The Obama-Bush doctrine

May 31, 2012

When Barack Obama hosts George W. Bush at the White House today for the unveiling of Bush’s presidential portrait, the 44th president will have to find something nice to say about the 43rd. Perhaps Obama could point out that the two men’s counterterrorism policies are virtually indistinguishable — except in the liberal reaction to them.

Take this week’s New York Times report on Obama’s drone war. Imagine the outcry that would have erupted on the left if the Times had reported that during his time in office, Bush was personally selecting “every new name on an expanding ‘kill list’” of terrorists to be vaporized? Imagine if the Times had described White House officials boasting about how Bush “approves lethal action without handwringing,” or how Bush had told aides that the decision to kill an American citizen with a drone was an “easy one”? Imagine if the Times had revealed that Karl Rove, “the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the ‘Terror Tuesday’ meetings” each week in the Situation Room where decisions were made as to who would live or die?

There would be bonfires burning in Lafayette Park.

So the absence of outrage was palpable when the Times reported such details about Barack Obama’s drone campaign against al-Qaeda. Consider some of the Times revelations:

●When he issued executive orders shutting down CIA interrogations and Guantanamo Bay, Obama “without showing his hand” performed a “deft insertion of some wiggle words” that created “subtle loopholes . . . carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight the war on terror as he saw fit.”

● In addition to “personality” strikes against named, high-value terrorists, Obama has also authorized “signature” strikes against “suspicious compounds” and targets “whose names [we] do not know.”

● While claiming to have tightened the rules for protecting innocent lives, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties,” which “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” because “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

●When it came to killing American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Obama determined that he could “order the targeting of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States is not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial” relying on a secret Justice Department finding that a U.S. citizen’s Fifth Amendment right to due process “could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”

Where are the congressional hearings charging that Obama is running an “imperial presidency”? Where is the New York Times editorial declaring that Obama has overseen “an expansion of presidential power chilling both in its sweep and in the damage it did to the constitutional system of checks and balances”? Where is the three-year investigation and 5,000 page report from Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee into Obama’s drone campaign?

Last year Amnesty International demanded Bush’s arrest for ordering the capture and interrogation of senior terrorist leaders, after which they were sent (alive) to Guantanamo Bay for trial. Well according to the Times, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president ordered drone strikes that use cluster bombs and have allegedly killed not only their intended targets but also “neighboring families.” Why isn’t Amnesty demanding Obama’s arrest for war crimes?

The fact is, with the critically important exception of terrorist interrogation, Obama has embraced nearly all of Bush’s major counterterrorism policies. Rendition continues. Indefinite detention continues. The trial of terrorists by military commission continues. The National Security Agency’s “warrantless wiretapping” of terrorist communications continues. While Obama shut down the CIA interrogation program, he gladly used the intelligence it produced to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Instead of seeking congressional authorization to kill American-born terrorists with drones, Obama has instead relied on secret Justice Department memos. And while Obama disclosed Bush’s secret interrogation memos, he has steadfastly refused to make his own secret drone memos public.

Even the current pace of drone strikes is virtually unchanged from the pace set by Bush in the final six months of his administration. Obama has not escalated these strikes, as many suggest -- he simply continued the escalation Bush put in place before leaving office.

Indeed, the only changes Obama seems to have made to the drone campaign is that he took personal control of targeting decisions that Bush had left to experts in the intelligence community; gave his top political strategist, David Axelrod, a seat at the table where life or death decisions are made; and leaked the classified details of his policy to the New York Times so he could “spike the football” once again.

Most conservatives support Obama’s drone strategy. And apparently so do most liberals. A Post poll earlier this year found that 77 percent of self-described liberals support drone strikes, and 55 percent approve even if the targets are American citizens. This may be the greatest bipartisan achievement of Obama’s presidency: He has secured broad liberal support for the key elements of the Bush doctrine. That is an accomplishment that was unthinkable when Bush was in office — and one I suspect Obama will leave out of his remarks at the White House today.

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