On December 1, Barack Obama, who won the U.S. presidency as the candidate of "change," announced his national security team: President George W. Bush's secretary of defense (Robert Gates), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's special envoy for Middle East security (James Jones), and the doyenne of Democratic centrism (Hillary Clinton). Some saw this as the political cover Obama needs to lead U.S. foreign policy in an entirely different direction after Bush. Perhaps. But I doubt it. My hunch, and my hope, is that Obama will be a successful president, not because he'll totally change the foreign policy he'll inherit from Bush, but because he'll largely continue it.
Until just a few weeks ago, I was a part of that foreign policy. As Rice's chief speechwriter and policy advisor, I traveled with her to 24 countries. And I helped write (and rewrite) her remarks -- a body of work I'd estimate to be north of 150,000 carefully chosen words. For four years, I watched as a foreign policy took shape that was quite different from that of Bush's first term. It was a pragmatic internationalism based on enduring national interests and ideals for a country whose global leadership is still indispensable, even as the world is becoming more multipolar.
Unfortunately, the election didn't shed much light on what this inheritance means for Obama. The campaign was a two-year referendum on the Bush presidency in which Obama ran against a caricature of Bush's first term and John McCain ran desperately away from the whole thing. It was as if the past four years never happened.
But because they did, Obama will inherit a foreign policy that is better than many realize. Yes, there will be changes ahead -- most likely, to energy and climate change policy (thankfully), to the war in Iraq (winding it down), to the war in Afghanistan (winding it up), and to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (closing it, which some in the Bush administration tried to do but couldn't). But despite all that, Obama's foreign policy likely won’t depart radically from Bush's.
Take the three states Bush once labeled an "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. After changing the regime in Baghdad, his administration in the second term fully committed to changing the behavior of Pyongyang and Tehran. As a result, Obama will receive the baton on a multilateral negotiation with North Korea that has been and will be a frustrating marathon, but he will likely pick up where Bush leaves off, simply because there are no practical alternatives. On Iran, Obama will almost surely proceed with Bush's policy of sticks and carrots that seeks a diplomatic solution -- a third option between acquiescing to Iran's behavior or attacking Iran to change it. To have a better chance of success, this policy will need sharper sticks and sweeter carrots, including the direct engagement Obama has advocated. And if that fails, Obama will have to weigh his options -- none of which, he has said, he's taking off the table.
As for Iraq, Obama will inherit a war that Iraqis themselves are mostly ending for him. The pace and size of the U.S. troop reduction may be hotly debated, but few in Baghdad or Washington dispute that such a withdrawal is now appropriate. This effort to end the war in Iraq will enable Obama to try to save the war in Afghanistan, employing many of the lessons learned from the surge strategy he opposed in Iraq.
A challenge for Obama will be to knit the Iraq endgame into a broader approach to the Middle East. But here, too, it likely won't look all that different from Bush's: support for an independent Lebanon; attempts to elicit responsible behavior from Syria; and security cooperation with Sunni Arab regimes that may not love freedom, but definitely hate what Iran, and al Qaeda, are doing to the region.
Another part of this strategy for Obama is continuing Bush's engagement on the Middle East peace process. A real insight of Bush's first term had been that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more than a border dispute, as Bill Clinton had framed it. Bush argued that peace required a successful Palestinian state and economy. But the first-term policy amounted to telling the Palestinians to put their house in order first, and then the United States would talk about ending the Israeli occupation. Only in the second term were both efforts pursued simultaneously. And because of it, Obama will inherit a Middle East peace process finally proceeding on both tracks at once: state-building and peacemaking.
Just as importantly, Obama will find a changing Middle East where freedom, opportunity, and the longing for dignity are bubbling up in ways that no one can control, Washington included. Something tells me that the leader of the Democratic Party isn't going to give up on supporting democracy, both in terms of institutions and elections. Obama may rebrand Bush's poorly named "freedom agenda" -- he may expand it, as some of his advisors suggest, into a "dignity agenda" -- but the basic approach will likely continue.
So, too, will there be little change on issues of global grand strategy. A refrain from the campaign was rebuilding damaged ties with America's allies. But those ties have largely been rebuilt already -- in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Obama can certainly improve these relations further, especially with real action on climate change. But another challenge may be managing the bubbles of overinflated expectations for his presidency that will soon begin bursting in allied capitals.