Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Obama and Bush Sr.

Robert S. Singh, Timothy J. Lynch

What will be the Bush legacy in the next US presidency? According to policy experts Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh, the next president will be bound by history to follow a foreign policy very close to that of George W. Bush.

Two possible reasons account for Barack Obama’s recent embrace of George H. W. Bush. The first is that he wants to portray himself within the mainstream of the US foreign policy tradition and that he sees Bush Sr has standing squarely within it. He is in effect asking us to consider him as a welcome return to a diplomacy which was cautious and limited, more Kissinger than Wolfowitz. The second, building on the first, suggests an Obama foreign policy will defer to international law and rebuild American likeability abroad. As a campaign strategy this is commonsensical. As a foreign policy strategy is potentially disastrous.

We’ve argued in our recent book that a President Obama would likely adapt to the fact of American primacy rather than dilute it. If Obama is sincere in what he is saying about Bush Sr – and he may be – we might be wrong about him. Obama, instead of tweaking the Bush Doctrine for foreign consumption (our argument), could actually be engaged in a far more problematic endeavour: the revision and reapplication of a foreign policy that between 1989 and 1993 was hardly a study in success. What is it that Obama wants us to see in his foreign policy through the prism of George Bush Sr?

Does he want us to accept that his administration will sacrifice people in far away places about whom the US knows little? Bush Sr made much of kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait only to abandon those who wanted him similarly removed from Iraq as well. In the spring of 1991, with Saddam in full retreat, Bush Sr did what international law, the UN and assorted Arab regimes demanded: he left the dictator in place. In so doing he left the Kurds and Shiites twisting. Expecting US liberation in a matter of weeks they were made to wait a further thirteen years. The mess the father started the son was obliged to clean up – with all the legacy of mistrust that has plagued the US reconstruction of Iraq.

Does Obama, as a fan of 89-93 diplomacy, want a foreign policy in which America only fights when its own direct interests are at stake? As Yugoslavia descended into hell under Bush Sr’s watch, his secretary of state said America had ‘no dog’ in that fight. It was left, as with Iraq, to a Bush Sr’s successor, Bill Clinton, to intervene on the behalf of Bosnian Muslims and halt Serbian aggression. Are we to deduce from this that an Obama administration will turn away from Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe and ‘return’ to a foreign policy of America first?

Will Obama, like Bush Sr, coddle Beijing? In 1989, the butchers of Tiananmen Square were hardly treated as such by Bush Sr. That same year, as communism was felled by the spontaneous movement of people that it had enslaved for so long, it was Bush Sr and Brent Scowcroft who warned about the instability such behaviour might induce.

Which of these foreign policy successes does Obama want to relive? If we’re right, a President Obama will not reawaken the amoral short-termism of Bush Sr. Instead, he will accept the central precepts of his son and wage a war on terror – only more effectively. For fear of being branded a black Jimmy Carter he wants us to think of him as a black Henry Kissinger. Neither legacy offers Obama the roadmap he will need if elected. Much as it may pain him to acknowledge it, what Bush Jr has done Obama will be obliged to adapt and extend.

About The Authors

Robert S. Singh

After Obama is Robert Singh's tenth book, his second on Obama's foreign policy, and follows books on the Bush Doctrine, Governing America, The Congressional Black Caucus and The Fa...

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Timothy J. Lynch

Timothy Lynch is the co-author of After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy (2008) and author of Turf War: The Clinton Administration and Northern Ireland (Ash...

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