Obama Vindicates Bush?

Charles Krauthammer contends that the remarkable continuity between the Obama foreign policy and the Bush foreign policy he campaigned against so vociferously is an example of “the genius of democracy” through which “a national consensus is forged and a new legitimacy established.”  As a result, “The Bush policies in the war on terror won’t have to await vindication by historians. Obama is doing it day by day.”

As I argue in my New Atlanticist piece “Obama Foreign Policy: Bush 2.0?” there’s a lot to this.

Whatever one thinks of a given president, the fact of the matter is that foreign policy is mostly crafted by career bureaucrats and a rotating Washington policy elite who share a remarkably similar vision of things regardless of political party or domestic ideology.  Because of a strange confluence of events (the dramatic shock of 9/11, the dissimilarity of the threat we faced from the state actors we’d traditionally fought, and a president wishing to break radically from what he perceived as the fecklessness of his predecessor’s approach) neophyte ideologues (in this case, the loudest of the neocons) managed to  briefly gain control.  Their approach was soon revealed to be radically flawed and the foreign policy elite got up to speed on the issues and reasserted their dominance.

So, yes, the realities of office mean President Obama is much less of a change than Candidate Obama promised and, yes, many of President Bush’s hard choices are thereby affirmed as necessary even if undesirable.  It does not, however, follow that those policies Bush himself abandoned are thus vindicated.

Your mileage may vary.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    What I find remarkable in this is that so many Bush supporters seem to see this as a bad thing.

  2. Mike says:

    What I don’t understand is where is the outrage by those who were outraged by Bush’s policies? So much outrage for so long and now that the change express came into town and there is no change, silence.

  3. James Joyner says:

    What I find remarkable in this is that so many Bush supporters seem to see this as a bad thing.

    Rather odd, to be sure.

    What I don’t understand is where is the outrage by those who were outraged by Bush’s policies? So much outrage for so long and now that the change express came into town and there is no change, silence.

    Many people are simply partisans, rooting for their team and booing the other. Some of the ideologues have been rather consistent, with Glenn Greenwald being an exemplar.

  4. SoloD says:

    Obama has continued many of the Bush tactics, but the tactics that were in place when he took office, not the tactics that were/are being advocated by Cheney. Cheney seems to have lost the debate over the extreme tactics in the later years, but instead of publicize the changes, the Bush administration did it quietly. There is a big difference between what we were doing in 2003 and what were were doing in 2008. Cheney and his conservative echo chamber wants to go back to the “glory” days of 2003, not 2008.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Cheney seems to have lost the debate over the extreme tactics in the later years, but instead of publicize the changes, the Bush administration did it quietly. There is a big difference between what we were doing in 2003 and what were were doing in 2008.

    Quite right – a point I emphasize in the longer article.

    Cheney and his conservative echo chamber wants to go back to the “glory” days of 2003, not 2008.

    I think most of the echoers have no idea that the policy evolved as much as it did.

  6. Eric Florack says:

    First of all James, this is exactly what I predicted would happen last January.

    However, as I indicated at the time, this is not due to the changeless bureaucrats…. though I will say they’re a goodly part of it. This is mostly due to the fact that what Bush was doing was and is the correct thing to do. Once exposed to the realities of the office, Obama has figured that one out.

    As I said he would.

  7. C Stanley says:

    What I find remarkable in this is that so many Bush supporters seem to see this as a bad thing.

    The only thing I’ve seen Bush supporters (or conservatives in general, many of whom are not Bush supporters but may have felt some degree of agreement with the WOT policies) express is that it’s a bad thing for Obama to get away with enacting the same policies while getting credited for pragmatism, when Bush was called a war criminal and accused of shredding the Constitution. IOW, I don’t see that anyone who supported Bush on these policies (either partially or totally) is saying that it’s bad for Obama to continue the policies- what I do see is them calling out the hypocrisy of those on the left who accept the policies now that Obama is doing them (with notable exceptions like Glenn Greenwald and Rachel Maddow.)

  8. Eric Florack says:

    The word you’re looking for Stan, is ‘hypocrisy”.

  9. sam says:

    Here’s David Brooks’s take:

    What Obama gets, and what President Bush never got, is that other people’s opinions matter. [Jack] Goldsmith puts it well: “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.”

    Obama has taken many of the same policies Bush ended up with, and he has made them credible to the country and the world. In his speech, Obama explained his decisions in a subtle and coherent way. He admitted that some problems are tough and allow no easy solution. He treated Americans as adults, and will have won their respect.

    Do I wish he had been more gracious with and honest about the Bush administration officials whose policies he is benefiting from? Yes. But the bottom line is that Obama has taken a series of moderate and time-tested policy compromises. He has preserved and reformed them intelligently. He has fit them into a persuasive framework. By doing that, he has not made us less safe. He has made us more secure.

