[Marxism] Obama’s Turn in Bush’s Bind
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Sun Feb 10 07:57:42 MST 2013
NY Times February 9, 2013
Obama’s Turn in Bush’s Bind
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — If President Obama tuned in to the past week’s bracing
debate on Capitol Hill about terrorism, executive power, secrecy and due
process, he might have recognized the arguments his critics were making:
He once made some of them himself.
Four years into his tenure, the onetime critic of President George W.
Bush finds himself cast as a present-day Mr. Bush, justifying the
muscular application of force in the defense of the nation while
detractors complain that he has sacrificed the country’s core values in
the name of security.
The debate is not an exact parallel to those of the Bush era, and Mr.
Obama can point to ways he has tried to exorcise what he sees as the
excesses of the last administration. But in broad terms, the
conversation generated by the confirmation hearing of John O. Brennan,
his nominee for C.I.A. director, underscored the degree to which Mr.
Obama has embraced some of Mr. Bush’s approach to counterterrorism,
right down to a secret legal memo authorizing presidential action
unfettered by outside forces.
At the same time, a separate hearing in Congress revealed how far Mr.
Obama has gone to avoid what he sees as Mr. Bush’s central mistake.
Testimony indicated that the president had overruled his secretaries of
state and defense and his military commanders when they advised arming
rebels in Syria.
With troops only recently home from Iraq, Mr. Obama made clear that he
was so intent on staying out of another war against a Middle East tyrant
that he did not want to be involved even by proxy, especially if the
proxies might be questionable.
Critics on the left saw abuse of power, and critics on the right saw
The confluence of these debates suggests the ways Mr. Obama is willing
to emulate Mr. Bush and the ways he is not. In effect, Mr. Obama relies
on his predecessor’s aggressive approach in one area to avoid Mr. Bush’s
even more aggressive approach in others. By emphasizing drone strikes,
Mr. Obama need not bother with the tricky issues of detention and
interrogation because terrorists tracked down on his watch are generally
incinerated from the sky, not captured and questioned. By dispensing
with concerns about due process, he avoids a more traditional war that
he fears could lead to American boots on the ground.
“I’d argue the shift to more targeted action against A. Q. has been a
hallmark of Obama’s approach against terrorism, whereas Iraq was Bush’s
signature decision in his global war on terror,” said Benjamin J.
Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, using the
initials for Al Qaeda.
The Brennan hearing highlighted the convoluted politics of terrorism.
Conservatives complained that if Mr. Bush had done what Mr. Obama has
done, he would have been eviscerated by liberals and the news media. But
perhaps more than ever before in Mr. Obama’s tenure, liberals voiced
sustained grievance over the president’s choices.
“That memo coming out, I think, was a wake-up call,” said Christopher
Anders, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties
Union. “These last few days, it was like being back in the Bush days.”
“It’s causing a lot of cognitive dissonance for a lot of people,” he
added. “It’s not the President Obama they thought they knew.”
The dissonance is due in part to the fact that Mr. Obama ran in 2008
against Mr. Bush’s first-term policies but, after winning, inherited Mr.
Bush’s second-term policies.
By the time Mr. Bush left office, he had shaved off some of the more
controversial edges of his counterterrorism program, both because of
pressure from Congress and the courts and because he wanted to leave
behind policies that would endure. He had closed the secret C.I.A.
prisons, obtained Congressional approval for warrantless surveillance
and military commissions, and worked to close the prison at Guantánamo
So while Mr. Obama banned harsh interrogation techniques, he preserved
much of what he inherited, with some additional safeguards; expanded Mr.
Bush’s drone campaign; and kept on veterans of the antiterrorism wars
like Mr. Brennan. Some efforts at change were thwarted, like his vow to
close the Guantánamo prison and to try Sept. 11 plotters in civilian court.
“These are the same issues we’ve been grappling with for years that are
uncomfortable given our legal structures and the nature of the threat,
but the Obama team is addressing these issues the same way we did,” said
Juan Carlos Zarate, who was Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser
for combating terrorism.
Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor and former Bush national
security aide, said Mr. Obama “believed the cartoon version of the Bush
critique so that Bush wasn’t just trying to make tough calls how to
protect America in conditions of uncertainty, Bush actually was trying
to grab power for nefarious purposes.”
“So even though what I, Obama, am doing resembles what Bush did, I’m
doing it for other purposes,” Mr. Feaver added.
Others said that oversimplified the situation and ignored modifications
that Mr. Obama had enacted. “It is a vast overstatement to suggest that
President Obama is channeling President Bush,” said Geoffrey R. Stone, a
University of Chicago law professor who hired a young Mr. Obama to
lecture there. “On almost every measure, Obama has been more careful,
more restrained and more respectful of individual liberties than
President Bush was.”
“On the other hand,” Mr. Stone added, “at least in his use of drones,
President Obama has legitimately opened himself up to criticism for
striking the wrong balance” between civil liberties and national security.
Particularly stark has been the secret memo authorizing the targeted
killing of American citizens deemed terrorists under certain
circumstances without judicial review, a memo that brought back memories
of those in which John Yoo, a Justice Department official under Mr.
Bush, declared harsh interrogation legal.
That broad assertion of power, even with limits described by
administration officials, combined with the initial White House refusal
to release even a sanitized summary of the memo touched off protests
from left and right. Some called Mr. Obama a hypocrite. But Mr. Yoo
himself saw it differently, arguing in The Wall Street Journal that the
memo, whatever the surface similarities to his own, betrayed a flawed
vision because it presented the issue in law enforcement terms rather
than as an exercise of war powers.
Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director under Mr. Bush, said that if Mr.
Obama learned one thing from experience it should be that controversial
programs require public support to be sustained. “Err on the side of
being open, at least with Congress,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to
find yourself in a politically vulnerable position.”
For four years, Mr. Obama has benefited at least in part from the
reluctance of Mr. Bush’s most virulent critics to criticize a Democratic
president. Some liberals acknowledged in recent days that they were
willing to accept policies they once would have deplored as long as they
were in Mr. Obama’s hands, not Mr. Bush’s.
“We trust the president,” former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan said
on Current TV. “And if this was Bush, I think that we would all be more
up in arms because we wouldn’t trust that he would strike in a very
targeted way and try to minimize damage rather than contain collateral
But some national security specialists said questions about the limits
of executive power to conduct war should not depend on the person in the
“That’s not how we make policy,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former
national security aide under Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama and now a fellow at
the New America Foundation. “We make policy assuming that people in
power might abuse it. To do otherwise is foolish.”
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