Obama's Embrace of Bush Terrorism Policies is Celebrated as "Centrism"

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Salon.com

Obama's Embrace of Bush Terrorism Policies is Celebrated as "Centrism"

I wonder how many people from across the political spectrum will have to point this out before Obama defenders will finally admit that it's true.  From Harvard Law Professor and former Bush OLC lawyer Jack Goldsmith, systematically assessing Obama's "terrorism" policies in The New Republic:

Many people think Cheney is scare-mongering and owes President Obama his support or at least his silence.  But there is a different problem with Cheney's criticisms: his premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. . . .

[A]t the end of the day, Obama practices will be much closer to late Bush practices than almost anyone expected in January 2009.

Most critically, Goldsmith expresses admiration for Obama's rhetorical and symbolic changes -- such as Obama's emphasis on obtaining Congressional support for Bush's  policies while highlighting his deep concern for "civil liberties" -- because Goldsmith believes that Obama's rhetoric vests Bush's policies with more credibility, ensures more bipartisan and Congressional support for these policies, makes them more palatable to Democrats, and thus ensures that those policies will endure in a stronger and longer-lasting form:

The new president was a critic of Bush administration terrorism policies, a champion of civil liberties, and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq. His decision (after absorbing the classified intelligence and considering the various options) to continue core Bush terrorism policies is like Nixon going to China. . . .

If this analysis is right, then the former vice president is wrong to say that the new president is dismantling the Bush approach to terrorism. President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run. Viewed this way, President Obama is in the process of strengthening the presidency to fight terrorism.

What's most striking about the denial of so many Obama supporters about all of this is that Obama officials haven't really tried to hide it.  White House counsel Greg Craig told The New York Times' Charlie Savage back in February that Obama "is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency."  It was in that same article where Savage -- a favorite of Bush critics when Bush was president -- warned that after the first week of Executive Orders, "the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor's approach to fighting Al Qaeda." 

Notably, Savage's article was written almost three months ago, well before Obama's announcement that he was adopting many of the most extreme Bush policies.  At the time of Savage's February article, I wrote: "while believing that Savage's article is of great value in sounding the right alarm bells, I think that he paints a slightly more pessimistic picture on the civil liberties front than is warranted by the evidence thus far (though only slightly)."  But as it turns out, it was Savage who was clearly right.  As Politico's Josh Gerstein recently wrote about Obama's Terrorism policies:  "A few, like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, have even hurled the left's ultimate epithet -- suggesting that Obama's turning into George W. Bush."

* * * * *

In his New Republic article today, Goldsmith reviews what he calls the "eleven essential elements" of "the Bush approach to counterterrorism policy" and documents how -- with only a couple of minor exceptions -- Obama has embraced all of them.  In those cases where Obama has purported to "change" these elements, those changes are almost all symbolic and ceremonial, and the few changes that have any substance to them (banning the already-empty CIA black sites and prohibiting no-longer-authorized torture techniques) are far less substantial than Obama officials purport.  None of Goldsmith's analysis is grounded in the proposition that Obama hasn't yet acted to change Bush policies, thus rendering a nonsequitur the response that "Obama needs more time; it's only been 4 months."  Goldsmith is describing affirmative steps Obama has already announced to adopt the core Bush "terrorism" policies.

Just consider some of Goldsmith's examples:  Obama makes a melodramatic showing of ordering Guantanamo closed but then re-creates its systematic denial of detainee rights in Bagram, and "[l]ast month Secretary of Defense Gates hinted that up to 100 suspected terrorists would be detained without trial."  Obama announces that all interrogations must comply with the Army Field Manual but then has his CIA Director announce that he will seek greater interrogation authority whenever it is needed and convenes a task force to determine which enhanced interrogation methods beyond the Field Manual should be authorized.  He railed against Bush's Guantanamo military commissions but then preserved them with changes that are plainly cosmetic.

Obama has been at least as aggressive as Bush was in asserting radical secrecy doctrines in order to prevent courts from ruling on illegal torture and spying programs and to block victims from having a day in court.  He has continued and even "ramped up" so-called "targeted killings" in Pakistan and Afghanistan which, as Goldsmith puts it, "have predictably caused more collateral damage to innocent civilians."  He has maintained not only Bush's rendition policy but also the standard used to determine to which countries a suspect can be rendered, and has kept Bush's domestic surveillance policies in place and unchanged.  Most of all, he has emphatically endorsed the Bush/Cheney paradigm that we are engaged in a "war" against Terrorists -- with all of the accompanying presidential "war powers" -- rather than the law enforcement challenge that John Kerry, among others, advocated.

