Ross Douthat did a column yesterday noting the substantial continuities on foreign policy between Barack Obama and George W Bush. I think there’s a lot to that, but there’s also a gaping Iraq-shaped hole in these continuity accounts and this is what makes assessments of continuity so difficult. After all, the decision to invade Iraq was kind of a big deal. And yet in seven out of eight years, Bush didn’t launch any unwarranted invasions of medium-sized countries. Like his predecessors and his successors Bush mostly eschewed unilateral preventive war as the key plank of his non-proliferation policy. But he spent the fall of 2002, the winter of 2002-2003, and the spring of 2003 pursuing a very different foreign policy approach from Obama’s.
That matters, a lot. Iraq was a giant disaster that got huge numbers of people killed and did enormous damage to American interests. When a normal person thinks about Bush, the Bush foreign policy, and the “Bush legacy” the misbegotten invasion of Iraq and the related decisions to brush off Iranian peace overtures and refuse to deal with North Korea loom extremely large. And while there are certainly precedents for what Bush did in Iraq, no other president ever made that kind of coercive regime change the centerpiece of his national security strategy.