For eight years George W. Bush pulled the levers of government–sometimes frantically–never realizing that they were disconnected from the machinery and the exertion was largely futile. As a result, the foreign and security policies declared by the president in speeches, in public and private meetings, in backgrounders and memoranda often had little or no effect on the activities of the sprawling bureaucracies charged with carrying out the president’s policies. They didn’t need his directives: they had their own.
Again and again the president declared “unacceptable” activities that his administration went on to accept: North Korean nuclear weapons; North Korean missile tests; Iran’s nuclear-weapons program; the Russian invasion of Georgia; genocide in Sudan; Syrian and Iranian support for jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere–the list is long. Throughout his presidency, Bush demanded that these states change their ways. When they declined to do so, policy shifted to an unanchored, foundering diplomacy engineered by a diplomatic establishment, unencumbered, especially in the second term, by even the weak, largely useless scrutiny it had come to expect from the National Security Council. When Condoleezza Rice moved to the Department of State, the gamekeeper (however ineffective) turned poacher, and the Bush presidency–its credibility gravely diminished–became indistinguishable from the institutional worldview of the State Department. There it remains today.
Those who expect an Obama foreign policy to differ significantly from the most recent policy of the outgoing administration will be surprised by what is likely to be a seamless transition: not from White House to White House, but from State Department to State Department. On all the main issues–Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, Islamist terrorism, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, relations with allies–Obama’s first term is likely to look like Bush’s second. . . .