  10. SoloD says:

    I think most of the echoers have no idea that the policy evolved as much as it did.

    I think that most people didn’t realize how much the policy changed, including many candidiates running for President, which I think can be pinned on the Bush Admin.

    It is interesting that there was such a drift away from the more extreme tactics, but also interesting that they did not publicize it. Was it because they worried we would look “weak”, or because the Bush Admin never admitted that it changed course on practically anything, or something else?

  11. anjin-san says:

    It’s noteworthy that Tom Ridge has pretty much called Cheney a liar. Wonder what party boss Limbaugh will have to say about that. Speaking of Limbaugh, Ron Reagan pretty much scalped him 🙂

  12. anjin-san says:

    First of all James, this is exactly what I predicted would happen last January.

    While you are patting yourself on the back, why don’t you share a few more of your election predictions with us? As I said earlier, you are a bit like a .157 hitter going around comparing himself to Ted Williams.

  13. anjin-san says:

    Col. Janis Karpinski, the Former Head of Abu Ghraib, Admits She Broke the Geneva Conventions But Says the Blame “Goes All the Way to The Top”

    Karpinski, the highest-ranking officer demoted in connection with the torture scandal, speaks out about what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison. She discusses:

    How the military hid “ghost detainees” from the International Red Cross in violation of international law;
    Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller calling for the Gitmoization of Abu Ghraib and for prisoners to be “treated like dogs”;
    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s secret memos on interrogation policies that hung on the prison’s walls.

    http://www.democracynow.org/2005/10/26/col_janis_karpinski_the_former_head

  14. steve says:

    I do not remember Obama’s campaign promises on foreign affairs being all that much different that what Bush was doing by October 2008. The biggest difference was the timeline debate, which Bush resolved with a timeline. Also, if you judge a candidate by his advisers, Obama was never far left. He is doing pretty much what I thought he said he would do. I thought Goldsmith articulated the issues well in his article.

    I must agree with james that people do not realize how much different Bush’s war was during the last couple of years. To Bush’s credit, when he took back authority in the office from Cheney, the war in Iraq went much better. They got rid of Rumsfeld, got better intelligence once they brought in better interrogators and stopped the torture and made a bit of headway on the political issues. If only he had Gates from the beginning, sigh.

    Steve

  15. ptfe says:

    So, yes, the realities of office mean President Obama is much less of a change than Candidate Obama promised and, yes, many of President Bush’s hard choices are thereby affirmed as necessary even if undesirable. It does not, however, follow that those policies Bush himself abandoned are thus vindicated.

    James, I think you’re twisting logic with this statement. Many of the problems that Obama is facing w.r.t. Bush’s policies are spawned directly from the existence of the policies themselves. You can’t assume that, because Obama is now electing not to face some of these challenges head-on, his predecessor’s final position immediately becomes correct. For example, the fact that Gitmo is hard to close does not indicate that the facility was necessary, only that the current alternatives are unpalatable.

    This is the trap that Charles Krauthammer falls into in a much more Krauthammerian way:

    There is something much larger at play — an undeniable, irresistible national interest that, in the end, beyond the cheap politics, asserts itself. The urgencies and necessities of the actual post-9/11 world, as opposed to the fanciful world of the opposition politician, present a rather narrow range of acceptable alternatives.

    Suggesting that these choices are “necessities” and that there’s a “narrow range of acceptable alternatives” is attempting an ex-post facto justification of policies that started out bad and are now very difficult to remove. In battlefield terms, this would be like a Nazi general realizing in the middle of January that camping out in Russia to wait out the winter was a mistake: the fact that he doesn’t march the troops home immediately doesn’t mean that sitting them out there was a good idea in the first place, just that acting in an alternative way based on the current circumstances is even worse.

    I wouldn’t call this take “intriguing”, I would call it “logically incorrect.” In typical fashion, Krauthammer cheers on the Bush agenda to the tune of a history-will-be-kind record while ignoring the fact that, as you point out, many of Bush’s policies changed and/or were nullified by the courts. It’s hard to say that a set of policies is being vindicated when it’s repeatedly torn down by basic legal challenges, and Obama isn’t going to have any easier a time in the courts with his rendition program, state secrets claims, and tribunals than Bush did.

    To put it more crassly, you don’t have dog shit on your shoes only when you step in it, you’ve got dog shit on your shoes until you clean it off — which can be a whole different kind of messy.

  16. Eric Florack says:

    http://www.democracynow.org

    LOL… ah, yes, now there’s a credible site, more credibly named ‘socialism now”.

  17. Tlaloc says:

    What I don’t understand is where is the outrage by those who were outraged by Bush’s policies? So much outrage for so long and now that the change express came into town and there is no change, silence.

