Obama's third term — or Bill Clinton's?

Obama's third term — or Bill Clinton's?
© Getty Images

Will the Biden administration be Obama’s third term — a “do-over” — when it comes to foreign policy? It’s crystal clear that the personnel are largely the same, at least when it comes to foreign policy. As Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post put it just before the inauguration, “If personnel is policy, a full-on revival of Obamaism might seem likely. Secretary of state nominee Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenEcuador's security crisis warrants US assistance At least 20 Sudan troops dead after clash on Ethiopia border Germany calls on Congress not to sanction Nord Stream 2 pipeline: report MORE and deputy Wendy Sherman; national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan and deputy Jon Finer; director of national intelligence nominee Avril D. Haines and CIA director-designate William J. Burns were all senior officials under Obama, while defense secretary nominee Lloyd J. Austin III headed the Pentagon’s Middle East command. Almost every other top official so far nominated for State and Defense Department roles is an Obama veteran.”

And yet, some observers have suggested that things may be a bit different. Ambassador Daniel Fried, a long-time State Department official, noted that “The center of gravity of this team is a shade more pro-European and more pro-democratic values.” Fried added that “They are also sobered and even a little burned by experience in the Middle East.” The argument that “U.S. ‘engagement’ with adversarial regimes could diminish their hostility and even cause them to liberalize internally…” was tried by the Obama administration in Iran, and in Burma and Cuba as well, Diehl noted, but “the results were pretty dismal.” At his confirmation hearing, Blinken agreed with the tough Trump stance on Venezuela and the use of the word “genocide” for Chinese conduct in Xinjiang, and noted that Obama policy on China did not work: “There was a broad consensus that economic liberalization in China would lead to political liberalization — that did not happen,” he said.

What is the lesson from these examples? Many analysts see a group of former Obama officials who will be tougher this time around because they’ve learned; they were “mugged by reality.”


That’s plausible (and more so in some cases than others), but so is another theory: The explanation for Obama administration mistakes was not the team, it was the guy leading the team. When it comes to foreign policy issues the Biden administration may not turn out to be Obama III for one central reason: the absence of Obama. We simply do not know if people like Blinken, Sullivan, or Haines need to learn all that much — because the policies that failed Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWe must eliminate nuclear weapons, but a 'No First Use' Policy is not the answer Building back a better vice presidency Jill Biden unveils traditional White House holiday décor MORE were his and not theirs. Did they really all share Obama’s confidence that U.S. engagement would change Cuba or Iran? Did they share his skepticism about human rights policy and support for democratic actors? That is certainly not the impression Blinken sought to give in his confirmation hearing. We know that Blinken opposed Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria to save civilian lives. We know that Obama rejected Austin’s advice on how best to combat ISIS when Austin was the CENTCOM commander. Are there just a handful of other examples, or a long list?

The absence of Obama is the critical factor here. Obama was beyond doubt the dominant figure in his administration’s foreign policy. He did not have a close counselor for most of his presidential years, like George P. Shultz was to Reagan, nor was there a figure in the White House such as Henry Kissinger. The idea that an American president should have a smiling visit with the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, or grant him all sorts of advantages (diplomatic recognition, reduction in the U.S. economic boycott, more tourist dollars) without gaining anything in return was not the product of staff meetings or “the interagency process” — it was pure Obama, with this nation atoning for our sins.

The same can be said of the Iran deal: Would such an unbalanced agreement have been acceptable to any other president? But far from leaping back into the JCPOA nuclear deal, Biden, Blinken, and Sullivan appear to be insisting that Iran act first and come into compliance before any sanctions are removed. As Blinken put it on CNN, “If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing.” They may well abandon this posture but seem to view Iran as a source of danger rather than the victim of past American misbehavior.

That makes the coming four years a fascinating experiment.

What if you took the Obama foreign policy team and set them loose without Obama? Would the resulting foreign policy indeed be more pro-European and anti-Russian? More concerned with promoting and defending democracy? Less inclined to view Israel as a problem? Tougher on Iran?

Left to their own devices, will this cast of characters — led now by Joe BidenJoe BidenDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Pfizer to apply for COVID-19 booster approval for 16- and 17-year-olds: report Coronavirus variant raises fresh concerns for economy MORE — construct a foreign policy that looks like Barack Obama’s or more like the one Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFederal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill Joe Biden's gamble with history Can America prevent a global warming cold war? MORE and Madeline Albright (who famously called the United States the “indispensable nation?”) put in place before the rise of Obama?

My own guess is that just as the Democratic Party changed greatly in the eight years out of power between Lyndon Johnson’s departure in 1969 and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) The Philippines is a frontline of another cold war Cruz: I hope US athletes 'go over there and kick their commie asses' at Beijing Olympics MORE’s arrival in 1977, it has changed even more in the twenty years in and out of power between Clinton’s departure in 2001 and today. If the Biden crew wants to go back to the pre-Obama policies, they will find little enthusiasm and much resistance among Democrats in Congress and at the party’s activist base. And they may find that the Joe Biden who was once an (admittedly erratic) Clintonian centrist left those moorings under Obama — or lacks the energy or desire to swim against his Party’s new tides.

That’s the pessimistic view.

The optimistic view, from my perspective, holds that without Obama this Biden team will drift back to a more centrist, Bill Clinton way of seeing the world.

The future of both political parties, and of U.S. foreign policy, depends in good part on which of these views is right.

Elliott Abrams is Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was an assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan and served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor to George W. Bush, supervising U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House. He served as Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela in the administration of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE.