Obama and the Bush Realists

wiseguys 2 Obama and the Bush RealistsJust over six years ago, as legend has it, George H. W. Bush weighed in on the invasion of Iraq that his son seemed hell-bent on pursuing, deputizing his old confidante Brent Scowcroft to deliver a very public warning to the president.

Mr. Scowcroft’s resulting op-ed, published in The Wall Street Journal and titled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” presciently decreed that any invasion “is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism.” It fell on deaf ears in the White House, and the war commenced a few months later.

The elder Mr. Bush’s hand again seemed to be at work four years later, when, with public frustration with the war reaching its breaking point, James A. Baker took the reins of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that proposed a strategy for withdrawing troops from Iraq and reengaging diplomatically with the rest of the Middle East. This, too, was ignored by the president.

George H. W. Bush played no public role in either episode, but they both nonetheless confirmed just how radically the second President Bush had departed from the worldview of his father, who passed on an open invitation to invade Baghdad and who made maintaining relationships with the rest of the world a priority.

Perhaps the most ironic legacy of George W. Bush’s presidency is the service it has done to the reputation of his father, who seemed destined to be remembered as an unaccomplished one-termer when he lost his reelection bid (with just 37 percent of the vote) in 1992. By serially violating the basic principles that informed his father’s foreign policy and incurring such ghastly consequences, the younger Mr. Bush has stirred a widespread reassessment: The leadership that Americans took for granted under his father now seems like uncommon wisdom from a better, bygone era.

And now, with only weeks remaining in the second Bush administration, that sentiment is being validated by the incoming Democratic president, a man who opposed the Iraq war back when Mr. Scowcroft did; who has repeatedly lamented that “we have taken our eye off the ball” in Afghanistan because of it; and who has unapologetically championed the kind of aggressive diplomacy endorsed by the Iraq Study Group.

On Monday, Barack Obama, after much anticipation, trotted out the principal players on his national security team. Hillary Clinton, his selection for secretary of state, generated the most attention, but the bigger story could be found in two of his other picks: James L. Jones as national security adviser, and Robert Gates, who will keep his post as defense secretary.

Both are well known in the Washington world—Mr. Jones, a former NATO supreme allied commander, was once the Marine liaison to the Senate, and Mr. Gates spent years with the C.I.A. (and was the agency’s director under George H. W. Bush) and served on the National Security Council in the 1970s—and both are associated with the realist thinking that prevailed under the first President Bush.

Consider Mr. Gates, whose selection as defense secretary in late 2006 was seen as one of George W. Bush’s very few nods to his father. In many ways, he is a protégé of both Mr. Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the two realists who served as national security advisor when Mr. Gates was with the N.S.C. Even though Mr. Brzezinski is a Democrat who served under Jimmy Carter, he has made his respect for George H. W. Bush clear, endorsing him in 1988 and rating him as America’s best post-Cold War president in his 2007 book, Second Chance.

Mr. Gates was also a member of the Iraq Study Group when he was nominated for defense in ’06.

Then there’s Mr. Jones, who with his West Wing office and near-constant access to the president, will arguably enjoy a more intimate working relationship with Mr. Obama than Mrs. Clinton will. He has echoed Mr. Obama’s view that the Iraq war has hindered U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Perhaps more interesting, he is deeply uncomfortable with Donald Rumsfeld. He refused back in ’01 even to interview for the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Rumsfeld, and subsqequently declined several other opportunities to join the Bush administration.

After his ’92 defeat, George H. W. Bush took to declaring in an almost pleading voice that “history will remember us kindly.” Whether history will do so is still unclear, but Barack Obama clearly does.

skornacki@observer.com