Change has rarely looked so much like continuity. Barack Obama‘s leftward positioning and achingly idealistic rhetoric in the Democratic primaries harkened back to George McGovern or Robert Kennedy. His personnel choices during the transition instead recall Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts technocrat who notoriously ran on competence.
Mr. Obama is too savvy a marketer to have tried to make a campaign slogan out of practicality. But who would have guessed that when he lit up the crowd at Iowa’s 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner with his signature speech denouncing the ways of Washington and Democrats who accommodated Bush foreign policy, he harbored a secret desire to draw on experienced Republicans to manage his national-security policy?
Mr. Obama has selected a former Marine commandant close to John McCain, Gen. Jim Jones, as his national-security adviser; asked President George W. Bush‘s defense secretary, Bob Gates, to stay on; and selected Hillary Clinton, a relative centrist who denounced Mr. Obama’s naivete in the primaries, as secretary of state.
It’s as moderate as any Democrat’s national-security picks could possibly get. Just when it seemed that the hawkish Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party was dead forever, a jerry-built version of it is making a comeback via the impending administration of a man championed by antiwar zealots. Yes, God does have a sense of humor.
The success of the surge in Iraq made Mr. Obama’s pragmatic turn easier. Perhaps never has someone owed so much to a policy he opposed so vehemently. First, the success of the surge diminished the Iraq war as an issue in the general election. Second, it makes it possible to contemplate a responsible drawdown in Iraq.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama pledged to end the war in 2009. That’s a nonstarter. He still talks of getting out in 16 months, but in his press conference announcing his national-security team he emphasized that he’ll listen to his commanders and said the recent security pact with Iraq “points us in the right direction.” Our straight-shooting commander on the ground in Iraq, Ray Odierno, opposes a 16-month withdrawal, while the U.S.-Iraqi security pact envisions a U.S. exit in three years.
A kind of continuity is also possible for Mr. Obama because the caricature of Bush foreign policy as dangerously radical never accurately reflected reality.
Mr. Bush wants U.S. troops to “return on success” in Iraq — so does Mr. Obama. Mr. Bush supports a buildup in Afghanistan — so does Mr. Obama. Mr. Bush wants a larger military — so does Mr. Obama. Mr. Bush has launched raids against al Qaeda into the tribal areas of Pakistan — Mr. Obama wants to do the same. Mr. Bush wants to close Guantanamo Bay, but has been bedeviled by the difficult choices inherent in its shuttering - Mr. Obama will be, too. Mr. Bush has put out diplomatic feelers to Iran, while warning of the unacceptability of its nuclear program — Mr. Obama has done the same, though with more of an accent on diplomacy.
Mr. Obama’s national-security choices signal he’s going to build off the late-second-term “realist” Bush foreign policy, giving it a fresh branding as “change” internationally and augmenting our tools of “soft power” (something Mr. Gates has repeatedly plugged). The one true progressive on his team, Susan Rice, has been relegated to ambassador to the United Nations, where wishful thinking is mostly harmless and soothes the bureaucrats.
Perhaps Mr. Obama is simply bowing to the exigencies of American foreign policy, defined by a few ineluctable realities: We are the sole superpower in a dangerous world, full of enemies only we have the military resources to defeat and of rival powers with interests divergent from ours.
The great theorist of realism Hans Morgenthau warned against the illusion that “the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would never be played.” At times during the last two years, Mr. Obama seemed to believe in the curtain fall. His new national-security team holds out hope that he never did, or doesn’t anymore. This is change you can respect.
Rich Lowry is a nationally syndicated columnist.