* * * * *

What is, in my view, most noteworthy about all of this is how it gives the lie to the collective national claim that we learned our lesson and are now regretful about the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism.  Republicans are right about the fact that while it was Bush officials who led the way in implementing these radical and lawless policies, most of the country's institutions -- particularly the Democratic Party leadership and the media -- acquiesced to it, endorsed it, and enabled it  And they still do.  

Nothing has produced as much media praise for Obama as his embrace of what Goldsmith calls the "essential elements" of "the Bush approach to counterterrorism policy."   That's because -- contrary to the ceremonial displays of regret and denouncements of Bush -- the dominant media view is this:  the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism was right; those policies are "centrist"; Obama is acting commendably by embracing them; most of the country wants those policies; and only the Far Left opposes the Bush/Cheney approach. 

Anyone who doubts that should consider this most extraordinary paragraph from Associated Press' Liz Sidoti:

Increasingly, President Barack Obama and Democrats who run Congress are being pulled between the competing interests of party liberals and the rest of the country on Bush-era wartime matters of torture, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.

When it comes to torture and Bush's Terrorism policies, it's the Far Left (which opposes those things) versus "the rest of the country" (which favors them).  And she described Obama's embrace of Bush's policies as "governing from the center."  Apparently, Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies are Centrist.  Who knew?  Her AP colleague Tom Raum said virtually the same thing today:

Internationally, Obama reversed course and is seeking to block the court-ordered release of detainee-abuse photos, revived military trials for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and is markedly increasing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. . . .

Still, even though Obama may be irritating liberal purists on both national security and domestic policy, he has no real choice but to move toward the middle.

Adopting the Bush/Cheney approach to war and Terrorism is to "move toward the middle."  That's because only "liberal purists" oppose those policies.  The Washington Post's CIA spokesman David Ignatius (who I would choose if I had to identify one individual who most embodies the rot of the American political press) celebrated Obama's recent embrace of Bush Terrorism policies as his "Sister Souljah moment" as he "polished his credentials as a centrist," and then returned again to announce that "Obama put his responsibilities as commander in chief first -- and his loyalty to fellow Democrats second."

As Maureen Dowd pointed out in the non-plagiarized part of her column on Sunday, the reason Bush was able to do what he did is because "very few watchdogs - in the Democratic Party or the press - were pushing back against the Bush horde in 2002 and 2003, when magazines were gushing about W. and Cheney as conquering heroes."  But all of this recent media commentary makes clear that media stars and Democratic leaders now are only pretending to find Bush/Cheney policies repugnant because Bush is now so unpopular and his policies were proven to be failures.  As a result, a new face is needed for those policies, but the belief in the rightness of those policies hasn't changed.  They still consider Bush/Cheney policies "centrist" and responsible -- only Leftist Purists oppose them -- and thus heap praise on Obama for embracing them.  We're still the same country we were in 2003.  Our media stars and political leaders from both parties still think the same way.  That's why the more Obama embraces the Bush/Cheney approach, the more praise he gets for Centrism.

What is most damaging about all of this is exactly what Goldsmith celebrated:  that Obama's political skills, combined with his status as a Democrat, is strengthening Bush/Cheney terrorism policies and solidifying them further.  For the last eight years, roughly half the country -- Republicans, Bush followers -- was trained to cheer for indefinite detention, presidential secrecy, military commissions, warrantless eavesdropping, denial of due process, a blind acceptance of any presidential assertion that these policies are necessary to Keep Us Safe, and the claim that only fringe Far Leftist Purists -- civil liberties extremists -- could possibly object to any of that. 

Now, much of the other half of the country, the one that once opposed those policies -- Democrats, Obama supporters -- are now reciting the same lines, adopting the same mentality, because doing so is necessary to justify what Obama is doing.   It's hard to dispute the Right's claim that Bush's Terrorism approach is being vindicated by Obama's embrace of its "essential elements."  That's what Goldsmith means when he says that Obama is making these policies stronger and more palatable, and it's what media stars mean when they describe Bush/Cheney policies as Centrist:  now that it's not just an unpopular Republican President but also a highly charismatic and popular Democratic President advocating and defending these core Bush/Cheney policies, they do become the political consensus of the United States.

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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