Thursday, May 21, 2009

Meet the New Boss
Obama's national security speech on Thursday morning at the National Archives was, if nothing else, characteristic: he traced the recent history of an issue as he understands it, sketched out (if slightly oversimplified) the two competing positions, saluted the sincerity of people who hold those views, then tried to stake out a thoughtful middle ground. It's a good trick, even if we've seen him do it a few times now--those who compared today's remarks to the speech Obama gave last spring after the Jeremiah Wright scandal blew up were onto something in structure, at the least. And it certainly beats the "I'm right, and you're not only wrong but morally cretinous" POV of the previous administration on substance and style, hissed out by the vileness that is Dick Cheney moments after Obama wrapped up.

In truth, though, there is far less of a gulf between the policies of this administration and the last one than Cheney seems to believe. Jack Goldsmith, the former Bush administration head of the Office of Legal Counsel, declares as much in this New Republic article--though he notes that a part of the explanation is that many of the worst Bush/Cheney excesses had been curtailed by the last couple years of their administration. For Goldsmith, a serious conservative whose apostasy involved not being quite as psychopathic as some of his bosses, this continuity comes as much happier news than it does to me, or to many on the progressive side of these questions. Here is how he characterizes the distinction:

The main difference between the Obama and Bush administrations concerns not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging. The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation. The Obama administration, by contrast, is intensely focused on these issues.

The Bush White House had a principled commitment to expanding presidential power that predated 9/11. This commitment led it early on to act unilaterally on military commissions, detention, and surveillance rather than seeking political and legal support from Congress, and to oppose judicial review of these and other wartime policies. The public concerns about presidential power induced by these actions were exacerbated by the administration's expansive rhetoric. Department of Justice opinions and presidential signing statements, for example, made broad claims for an untouchable Commander-in-Chief power that were unnecessary to the tasks at hand. Just as damaging was the administration's frequently expressed desire to expand executive power in order, as Vice President Cheney put it, "to leave the presidency stronger than we found it."
The Bush administration's opposite rhetorical strategy led many people to suspect that the president was acting to increase his own power rather than to keep the country safe. The strategy's main effect was to distort the legitimacy of many Bush wartime practices that had been uncontroversial in previous wars. The early Bush administration failed to grasp what Lincoln and Roosevelt understood well: the vital ongoing need to convince the citizenry that the president is using his extraordinary war powers for the public good and not for personal or institutional aggrandizement. By the time the Bush administration began to act on this principle in its second term, it was too late; its credibility on these issues--severely damaged not only by unilateralism and expansive rhetoric, but also by mistaken intelligence in the war with Iraq--was unrecoverable.

President Obama, by contrast, entered office with great stores of credibility in speaking about the dangers of terrorism and the difficulties of meeting the terror threat. 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. Because the Obama policies play against type and (in some quarters of his party) against interest, they appear more likely to be a necessary response to a real terror threat and thus less worrisome from the perspective of presidential aggrandizement than when the Bush administration embraced essentially the same policies.

To be clear, I don't believe that the new boss is substantially the same as the old boss. Put this down to partisan or temperamental preference if you like, but I do trust Obama more: he's empathetic and thoughtful where Bush was dogmatic and unreflective, I believe he has far greater knowledge of and respect for the Constitution, and unlike Bush he's surrounded by advisers who will articulate viewpoints favoring restraint. Still, this isn't what I was hoping for--because the administration's position implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) reserves the Executive Superpowers for future presidents, some of whom will be more along the lines of Bush (or Cheney himself) in temperament and inclination.

Another, related problem is that in past instances of presidential powers expanded in wartime, the wars had ends. Indeed, Obama (echoing Bush) stated today that this "war" won't conclude with a signing ceremony in which the other side formally gives up the fight. So there might not ever be an endpoint to the powers Bush wielded and Obama claims--and for that matter, as Glenn Greenwald writes, we're never not at war:

Nothing excites our media stars more than saluting and fetishizing the President as a "War President" and "Commander-in-Chief" (David Broder today, in his column entitled "Obama in Command": Obama is "continuing, with minor modifications, the policies and practices of his Republican predecessor . . . . Obama's liberal critics are right. He is a different man now. He has learned what it means to be commander in chief"). But isn't the phrase "war president" a complete redundancy when it comes to the U.S.? Which American presidents were not "war presidents"?

Bill Clinton presided over his war in the Balkans and various bombing campaigns in Iraq ("Operation Desert Fox"), Afghanistan and the Sudan; Bush 41 had his war -- the glorious Desert Storm -- against Iraq, which followed his intrepid invasion of Panama; Reagan conducted his various secret wars in Central America and got his direct war glory by invading Grenada and by bombing Libya (heroically taking out the infant of that country's leader); Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were all "war presidents" in Southeast Asia; Truman and Eisenhower both presided over the Korean War and the Cold War. I suppose Jimmy Carter may be one of the very few Presidents to whom the label may not apply, since our military involvement during his four post-Vietnam years was of the indirect kind, though even Carter presided over the attempted military rescue of American hostages in Iran and the peak of the Cold War. And I've omitted far more American military actions from this list than I included.
In other words, there's no such thing as an American President who is not a "war President." We never go more than a few years without some kind of a direct war, and are always waging covert and indirect ones. American presidents are inherently "war presidents." We don't really have any other kind. To vest a specific power in a President on the ground that he's a "War President" is to vest that power in presidents generally and permanently.

That's why this media construct that things are different for "war presidents" -- we have to give "war presidents" greater power and leeway; demand less transparency and accept more secrecy; acquiesce to abridgments of civil liberties when "America is at war"; and, coming soon under the Change banner, allow them the right to imprison people indefinitely with no trials even beyond "war zones" -- is so manipulative and misleading.

As I've written before, our system since the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict has made it far too easy for political leaders to send large numbers of organized, heavily armed Americans beyond our borders to work their will. That's what happens when there's no draft and no potent antiwar constituency of principle, and if that remains unchanged after the experience of the last seven years--when a shockingly small percentage of the citizenry bore all the terrible costs of the conflicts--I can't imagine what will alter the terms of the debate. As Greenwald also notes, if there's one aspect of our contemporary political culture that would shock and appall the Founders, the ease with which we go to war probably would be it.

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