At the height of the 2012 election cycle, many Americans will pay attention to many issues. Among them is foreign policy. Each of the Republican candidates has his own view on what the United States’ foreign policy should look like, but will there be any difference in what the candidate actually does if he assumes the presidency a year from now? In short, what the candidate says and what the president does regarding U.S. foreign policy are entirely contradictory because of continuity.

Continuity has been present in U.S. foreign policy since 1947 with the policy of containment. From 1947 until 1989, our policy was containing communism. Shortly after the fall of communism, our policy became containing nationalism in the Balkans and Ba’athism in Iraq. Then in 2001, with the attacks of 9/11 and a history of other attacks dating to 1993, the focus of U.S. foreign policy quickly became containing trans-national terrorism.

Though it may seem the U.S. government has not seen continuity in its foreign policy because of the different “-isms” the nation faces, the strategy for each adversary has been the same since 1947.

A further example of continuity is the retention of officials from one administration to another, even if it breaks Party lines. Most of Pres. George W. Bush’s NSC principals were present in his father’s 1989-1993 NSC (Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, et al.).

In addition, Bush retained a Clinton-era official in the Counterterrorism Center: Richard Clarke. Though Clarke was a Democrat, and the Bush administration thoroughly disregarded him until the attacks of 9/11, the retention of even one official from a prior administration of a different Party marks continuity in U.S. policymaking.

Pres. Obama is no purist either when it comes to upholding Party lines and policymaking. His first Secretary of Defense was Robert Gates, who was appointed by Bush in 2006. Obama’s first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was another Bush-era appointee: Adm. Mike Mullen (appointed in 2007).

Due to the retention of officials from past administrations, there is bound to be repetition and/or expansion of past policies. Obama ordered a surge in the level of U.S. and N.A.T.O. ground forces in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. The precedent for this was “The Surge” of 2007 in Iraq, ordered by Bush. The field commander tasked with implementing and leading both surges was Gen. David Petraeus, the current Director of Central Intelligence.

Obama also expanded the scope of the drone program, authorizing more drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets than Bush in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, notably eliminating Anwar al-Awlaki, a former San Diego resident and chief of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The May 2011 raid in Pakistan that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, ordered into effect by Obama, was a fulfillment of Bush’s 2001 promise to get bin Laden “dead or alive.”

It can also be argued that Obama’s use of force against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya was a watered-down version of Bush’s Freedom Agenda: spread democracy across the Middle East and North Africa, and the people there will have legitimate alternatives to terrorism in order to voice dissent against their governments and the U.S.

The Iraq War is another example of the retention of policy from president to president. Arguably, the Iraq War began on Aug. 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait under George H. W. Bush’s watch. What was signed at the conclusion of the Gulf War was a ceasefire agreement, not a peace treaty. The U.S. then conducted several small-scale military operations throughout the 1990s under Clinton to contain Iraq.

Several of George H. W. Bush’s cabinet members (notably Paul Wolfowitz) petitioned Clinton in 1998 that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the liberation of Iraq should be a policy priority. This prompted Clinton to sign the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which was then used in Oct. 2002 to legitimize George W. Bush’s proposed invasion of Iraq. In Dec. 2011, Obama oversaw the implementation of the Status of Forces Agreement of 2008, ending the U.S. military mission in Iraq altogether.

Regardless of which Party wins the Nov. elections, there will be continuity in U.S. foreign policy in Jan. 2013. Voters in the Republican primaries and the general elections should thus focus more on jobs and the economy than on an issue that saw little change over the past 65 years. However, while the candidates’ visions of the future of foreign policy should be disregarded, their past experiences should be taken into full account when casting your vote.


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