Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

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

Glenn Greenwald

 by Salon

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

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 former 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. 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 Powerful," "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," and "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." 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.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Citing Need for 'New, Inclusive Leadership,' Chuy García Files for Chicago Mayoral Race

"We have an opportunity to elect a trusted and experienced leader with a history of building coalitions and a vision for a brighter future for all Chicagoans," said the Democratic congressman.

Jessica Corbett ·


On Cyber Monday, Climate Activists Take Aim at Fashion Industry

"The fashion industry is one of the largest polluting industries globally. We can all do better, but it's on companies to make this industry better for workers, the planet, and consumers alike."

Jessica Corbett ·


Biden Accused of Selling Out Rail Workers by Urging Congress to Prevent Strike

"Biden is siding with corporate rail bosses over the rank-and-file workers who voted against this agreement," said one progressive commentator after the president urged lawmakers to take action to force through a deal without paid sick leave.

Brett Wilkins ·


Analysis Finds State Legislators Proposed 306 Bills Targeting Trans People in Past 2 Years

"Right-wing state lawmakers are obsessed with taking away the rights of trans people and we're obsessed with knocking them out of public office," said one rights group.

Julia Conley ·


Biden Mulls Sending Long-Range Missiles to Ukraine

While Ukrainians and supporters welcomed Boeing's proposal to arm Ukrainian forces with long-range precision-guided bombs, one anti-war voice accused the American military-industrial complex of "dictating the U.S. foreign policy and profiteering from wars."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo