11 miscalculation accelerated the relative decline of US influence abroad by distracting us from China and the Asia-Pacific region, which was the only area of US foreign policy in which President Bush showed any great interest prior to 9/11.

The lesson we should draw from all of this is not that terrorism does not matter. It matters a great deal. My argument is simply that the United States has crafted a seemingly workable and classically American response to the long-term problem of terrorism. It’s workable because special operations forces, intelligence assets of various kinds, and UAV strikes will be enough to suppress terrorist networks, and it’s classically American because it uses technology (in military parlance, force multipliers) to overcome the problem that American strategists have been grappling with for well over a century: geography. The United States is entirely free from the threat of invasion, as it dominates the North American continent, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But security and relative isolation (and the freedom they ensure) come at a high price: It is difficult for the United States to deploy and sustain large ground forces on the Eurasian landmass. The United States is usually unable to match its enemies’ numbers, so it compensates using force multipliers, thus increasing its effective number of troops. The main weakness of this strategy is that it leaves the American military utterly dependent upon the free use of the global commons: sea, cyberspace, and outer space. Without ships to deploy carrier air wings and Marine expeditionary units, without secure computer networks, and without space-based intelligence, navigation, communications, and targeting, the United States would be paralyzed, and unable to influence events across Eurasia. That is undoubtedly a contentious claim, given the current fashion of soft power, but it has merit, given that American pretensions to soft power stem mainly from its position as the undisputed and impartial guarantor of free navigation, communication, and trade – a position that becomes untenable the moment the United States loses primacy at sea or in space.

It is this problem – maintaining the ultimate freedom of the global commons – that will be the primary focus of American strategy in the twenty-first century, as it was in the twentieth. The twin pressures of geography and rising Eurasian powers will impose consensus on American foreign policymakers, circumscribing their actions and their ideology. For all the divisions he has failed to bridge at home, Barack Obama has come to symbolize the coming post-post-Cold War foreign policy consensus. That is not to say he intended to do so – indeed, he set out to differentiate himself from the Bush era in whatever ways he could. But in terms of concrete actions (ballistic missile defense vis à vis Russia, or the US posture towards Iran, for example), he has put on display the remarkable durability of American foreign policy, which is rooted in basic assumptions about geography and American power in the global commons – assumptions which both parties share.