The McBama National Security
Consensus and Republican Foreign Policy
after the 2008 Election
TIMOTHY J. LYNCH
This chapter will argue that the 2008 presidential election, rather than a referendum on a failed and failing national security policy, was actually marked by a strong consensus—the McBama consensus—on the essential correctness of what George W. Bush attempted in the seven years after 9/11. The 2008 campaign actually elicited very little substantive debate on national security strategy. Contestation, when it did occur, was over tactics—in Afghanistan and Iraq most notably—which separated the candidates only superficially. The reason for this is clear, though recurrently ignored: John McCain and Barack Obama, like the mainstream of the parties they represented in 2008, both accepted the strategic conception of Bush’s war on terror—though they differed over some of its modes of execution and, in Obama’s case, the war’s title (though not, significantly, its designation as “a war”). Despite his initial popularity as the anti-Bush candidate, Obama has pursued the strategy of his predecessor, albeit with a different style and tone, but with no greater success.
In spring 2008 Robert S. Singh and I published After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy.1 At the time, we were made to feel rather perverse in predicting, let alone hoping for, continuity from Bush to his successor—whoever it turned out to be. During the middle-Bush years, the market became saturated with books contending that American foreign policy was, variously, hubristic, arrogant, sinful, failing, incoherent, Faustian, embattled, protofascist, unraveling, alone, reckless, marked by folly, paradoxical, and ripe for taming.2 However, through 2008– 2010 the academic consensus began to shift—toward the position we defended in After Bush. A highly selective reading of Obama’s rhetoric suggested a divisive break; his actual policy positions, choice of personnel and diplomacy did not. Scholars and practitioners began to argue that Barack Obama’s national security approach was not a repudiation of George W. Bush but a more competent (or futile, if one was not