George W. Bush and the era of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ foreign policy

Biden’s Americanism

Two effects of World War II defined the geopolitical circumstances for most of the decades following. One was that, to mark the war’s 70th anniversary, the United States moved swiftly and unilaterally to fight on, and also burnish its credentials as a world power. This involved a hostile buildup of naval and air forces as part of the postwar New World Order, and U.S. commitment to an anti-German and anti-Soviet nuclear triad. This meant, at least in part, that President Harry Truman developed something of a cowboy image, visiting gold mining, farming and snake-handling states in pursuit of his “New Freedom.” Thus did a new president first give the world what it wanted: Gold and the bomb.

The second postwar era of U.S. dominance was more restrained. Washington and its allies became aware of the amount of Soviet land, air and naval power in Eastern Europe, while Red Army troops held sway in the region. On Jan. 29, 1951, after the Red Army moved up to a predetermined crossroads at Leningrad, the West backed the Russian occupation in an attempt to prevent a full-blown Soviet army offensive. Washington also declared that the Soviet Union was an “unfriendly and expansionist power.” But for the most part this was a semi-unified and relatively stable world after the Second World War.

That changed in the 1970s. As a U.S. foreign policy neophyte, President Jimmy Carter embraced a strategy of containment that hoped to limit Soviet expansion and expansionist ambitions. Diplomacy and international law were part of this strategy. On Oct. 3, 1979, the Carter administration announced the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Carter administration officials argued that many foreign-policy goals took priority over the ban, such as preventing internal instability and securing Cuba’s noncooperation in drug trafficking. Yet even the cold-war-era senator has admitted in recent years that its impact on counterrevolutionary politics in Cuba was “negligible”: even Fidel Castro’s top supporters were apparently not above comparing their commitment to their leader to that of a lesser poet: “They were willing to sacrifice themselves for their leader,” a top adviser told George W. Bush in 2003.

In short, Carterism was about playing by the rules, no matter how unfulfilling they might be, in the hope that they might someday be changed. The subsequent years saw revolutionary movements sweep across eastern Europe. Fidel Castro died in 2006.

President Obama’s internationalist, less linear approach

Over the last seven years, President Obama, a more robust New Englander than most Democrats, has abandoned some of his predecessors’ approaches to foreign policy. The administration has suspended some sanctions on Russia and has refused to engage in a military confrontation with Tehran.

The most striking departure, however, was the Middle East.

In his 2008 campaign, Obama demanded Iran’s retreat from Iraq and promised that Washington would encourage “freedom and moderation” in Tehran. But his early and rocky relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued and Obama soon broke with some of President Bush’s previous thinking, echoing Israeli complaints that Iran did not threaten the United States. In his 2010 speech in Cairo, Obama promised a new tone in Middle East affairs. He seemed to back off that very night when he declared, “This is a moment of change in the Middle East that will determine the future of the entire world.”

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