A president sweeps into office, promising to turn the page on an era of horror and recrimination. In foreign policy, he can redeem the United States’ promise, reversing a great country’s fall into temporary iniquity. He deserves every bit of the credit for genuine improvement. And yet, the very hostility the previous administration earned cloaks the leader of the new one with extra immunity from scrutiny: It provides a space in which, amid complacent uplift, many continuities in policy are established. A chance is missed to examine what actually went wrong and to debate how to put things right.
Yes, revisiting the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009 provides an excellent vantage from which to pose questions and express worries about the foreign policy of President Biden as he begins his term.
There are, of course, many disparities between the two moments. Obama’s fairy-tale candidacy for his first term in 2008 bears no similarity to the nerve-racking experience of seeing American democracy challenged during and after the 2020 presidential election. And in part because of his advanced age compared to his onetime boss, Biden stands less for innovation than restoration — albeit restoration of the promise of American life that the youthful Obama incarnated.
It was also not clear in the early phase of Obama’s presidency, as seems obvious today, that the immorality and rot that confronted Obama had as much to do with our dysfunctional domestic politics as with a misbegotten war and the unsavory overseas practices to which George W. Bush and his administration had stooped — epitomized by the illicit torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the offshore U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Yet it is precisely the choices Obama made as he sought to “reset” the U.S. war against terrorism that are illustrative of our current situation. For all of Obama’s talk about reversing the policies of his predecessor, it dawned agonizingly slowly on an expectant world that there were going to be profound continuities in wartime policies.In 2021, once again showy reorientation — including, crucially, in foreign policy — could easily mask too much substantive resilience.
Read the full article in The Washington Post.