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We all remember the slogan that defined then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign: “Change.” He would be the polar opposite of President George W. Bush, a man the Democrats ridiculed as a stubborn war-monger, an imbecile with an elementary worldview, and even a man so evil he’d send soldiers to die in Iraq for a lie. Yet, here in 2010, many of those dreaded “neocon” policies haven’t gone anywhere.
Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq made him a darling among the anti-war left. Few seem to recall that in July 2004 Obama said “There’s not much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.” The Bush Administration was opposing any timetable for withdrawal and opposed sending more troops. The strategy was to maintain current troop levels and reduce them as the Iraqi forces became more capable of taking on the insurgency themselves. And Obama agreed. Ironically, it was Obama’s future general election opponent, Senator John McCain, who was among the toughest critics of the strategy, arguing for a major troop increase.
Yet, by 2006, Obama was a forceful advocate of withdrawing from Iraq within 16 months. What happened between 2004 and 2006 to make Obama change his mind? The polls. The public had turned sharply against the war as it took a turn for the worse. The reasons Obama opposed a withdrawal remained just as valid in 2006 as they were in 2004. Furthermore, his reasons for a withdrawal in 2006—like that it’d make resources for Afghanistan available and that it’d force the Iraqis to come together—could just as easily have been made in 2004.
Obama also opposed the “surge” of 30,000 additional soldiers into Iraq authorized by President Bush that stabilized the country enough for Bush to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the elected Iraqi government that set a timetable for withdrawal. Once in office, Obama adjusted his withdrawal to take three months longer than he had said during the campaign. He successfully brought home all combat troops in August 2010 as he promised, but the withdrawal process had already begun under his predecessor. Had Bush been eligible for another term, it is quite likely that his pace of withdrawal from Iraq would have been similar to that of Obama because of the improved conditions on the ground.
Furthermore, Obama’s withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq still left 50,000 soldiers including 5,000 special operations personnel behind. These are soldiers that are still armed, engaging in “counter-terrorism” missions, and being called in by the Iraqis to intervene when necessary. They simply play this secondary role under the name of “advisory and assistance brigades” instead of “combat.” In fact, U.S. forces were engaged in combat in Baghdad less than one week after the so-called end of combat operations.
This transition of the U.S. role from “combat” to “advisory” is not new but a simple re-branding of how the forces are being used. As the Director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Kenneth Pollack, explains, “It’s more or less what they have been doing since the ‘clear and hold’ operations to take back the country from militias and insurgents ended in 2008.”
Another prominent difference between Bush and Obama on foreign policy was the question of whether the President of the United States should directly meet with the leaders of rogue states like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il. Obama chastised Senator Clinton during the campaign for the Democratic nomination for her opposition to such meetings and consistently compared her foreign policy to Bush’s only to then choose her as his Secretary of State.
President Obama has offered to begin direct diplomacy with countries like Iran, but the reality is that this difference is relatively minor considering the attention it was given during the campaign. The Bush Administration actually promoted diplomacy between Europe and Iran on the nuclear issue and had direct discussions on Iraq, such as in May 2007 when American and Iranian officials met face-to-face for the first time in nearly 30 years. The strategy of Bush was diplomacy and sanctions, not regime change—just like Obama today and even the rhetoric is now the same.
When President Obama first came into office, he videotaped a greeting for the Persian New Year where he respectfully referred to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” and offered a new beginning. There was not a sentence dedicated to the pro-democracy fight of the people. This began to change in the summer of 2009 after millions of Iranians poured into the streets to protest the regime’s fraudulent “re-election” of Ahmadinejad. After pressure from Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and Republican critics, President Obama belatedly offered strong words of support for the people.
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