With a flurry of executive orders and his personal attendance at the swearing in of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama has alerted the nation and the world that his foreign policy will be vastly different from George W. Bush’s.
On Tuesday, as Obama took the oath of office, you could almost hear the rest of the world breathe a sigh of relief. Bush had been abrupt and condescending towards longtime allies like France, dismissive of international norms, and foolish in planning for the occupation in Iraq. Bush drank Cheney’s Kool-Aid and evidently truly believed that the Iraqis would greet American troops as liberators not foreign occupiers, a misjudgment that cost thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and vast amounts of American prestige and Iraqi suffering. Yet, Bush seemed to see foreign affairs as a character test, and rather than admit a mistake, he asked the nation to tough it out on his behalf. Bush’s incompetence was matched only by his petulance, and his willingness to work beyond the constraints of our legal system and treaty obligations made his rhetoric about freedom ring hollow.
Obama’s decision to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo put flesh on his campaign promise to restore America’s credibility in the world. It is not clear what will happen to those at Guantanamo but whatever it is, it will be done within the boundaries of the Constitution. A new body of laws governing the special challenges of prosecuting these men is required and Obama must work with Congress to make such laws. We must find a way to give the prisoners their right to a trial without permitting them a platform for their propaganda or a method for divulging information that could prove dangerous. But, these are practical matters, and the issues will argue themselves. The key is that this symbol of American contempt for its own norms of civilization will be closed.
The same can be said of Obama’s executive order forbidding the use of torture. Bush forgot that the only way Osama bin Laden can really "win" his war of terror is to get us to abandon our own standards of civilization. He can’t storm the sands of San Diego and invade America: He can only hope that his attacks, and threats of attacks, will force us to become like him, to play by his rules. Permitting torture became the symbol of bin Laden’s success, a point that was lost on Bush. During the ups-and-downs of the fall election, it was always a comfort to think that America’s dalliance with terror would come to an end: Sen. John McCain also supported stricter rules proscribing the use of terror.
One part of the Bush legacy that should be tweaked but maintained is the commitment to spreading democracy. This requires more than an electoral process: Hamas won an election. So did Ahmadinejad. Democracy requires cultural support, not only legalistic forms. Nor can democracy be promoted by force: Bush thought Jeffersonian habits would come to Iraq with the Tenth Mountain Division, but he was mistaken. And, in troubled places like the Middle East, which are still struggling to approach modernity, we may have to make nice with despots because the alternative may be worse. You don’t see the Israelis arguing for democracy promotion in Egypt for a reason.
Still, Americans would rightly object to our government conducting overly warm relations with tyrants and the more democratic a nation becomes the more likely we are to find congruent interests and a mutual distaste for recourse to violence. And, Obama has a secret weapon is what is essentially a war of words and symbols: Himself. George W. Bush, son of a president, with his legacy admission to Yale and sweetheart business deals, who won his first term on a 5-4 Supreme Court vote even though he got fewer votes than Al Gore, was always going to be a flawed embodiment of the democratic ideal. On the other hand, Obama’s story is a text book example of the improbable things that can be accomplished in a free and democratic society.
Promoting democracy is too noble a task to be tarnished by the Bush legacy. And the best way to promote it is by example. Closing Guantanamo and stopping torture are big steps towards becoming, actually returning, to our finest traditions. For all Obama’s talk about "change" in this regard, his ascent has brought on a happy restoration. He will soon enough earn the enmity of those who wish America ill. We do have enemies and we have friends with different interests too. But the enemies of America will have a harder time convincing others in the next four years. It is the friends of America, not her enemies, that are sleeping more soundly since last Tuesday.