Obama/Bush comparison on terror

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Jack Goldsmith has a very interesting piece in The New Republic comparing the Bush Administration and Obama Administration on carrying out the war on terrorism. Generally speaking, the Obama Administration has tweaked and modified a few things on a not-very-significant level. There have been a few major denouncements of things the Bush Administration hadn't done for a few years but was still defending as right. There have been a few minor adjustments. But on each separate item among the 11 policy planks Goldsmith has identified, the changes aren't much, and in some cases Obama has increased things Bush was criticized for. Here is his summary of the effects: obama_late_bush

Its changes to Bush practices thus far--cutting back on secret detentions, probable new restrictions on interrogation, and relatively small procedural changes to military commissions--will leave some suspected terrorists in a better place than they would have been under the Bush regime (although Obama's increase in targeted killings will likely result in more deaths and injuries, without due process, to terror suspects and innocent civilians). Even with these caveats, at the end of the day, Obama practices will be much closer to late Bush practices than almost anyone expected in January 2009.
I'm not sure I'd say no one would would have predicted it. I know of at least one person who voted for Obama in part because he thought McCain was going to go further than Bush did while Obama was presenting foreign policy views closer to Bush's. I remember reading several conservative bloggers saying that Obama was criticizing things that he'd eventually realize were good and right once he got into office (or less charitably that he knew full well that what he was criticizing was fine and was shooting himself in the foot for political gain). That kind of prediction does seem apt at least in terms of accurately predicting what Obama would do.

But Goldsmith is spinning this in a way that I don't think is very fair. He contrasts what he's saying with Dick Cheney's alarmism about the changes Obama has implemented. I'm not entirely sure the things Cheney is criticizing are the same kinds of things Goldsmith is highlighting. Most of the things I've heard him talking about were either one-time events or initial policy positions that Obama has gone back on, whereas Goldsmith is concerned about long-term impact from policies going forward from this point on. Cheney has criticized the release of the interrogation memos, saying that it would endanger our troops. Obama seems to have taken the same attitude now about some related issues. Cheney has criticized the talk of prosecuting Bush Administration lawyers who wrote the controversial interrogation memos. The Obama Justice Department has certainly taken their time to indicate that they don't seem interested in such prosecutions.

Cheney does list the terrorist surveillance program as one change, and I can't see how that's changed. At least the wireless surveillance program that Obama had mixed feelings about before he was president hasn't changed since he's taken office, and he's explicitly said that it would continue. So I'm not sure what Cheney is referring to on that one. But most of what Cheney is saying is fully compatible with most of what Goldsmith says.

There's a lot of fascinating analysis in Goldsmith's article, and I encourage you to read the whole thing, especially the last two pages. I think his biggest omission, though, has to do with a lack of context. There's plenty of foreign policy context, but there's no acknowledgment of the fact that Obama's continuation of heightened executive powers does not occur in a vacuum when it comes to heightened executive powers in other policy matters. This is the same president who has expanded the federal government more than any other president has done, all under the banner of responding to an emergency that the legislation in question had little to do with. It's the same administration that in effect gave itself the power to fire chief executives of corporations for behaving in a way that isn't conducive to its view of economic growth. Perhaps the most defining feature of the Obama Administration to this point has been its tendency to grab power in unprecedented and highly-unexpected ways. This is also a president whose past influence includes the community-organizing ideology that makes all political change boil down to power, and even though he concluded from his experience that community organizing doesn't achieve those goals very well, it's quite plausible that he still maintains those goals (and the way he talks about justice seems to indicate that he still maintains the socialist theory of justice from that Marxian power-based ideology). It's very hard for me to see his maintenance of higher levels of presidential power outside the context of his significant increases to presidential power in other areas.

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