When reading Washington Post editorials, one often is reminded of the famous question from "Shawshank Redemption": "How can you be so obtuse?"
Of course, in the movie, the warden wasn't being "obtuse" as much as he was obfuscating and obstructing. And similarly, one has to wonder if the Post's apparent obtuseness is really something willful, that there is a method to the maddening stupidity.
Such was the case with the Post's lead editorial on April 4, "New Words of War," in which the newspaper's neoconservative editorial writers equate ex-President George W. Bush's "global war on terror" with President Barack Obama's more targeted strategy against al-Qaeda.
The Post apparently still won't accept that Bush's blunderbuss GWOT against "every terrorist group of global reach" was a geopolitical and constitutional disaster. Instead, by cherry-picking a few words here and there, the Post argues there's no real difference between Bush's conflict against all "terrorists" everywhere and Obama's targeted assault on al-Qaeda and its allies along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
In criticizing the Obama administration for allegedly playing word games by dropping the GWOT phrasing, the Post was itself playing word games.
"Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently confirmed that the Obama administration has dropped the phrase ‘global war on terror,'" the Post wrote, adding:
"She didn't say why. ‘I think that speaks for itself. Obviously,' was her elaboration. That raised a few obvious questions: Does the new administration believe the fight against al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups doesn't amount to war? Is the threat to the U.S. homeland less, in President Obama's estimation, than that perceived by President George W. Bush? And does the United States still expect its NATO military allies to join in this newly unnamed, speaks-for-itself endeavor? "
But is the Post really that obtuse? What the change in wording means is that the Obama administration doesn't buy into Bush's apocalyptic vision that terrorism represents some new global phenomenon that requires waging endless war and obliterating the U.S. Constitution.
The new words mean that Obama is defining the threat from al-Qaeda in a much more limited way, thus offering a better prospect of victory without the sacrifices of blood, treasure and liberties that Bush's grandiose concept required in pursuit of some phantom security.
However, the Post editorialists drew other conclusions, citing Obama's comments April 3 at a NATO summit in Strasbourg, France.
"I think it's important for Europe to understand that even though I'm now President and George Bush is no longer President, al-Qaeda is still a threat," Obama said. "We believe that we cannot just win militarily [in Afghanistan and Pakistan]. But there will be a military component to it, and Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone."
To the Post's neocons, this statement was Obama channeling their hero, Bush, though they complained of the unjust result - that Obama won praise while Bush would have only encountered disdain.
"George W. Bush might have spoken those words, but Mr. Obama, in contrast to how his predecessor might have been received, was greeted with applause by his European audience," the editorial said.
The Post then summed up its case for believing that the anti-terrorist strategies of Obama and Bush were the same, except for the terminology.
The Post said officials of the Obama administration have acknowledged that there is a threat from al-Qaeda, that it has a "global" component, and that it "requires a military response, with NATO's participation." Thus, the Post concluded, "It seems the ‘global war on terrorism" will continue - only without the name."
But that is a sophomoric - and obtuse - analysis. The Post ignores crucial elements of Bush's GWOT that looked far beyond the threat from al-Qaeda to seeing endless threats from militants, revolutionaries and "rogue states" around the world.
The core problem of Bush's GWOT wasn't that it sought to neutralize al-Qaeda's murderers but that it used Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as an excuse to implement murderous strategies against people who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the bloody invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Beyond forcing "regime change" in Iraq and seeking it in other "axis of evil" countries, Bush's GWOT envisioned an endless "war" against insurgents from Colombia to the Philippines to Central Asia that would involve sending U.S. Special Forces and CIA hit teams to capture or kill troublesome foreign leaders and militants. Bush even vowed to continue this fight until he had eliminated "evil" itself.
The GWOT also was the rationale for imposing long-held right-wing theories about an imperial Presidency that could override federal laws and the U.S. Constitution, essentially establishing a "permanent Republican majority" that would snuff out the American Republic.
Indeed, by 2002, Bush's GWOT had become the justification for administration lawyers to craft legal opinions that asserted that the President, as Commander in Chief, possessed "plenary" or total power for the duration of the never-ending "war on terror."
Justice Department lawyers like John Yoo tossed away U.S. constitutional rights almost casually. The GWOT meant scrapping habeas corpus, the ancient right to challenge arbitrary arrests. Out, too, went the First, the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth and the Eighth Amendments.
The needs of the GWOT took precedence over U.S. treaties and other legal commitments, opening the door to the torture of detainees in U.S. custody and to Bush's assertion that he could wage war without congressional consent.
So, Obama's narrower strategy of defeating al-Qaeda and its allies in a regional conflict is not just semantics. It represents a significant repudiation of Bush's grandiose GWOT, albeit not a totally new direction.
There are residual components from Bush's approach that have carried over into the Obama administration, such as excessive claims of state secrets and long-term detentions in Afghanistan as well as the year-long phase-out of the Guantanamo prison and the three-year pull-out from Iraq.
The Post's neocons also find themselves sharing common ground with some American leftists in treating Obama's approach as essentially the same as Bush's. Their reasons, however, differ.
The Post wants to pretend that Obama is vindicating the Bush/neocon position by keeping its substance although changing its name. Leftists are pushing the line that Obama is no different from Bush, that Obama is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.
But neither position recognizes that Obama has abandoned key components of Bush's GWOT, particularly its infinite nature, both in time and space. Obama has transformed the GWOT into a much more focused and conventional conflict, targeting a specific terrorist group and its allies.
By narrowing the scope of the conflict, Obama also has implicitly rejected Bush's corollary, that the GWOT requires a suspension of American liberties. Neither of these shifts is insignificant - and to ignore them is obtuse.