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Opinion: Bush, Obama and Teddy’s Big Stick | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Former US President George W. Bush speaks during a dedication ceremony at the George W. Bush Library and Museum on the grounds of Southern Methodist University in this April 25, 2013 file photo taken in Dallas, Texas (AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI / FILES).

These days, a visitor to the United States would be surprised by how little interest Americans show in foreign policy. The botched attempt by President Barack Obama to introduce a state-controlled health insurance scheme is the talk of the town, along with a persistently high unemployment rate. The mood is somber, to say the least, and the traditional sense of optimism is getting paler by the day.

Although Obama’s original supporters now show buyer’s remorse, the Republicans seem unable to offer a credible alternative.

America is having one of its isolationist fits, so it was exciting to witness an event themed on American foreign policy thousands of miles from Washington.

This was the 20th anniversary of the Baker Institute, founded by former Secretary of State James Baker at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The event was built around a conversation with George W. Bush, who has kept a low profile and declined to discuss in public his successor’s performance. “W,” as his fellow Texans like to call him, refused to be drawn into Obama-bashing, something akin to a national sport in the US these days.

“It is important to preserve the dignity of the presidency,” he insisted. Nevertheless, his response to a series of questions by former ambassador Edward Djerejian did show the contours of an alternative strategy that Republicans might want to consider for the 2016 presidential elections.

To be sure, W cannot enter that race. But there are signs that he might not wish to stay on the sidelines like he did in 2012.

Bush’s analysis sounded very much Schmittian. Like the late German philosopher Carl Schmitt, W believes that the central issue of politics is the distinction between friend and adversary. If politics is about choice, it is inevitably about taking sides. There are things you are determined to do and things you are determined to prevent.

That approach was formulated in the much-denigrated Bush Doctrine, the axis around which W built his foreign policy.

According to that doctrine, the first task of foreign policy is to protect the US against hostile action. Those who threaten US security and/or national interests will be identified, pursued and punished, no matter how long it takes and how much it costs. Duplicity will provide no protection for those who claim to be friends and yet support enemies in underhanded ways. Just as the US would always be there for its friends when their national security and vital interests are threatened, it expects its friends to stand by it in similar circumstances.

However, the distinction between friend and enemy is not a black-and-white one. Many nations and non-state actors on the global stage form a large cluster of grey. Some nations are friends and allies, and others just allies and/or partners.

If a hierarchy of worth were to be established from the US point of view, the 40 or so established democracies could be regarded as the hardcore members of the “Friends of America Club.”

According to the Bush Doctrine, the bigger the number of democracies, the safer the US will be. Thus, helping spread democratic rule, in its different forms, should be a top priority of American foreign policy.

The aim is always to do whatever is possible to transform an enemy into a friend. That happened in the case of many nations since the Second World War, none of which are now likely to pose a threat to the US. America invested massive amounts of blood and treasure to make sure that nations as far apart as Germany, South Korea and Japan built new lives and kept potential aggressors at bay. In a sense, standing by Germany, Japan and South Korea was an investment in America’s national security.

Against that background, Bush is still “deeply convinced” that the world is a better place without the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Aside from existing hardcore allies, the US has many partners and friends. Some are not on the same wavelength as the United States on all issues. While respecting diversity, the US should make efforts to persuade them to carry out the political, social and economic reforms it deems necessary for long-term stability and prosperity.

As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush had reflected the isolationist mood of that time. The events of 9/11 forced him to grow beyond that. As far as foreign policy is concerned, realizing that America cannot remain a superpower and expect to be left alone by the enemies of the global system, he became an activist president. W’s critics have tried to portray him as a caricature of Teddy Roosevelt in his jingoistic garb. But there is a difference: Teddy walked softly while carrying a big stick, with an apologetic demeanor. In contrast, W used the big stick whenever necessary and, even now, is not apologetic on any aspect of his foreign policy. His undeclared motto is: “Do things only when you believe in them; if you don’t, don’t do them.”

During his eight years as president, W devoted only a few speeches to foreign policy. He would discuss widely, think carefully, and then act. Much to the chagrin of his detractors—and they are legion even today—his motto was “Few words, more action.”

The contrast with his successor is stark. Obama has made countless policy speeches but has done little or nothing to build a coherent global strategy.

Obama walks like Gary Cooper in High Noon, fixing deadlines and red lines by which real or imagined adversaries ought to do what he demands, but hides Teddy’s big stick under the table. When his deadlines pass and his red lines are crossed, he makes another speech. Not quite sure who he is, he is unable to distinguish friend from enemy.