The sheer symbolic power of the election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States is difficult to capture in words. It is not only that a black man has won the highest office of a nation that, at its inception, defined close to every black man or woman as three fifths of a person. It is not just his middle name, Hussein, and the failure of his political opponents’ miserable attempts at race baiting and Islam bashing. His 7 million-vote margin of victory over a war hero who was personally popular, despite his crabbed and tawdry campaign, is a thundering repudiation of President George W. Bush’s misadministration and an expression of hope for something genuinely new.
Obama’s impact upon the US policies of special concern to this magazine will be considerably more than symbolic. There is welcome talk, for instance, of shutting down the law-free zone of detention at Guantánamo Bay and restoring legal status to the persons who remain imprisoned there. On the most pressing matters in the Middle East, however, the presidential campaign was notable primarily for the scarcity of strong disagreement between the two candidates, with both promising to expand the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan and to tighten the screws on Iran, and neither straying from the script of the pro-Israel lobby on any issue related to the Jewish state. Obama continued to speak of ending the war in Iraq, but his selection of a running mate, Joe Biden, who voted for the 2002 authorization of force signaled that he would not make Iraq a centerpiece of his debates with Sen. John McCain.
The rote uniformity of opinion in the McCain-Obama faceoffs on the Middle East reflects a broader unwillingness among the political class to rethink the position of the US in the region—and, indeed, in the world. That both candidates pledged to increase the size of the military, for example, shows that the bipartisan commitment to force projection is unshaken by the Bush administration’s travails in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also underlines yet again the basic continuity of the neo-conservatives’ belief in martial might and aggrandizing definition of US interests with the predilections of their predecessors. In the fall came two more reminders of the commonalities along the Washington-New York foreign policy continuum: First was the launch of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy front whose advisory board features, among others, neo-conservative inspiration Fouad Ajami, liberal hawks Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross, and Council on Foreign Relations dons Leslie Gelb and Walter Russell Mead. The group’s website calls upon all Americans to “stand united in a commitment to prevent Iran from fulfilling its ambition to become a regional superpower possessing nuclear weapons”—erasing the distinction between uranium enrichment and weaponization. Second appeared the Iran report of the Bipartisan Policy Center, signed by a host of heavy hitters also including Ross, and similarly devoid of aporia regarding Iran’s intentions. Former senators Daniel Coats, Republican of Indiana, and Charles Robb, Democrat of Virginia, co-chairs of the task force that produced the report, summed up its findings in the October 23 Washington Post. “Stricter sanctions”—both US and international—are necessary to stop Iran from enriching uranium, but military intervention “must remain an option of last resort…. Both to increase our leverage over Iran and to prepare for a military strike, if one were required, the next president will need to begin building up military assets in the region from day one.” This type of thinking is likely to be capably represented in the Obama administration, perhaps by Ross himself.
Another disquieting point of concord on the campaign trail was Obama’s vote in the Senate for the July amendment to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which granted immunity to the telecommunications firms that aided the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping. (McCain did not vote in July, but supported the bill.) The intensified surveillance is emblematic of the erosion of the rule of law and the growth of the imperial presidency under the Bush administration, justified with the dubious doctrine of the unitary executive. The Bush administration’s power grab is extraordinary by any standard. As of mid-October, Bush had appended signing statements—essentially, assertions of his right to disregard laws he does not like—to 1,100 sections of Congressional legislation, as compared to the 600 sections marked with asterisks by all previous presidents combined. Most discouraging, perhaps, is the lack of outcry at the damage done to Constitutional principles of separation of powers. The mood of acquiescence in Bush’s excesses is what permitted Obama, though he agrees that Bush used them too much, to demur: “No one doubts that it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president’s constitutional prerogatives.” As Jonathan Mahler wrote in his meditation on the imperial presidency in the November 9 New York Times Magazine, “History has shown that where you stand on executive authority is largely a matter of where you sit.”
But what have all these presidential prerogatives accomplished? Remarkably little, when measured by a Washington yardstick, and certainly not a new American century. Bush began losing the world’s good will directly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, with the decision to declare a “war on terror” instead of patiently mounting the sort of international police action that might actually have nabbed Osama bin Laden. Now Obama is left with a choice between escalating the war in Afghanistan, with no correspondingly better prospect of achieving its initial aims, and compromising those aims by making a deal with the Taliban. In Iraq, the goal of permanent basing rights is fading further and further from view. And then there are the missed opportunities that have sharpened existing crises. Bush’s dismissal of the 2002 Arab League peace plan was diplomatic cover for Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, which deepened the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, leading eventually to the Islamist party’s armed takeover of the Gaza Strip. Now Obama, should he tackle the Israeli-Palestinian problem in earnest, would be faced with entrenched Palestinian disunity as well as Israeli intransigence. Bush’s rebuff of the 2003 diplomatic overture from Iran was an indignity for the wing of the clerical elite favoring engagement with the West, which emboldened the hardliners in Tehran, bringing a defiant adventurism to Iran’s international stance. Now Obama, should he ask to sit down with Iran’s leaders as advertised, would have no guarantee of his request being accepted. Last but hardly least, the looming deep recession may handcuff the Obama White House to the domestic scene and introduce new tensions as the US presses oil exporters to keep prices low and Gulf states with sovereign wealth funds to prop up Western currencies.
Despite the constraints he will inherit from Bush, the president-elect will have great opportunities to transcend them, if nothing else because the fact of his election has replenished the world’s good will. Ultimately, however, seizing the opportunities will require more than talking to Iran, a thought Obama entertains, and Hamas, a thought he still resists. As Waleed Hazbun writes in this issue, it will require a comprehensive rethinking of the decades of US grand strategy that culminated in the costly hubris of the Bush administration. Of that sort of vision, the Democratic foreign policy establishment has displayed disappointingly little evidence.