Obama vs. Bush: Why The US Needs To Find The Middle Ground In Foreign Policy


During a taxi ride in Washington, DC the other day, I asked my driver where he was from. I'd overheard him speaking Arabic on the phone, and I was curious. He was somewhat bemused, likely because he gets this question a lot, and told me he was from Syria.

I've always been in the habit of asking people where they are from; it's a natural curiosity that some appreciate and others, understandably, find insulting. This is the complexity of American identity: We're all from somewhere originally, some of us more recently migrating than others.

Luckily, however, this guy was friendly, and happy to talk about his origins. After more probing, he told me that he was from Aleppo, the city hit hardest by the Syrian Civil War.

We got to talking about the situation over there and eventually I asked him how long he'd been in the United States. He told me he'd already lived here for over 20 years, but it still pained him to see his country torn apart like that. Then he said that he blamed President Obama for not acting soon enough.

I asked him if he thought President Bush was also to blame. After all, it was Bush, and not Obama, who began the 2003 Iraq War. Arguably, this dismantled the region and ultimately led to the power vacuum which made the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) possible.

My driver agreed with me, to an extent. He replied, "We went from one extreme to another. One president was too aggressive and stupid [Bush], and this one is too passive and overthinks everything [Obama]." It was an insightful and balanced statement.

And though I don't necessarily agree with him completely, it is an interesting perspective to explore. I think it's particularly telling that someone from the region most affected by the War on Terror doesn't care if a president is Democratic or Republican. Instead, he just wants peace.

It's difficult to make too many comparisons between President Bush and President Obama. For one, they belong to different political parties and obviously have different approaches to domestic and international affairs.

For another, President Obama still has two more years in office. Thus, any judgment on his presidency at this point would be inconclusive. This is not to say that he doesn't deserve criticism, but that perhaps things could get better or worse for him in the future. His legacy is not yet set it stone.

With that said, it's notable that both presidents have been accused of war crimes: For President Bush, it was the illegal invasion of Iraq and the use of torture by his administration, and for the Obama administration, it was the accusation of torture made by Amnesty International.

Likewise, Obama's drone program has been viewed as a violation of international law. Clearly, both have been hawkish in their own ways.

Thus, to characterize President Obama as a completely passive president is not necessarily accurate. Arguably, he has simply waged the War on Terror in more covert ways than his predecessor, which is less likely to garner public attention than an all-out invasion.

That does not necessarily mean his strategies have been more effective, but it has often presented an image of a more diplomatic president, when this is not necessarily the case.

Given what we know now, however, I believe what my Syrian taxi driver-philosopher friend said still has a lot of truth to it. America has failed on a number of foreign policy fronts over the past decade or so.

What this country needs is a president who thinks critically about the world and prefers diplomacy, yet isn't afraid to be aggressive and assertive when necessary -- essentially a combination of the two ostensible extremes of Bush and Obama.

President Bush

The worst tragedy in American history occurred shortly after President Bush entered office. On September 11, 2001, the United States was deliberately and maliciously attacked by terrorists.

Consequently, President Bush invaded Afghanistan in order to hunt Osama bin Laden and drive al-Qaeda out of the country. It marked the beginning of the War on Terror.

In the days that followed 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan seemed justified. In hindsight, it was imprudent, rushed and not worth it.

Today, even veterans of the War in Afghanistan say it was not worth the costs. It did not lead to the capture of Osama bin Laden, and has not even fully eradicated the Taliban.

In essence, President Bush was too eager to go to war in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and misused the might and resources of the American military.

Likewise, in 2003, Bush authorized the invasion of Iraq. He contended that Saddam Hussein was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, (WMDs).

As we now know, no WMDs were ever found. Consequently, a year after the invasion, President Bush conveniently changed the goals of the Iraq War to that of a counterterrorism operation, despite no links between Hussein and al-Qaeda.

It's very easy to be critical of a president's decisions in hindsight. In the aftermath of 9/11 -- in the midst of the confusion and grief -- the American people called for a response. It's difficult to say what route of action would have been best, but it's apparent that two costly and unsuccessful wars were not it.

The War in Iraq was also a violation of international law. In the hunt for terrorists, the United States violated both its own laws and international laws by utilizing torture as a means to get information.

We also contradicted our own American values. The detention center at Guantanamo Bay will always stand as a black mark on America's legacy.

