Dueling Speeches, but Not Much Difference

by , May 25, 2009

It was not difficult to detect differences in tone and emphasis in the over-touted "dueling speeches" last Thursday by President Obama and former vice president Cheney, who has consciously chosen to become the Apostle of Torture. What was striking about the dual performance, besides the fact that I can’t recall a principal from an outgoing administration being so sharply, even petulantly, critical of an incoming administration so soon, given that the custom in the U.S. has been to give the new guys a decent interval before jumping all over them – is the fact that once you get past style and rhetoric, the actual policies of the two administrations are turning out to be remarkably similar.

The reason, of course, is that at the level of what a political scientist might call Grand Strategy, there is little to choose between the two leaders. We can expect shifts in emphasis. Obama has already escalated in Afghanistan more quickly than Bush in a (shudder!) third term might have, or than a McCain might have, and it would not be surprising to see more readiness to intervene forcefully in a putatively humanitarian crisis in Africa than a Republican regime might display. But Bush, McCain, Cheney, and Obama all agree that the scope of American interests in the world is virtually unlimited, and all are inclined to justify U.S. intervention in difficult foreign conflicts by playing on the exaggerated fears of the American public – even, in Obama’s case, as he proclaims that he is moving beyond fear-mongering, which one has to admit is a pretty slick trick.

There is little question that the kind of rhetoric Obama employs when he discusses foreign policy, war, torture, and detention policies, is different from the kind of language the Bushies employed. The media are inclined to anoint any politician who can string three sentences together in a way that sounds logical or speak in paragraphs rather than sound bites as the greatest orator since Martin Luther King Jr., maybe Pericles. Even so, while Obama’s speechifying reputation is exaggerated, there is little question that his modest gifts in this area far exceed the Bushlet’s. He has an enviable capacity to make it appear as if he is thinking things through even as he follows his teleprompter, and he uses careful rhetorical flourishes to make it appear as if he is instituting more substantive changes in policy than he really is. It is healthy for the country that observers around the political spectrum are beginning to understand his style, at least from my perspective of believing that any U.S. president should be viewed with maximum skepticism.

So how has Obama essentially kept in place a host of Bush policies while trying to create the impression that he is making substantial, perhaps even radical, changes? Let us count the areas.

Detention policies were at the center of Thursday’s dueling speeches, so that’s not a bad place to start. As Jack Goldsmith, often seen as the decent one in the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel and now teaching at Harvard, said in a recent New Republic article, the changes Obama has made are virtually invisible.

In his speech, Obama specifically embraced the war model of the struggle with "terrorism" or "extremism," as distinguished from the crime model some on the Left would prefer. While he has been more active on the issue, his resolve to close the Guantanamo Bay prison mirrors the position stated (though not acted on) in the late days of the Bush administration. And his administration so signally failed to come up with even the outline of a specific plan that Congress denied him the modest $80 million he requested to get the job done. (Of course, the congressional action reflected all kinds of blatant pandering to ignorant fears as well.)

While Obama has spoken of respect for the Constitution and due process, his administration has made it clear that a certain number of those at Gitmo are likely to remain detained indefinitely without trial, a clear violation of civil liberties and norms propounded (if often breached) since the Magna Carta. While he acquiesces in the Supreme Court’s order to recognize habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo prisoners, his administration has made it clear that it won’t recognize them for Bagram detainees in Afghanistan. Though he described the Bush military commission system as a disaster during the campaign, he plans to continue it with only superficial reforms.

The Obama administration has continued to use Predator drones in Pakistan for targeted killings. It will continue renditions to countries with less scrupulous stated policies on torture than our own. Its elimination of CIA secret prisons contained a loophole for “facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis."

On the civil-liberties front, the Obama administration continues to use the "state secrets" argument in trials seeking more government transparency. He voted for the bill last summer to give a legal framework to the Bush policy of unwarranted surveillance, and he has not acted to beef up privacy guarantees theoretically allowed under the bill. He has not even hinted at renouncing any of the wartime powers claimed for the executive branch under Bush.

On the level of foreign policy strategy, what is striking is how little Obama has moved to change the substance of Bush-era policies. He certainly created different atmospherics during his European trip, but it is questionable whether he actually improved relations with European countries. Certainly the Germans didn’t budge on the demand that they "stimulate" their domestic economy. While he seems less likely than a McCain administration might have been to push NATO expansion, he hasn’t taken it off the table. He hasn’t abandoned the project of putting a missile-defense system in Poland. The U.S.-Russian standoff over an attempt to link missiles with help on Iran continues.

Obama’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu looks as if it will lead to continuing the great game of make-believe in the Middle East with nothing much happening. The U.S. continues to pretend it wants a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli situation while being aware the pervasive conditions in the region – neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can engage in credible negotiations because they’re too divided, and none of the "moderate" Arab states really want a Palestinian state, whatever they may say for public consumption – make such an outcome most unlikely. Even as Iraq becomes more violent, the Obamaites, like the Bushies, treat it as yesterday’s problem because the "surge" worked.

A number of commentators who have noted the remarkable continuity between actual Bush and Obama policies see it as a healthy development, because they see continuity and stability as generally desirable ends in foreign affairs. Some us, however, see the continuation of the American Empire as not only undesirable on restoration-of-liberty grounds but as carrying significant downsides that make counterproductive actions virtually inevitable. The MSM, for example, can facilitate discussions of whether U.S. detention policies help or hinder al-Qaeda recruitment. They almost never venture into the likelihood (nay, the certainty, I would argue) that U.S. foreign policy itself has been and continues to be a multiplier of al-Qaeda/Muslim extremist/whatever recruitment by creating resentments that are shared by more than just a tiny sliver of malcontents.

One of the major grievances bin Laden mentioned to justify his attacks on the U.S., culminating in 9/11, was the fact that the U.S. stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, home of the most sacred Islamic sites. If the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq with a substantial number of troops, even if they are officially designated as non-combat troops, that will be a sore spot for most Muslims, leading to radicalization and a willingness to act violently against the United States on the part of enough people to make the "war on terror" virtually endless.

The way to change the game in the direction of less violence and fewer situations that seem to require U.S. intervention is to change policies toward announcing a much less expansive vision of what the U.S. considers its defensive perimeter. I would argue for the northern half of the Western hemisphere rather than the entire world, but you could throw in Western Europe and it would still be a substantially less provocative stance. Jihadist leaders might still "hate us for our freedom," but they would have a much harder time recruiting suicide bombers and other militants to attack us.

There is no evidence that the Obama administration has the slightest intention of moving in that direction.

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