FAIRFAX - As Iranian centrifuges spin and Russian tanks roll into Georgia, foreign policy has moved to the front of the presidential election debate. Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, promises change. Such rhetoric appeals to an electorate exasperated with President Bush, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and high energy prices. How ironic it is then that that by conflating change with pandering, Obama replicates Bush's mistakes.
It was neither the Iraq war nor the failure to embrace multilateralism which undercut U.S. credibility under Bush, but rather foreign policy flip-flops. On June 24, 2002, amidst a rash of Palestinian suicide attacks, Bush won the plaudits of terror victims when he declared, "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership [uncompromised by terror], so that a Palestinian state can be born." His audience applauded.
Reversal was swift. Within a year, Bush abandoned his no-terrorism red-line. Just this year, to sweeten a Palestinian audience, he promised Palestinian independence, even as Palestinian rockets fell on Israeli towns. Today, the U.S. government is the largest donor to the Palestinian territories, subsidizing food and housing, enabling Fatah and Hamas to spend more on guns and rockets.
Because of Bush, few dissidents will ever again trust Washington. At his second inauguration, Bush declared, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression." He applauded as Lebanese rose up against Syrian occupation. And yet, in her subsequent visits, Condoleezza Rice embraced the Syrian-imposed ruler.
On June 6, 2007, Bush declared himself the "Dissident President" at a conference in Prague and assigned diplomats to resolve the case of each dissident with whom he met. Bush glowed as activists gave him a standing ovation. A year later, no dissident present has heard from either White House or State Department. On Jan. 11, 2008, after his historic visit to Washington, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Shalqam bragged that the Bush administration had failed to demand the release of Libya's leading dissident, whom Bush had once lauded. Bush had told each audience what it wanted to hear. Affirmation and applause trumped principle and consistency.
Pandering undercuts trust in the United States. After promising Japan that Washington would "not settle for anything less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of [North Korea's] nuclear weapons program," Bush surprised Tokyo with a deal that let Pyongyang keep its bombs. Bush's reversal on Iranian nuclear enrichment caught both Israel and moderate Arab states flatfooted and raised the possibility of unilateral Israeli military strikes. Bush's speeches may garner allies' applause, but foreign capitals know they no longer describe policy.
Obama's willingness to promise anything replicates Bush. Speaking to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama won rapturous applause when he declared, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided." Less than three months later, he told Palestinian officials, again to applause, he welcomed Jerusalem's division.
Obama repeatedly promises a 16-month withdrawal from Iraq although, when questioned, his aides say ground conditions will determine withdrawal. To some audiences, Obama wins plaudits with declarations that he will talk anywhere, any time with Iranian leaders when, to other audiences, he qualifies this based on Iranian President Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and threats to wipe Israel off the map.
Both Bush and Obama sacrifice consistency and credibility for affirmation. The cost of establishing a legacy and political sloganeering can be high. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate suggested that Iran ceased nuclear warhead work in 2003 because Saddam's downfall showed Bush was serious about enforcing his policy. After last month's policy reversal, the Iranian assessment was different. A prominent Revolutionary Guard general called America "beaten and humiliated."
Consistency is a virtue even when politically unpopular. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, endorsed the surge long before Bush not because 30,000 troops would enable the United States to do in Iraq what it had not before, but rather because it would demonstrate resolve to militias and terrorists who -- like bin Laden before 9/11 -- preached that the United States had become a paper tiger, unable to back its words with actions. It is doubtful Russian forces would invade a U.S. ally if they believed U.S. resolve strong.
Both Bush and Obama pander for adulation. Change may be a good slogan, but restoring U.S. credibility requires not flip-flops but consistency.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.