Some might argue that there were better alternatives following the 9/11 attacks.

The United States could have worked with regional partners and hunted down Osama bin Laden covertly, with permission to operate in the countries in the area.

Instead, the United States came in guns blazing. The shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality does not work when fighting an enemy without borders.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the 2003 Iraq War -- aside from the death and carnage it produced -- was the fact that it had a detrimental impact on America's global standing.

The UN condemned the invasion, and it was an extremely unpopular war around the globe. The biggest mistake that President Bush made was acting unilaterally. It presented an image of America as arrogant and warmongering, indifferent to global opinion.

The United States is the most powerful entity in the world. As such, we're expected to act in difficult and complex situations. That said, however, we live in a globalized and interconnected society and it's important that the United States consults with the world before it embarks down a road upon which there is no return.

President Obama

President Obama came into the presidency in the midst of two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He was always going to have his work cut out for him.

During his campaign, he ran on the promise of winding down America's presence in the Middle East. He promised to withdraw US troops from Iraq and to take a more diplomatic stance in foreign affairs. In many ways, he has already done this.

To put this into context, his global standing is dramatically better than that of his predecessor.

Despite comments made by his presidential opponent Mitt Romney, President Obama largely restored the global esteem of the United States that was lost during the Bush years. He's made a greater effort to engage in dialogue with other world leaders before taking substantive actions.

But President Obama has not been infallible. His reliance on drones and drone strikes has arguably been illegal, ineffective and immoral.

While it is fair to argue that Bush violated international law by invading Iraq, President Obama is also debatably doing the same by utilizing drones in countries the United States is not currently at war with. Much like the War in Iraq, Obama's drone program is very unpopular around the globe.

Obama has also been criticized as being too passive and tentative in his foreign policy. This has been particularly true as of late, in regard to Syria, Ukraine and with the growing conflict with ISIS.

Perhaps he's been too reluctant to involve in the United States in the Middle East. Whether he likes it or not, the United States has been heavily involved in the region for decades, far before the War on Terror even began. At this point, we are responsible for much of the chaos that now pervades the region.

The United States, with its resources and capabilities, has a duty to act. And while this doesn't necessarily warrant an intervention, we cannot afford to be isolationists.

It's refreshing that President Obama tries to engage with the international community before he takes action. This is necessary in the current international climate. With the confluence of forces that converge upon this world, the United States cannot afford to act alone.

President Obama has not been a traditional isolationist, however. He has been quite aggressive in his own way. Although, at the same time, his reluctance to involve the United States in Middle Eastern affairs has arguably fostered the dire situation it now faces with ISIS.

He neglected Iraq following the United States' withdrawal and one could argue that he did the same in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

At this point, perhaps the best characterization of President Obama is that of a fierce minimalist. In a less tumultuous period, the world could likely use a president like him, but presently, it necessitates a more attentive and assertive individual.

The United States cannot solve the world's problems by itself, nor should it.

It cannot view its military might as the solution to every problem because diplomacy is far more important. Military action should always be a last resort, but the president needs to be a good judge of when this qualifies.

Therefore, both President Obama and President Bush have one thing in common: They have both displayed poor judgment in foreign policy.

The next president will be elected in two years. That may seem like a long time from now, but it will likely be here before we know it. The next president needs to learn from the mistakes of both Bush and Obama.

He or she needs to consult with the international community before taking extreme actions, while also ensuring that both international and American laws are upheld.

The fight against terrorism will require global cooperation, so the next president needs to ensure that the United States allies itself with credible and trustworthy partners.

At present, it's somewhat dubious that the United States is working closely with Saudi Arabia in the fight against ISIS. After all, Saudi Arabia is guilty of numerous human rights violations and actually provided ISIS with much of its early funding.

Being the President of the United States is perhaps the most difficult job in the world.

In order to be the president, one has to be simultaneously arrogant and selfless. It's a contradiction, because it's arrogant for anyone to believe that he or she is actually qualified for the position but, at the same time, it's incredibly selfless to accept the position.

Presidents -- past and future --  are asked to give up their lives, privacy and (likely) their popularity in the process. Some presidents literally never recover from the tarnished legacies they garner during their tenure.

Perhaps some of them deserve it, but history is often cruel, and not as objective as it makes itself out to be.

Photo Credit: Wenn