    Speaking for myself I suspected Obama would fail to fix a lot of the contemptible Bush policies, particularly after his FISA vote (before the election). He’s actually done a little better than I thought he would but obviously has left way too many of them in place or at least not explicitly repudiated them.

    Does that annoy me? Hell yes. But I’ve had to accept that a distressing number of my country men are willing to throw their principles out the window if somebody says “boo” to them (as evinced by both dems and republicans after 9/11). And I find nothing hypocritical in finding the continuation of a policy less objectionable than its initial imposition. The policy of torturing helpless prisoners required the bush administration to actively subvert established law and conventional american morality. Continuing the policy (or leaving open the possibility of continuing it) only requires contemptible apathy to the damage done.

    And, by the way, I didn’t vote for Obama, mostly for these reasons- I didn’t think he’d follow through on his rhetoric.

  18. The Strategic MC says:

    “LOL… ah, yes, now there’s a credible site,…”

    Made even less credible by trying to present former BG Karpinski as a credible source.

    I don’t know what’s more irritating: her rank incompetence or her wrapping herself in the garments of victim hood.

  19. anjin-san says:

    LOL… ah, yes, now there’s a credible site, more credibly named ‘socialism now”

    Regardless of what you think of the site, the issue at hand is Col. Karpinski’s comments. Are you calling her a liar, a socialist, or both? Certainly would not be the first time we have seen you piss on people who have served in the pursuit of your political agenda.

  20. Mike says:

    Karpinski was a joke – I would say that she would have made a good PFC but why insult a PFC – she avoided jail b/c she was good at PR – her credibility is shot – she is an embarrassment to the officer corps.

  21. G.A.Phillips says:

    why don’t you share a few more of your election predictions with us?

    I will.

    Remember when I said I almost hope you guys get your wish and this fool win’s(Obama) because I know whats gonna happen. I was thinking great depression.

  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    Racine WI. were I live 17% unemployment, how you guys doing?

  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    I feel so stimulused.

  24. James Joyner says:

    Many of the problems that Obama is facing w.r.t. Bush’s policies are spawned directly from the existence of the policies themselves. You can’t assume that, because Obama is now electing not to face some of these challenges head-on, his predecessor’s final position immediately becomes correct. For example, the fact that Gitmo is hard to close does not indicate that the facility was necessary, only that the current alternatives are unpalatable.

    A fair point. Still, even Obama acknowledges that there’s a need to indefinitely detain enemy combatants and that neither the traditional EPW nor a full due process/legal model fit the situation. Because of that, a President Gore would almost certainly have had a Gitmo.

  25. The Strategic MC says:

    How does “I disagree with Dick Cheney,” become: “…Tom Ridge has pretty much called Cheney a liar”?

    It’s truly noteworthy that “Mr. Ridge, a Republican, urged Mr. Obama to release in full any memos that shed light on whether harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists prevented additional attacks on the U.S…”

    Gov Ridge also took issue, in just as strong a tone, with Obama’s fact-free assertions of Bush Admin mis-steps. I think that he called the President a liar.

    The most honest and balanced view of Ridge’s interview would be “…But I also disagree with the approach both men are taking. […]”

  26. Eric Florack says:

    Are you calling her a liar, a socialist, or both?

    Both, since socialism itself is a lie. ANd by the way, Anjin, look up. I’d say you saddled the wrong horse. Not all that unusual for you, of course.

  27. anjin-san says:

    Hey look. It’s “Tail Gunner” Florack.

    Well, no, we can’t really call him that, because he would have had to have served…

  28. Eric Florack says:

    AH, yes, one of the great levelers in what passes modern liberal thinking today… if you didn’t serve, you cannot possibly have a valid opinion. Of course the fact that such a stance blows out of the water the vast majority of the anti-war left, never gets considered… So, apparently, it’s just something to toss up when you’ve run out of substantive comments.

    But were I The Strategic MC and Mike, I’d be annoyed for not having been included in your little tirade. Ah, well.

    And MC:

    He campaigned with McCain in the primary, and then he starts in on Dick Cheney, essentially calling the man a liar, then attacks Rush Limbaugh, will not back Toomey in his home state… despite having his backside kicked among the grassroots by Toomey… he has come out in support of Arlen Specter, after Specter turned away from the GOP… and of course the GOP is supposed to take him seriously?

    After all that I’m forced to ask of Ridge something none of the press dare ask: Where are your disagreements with the Democrat party? What are the GOP principles that you will not compromise on? Do you even have any? Any at all? At what point might we expect you to take a stand against the Democrat Party, and it’s values, as opposed to those speaking forcefully of the values of the party you claim membership in?

    And are we really supposed to take seriously Ridge as a challenge for Cheney and his veracity? I think not.

  29. Mike says:

    If you are willing to go with a quote by Karpinski, then you are clearly reaching. She’ll say anything to escape responsibility.

  30. anjin-san says:

    AH, yes, one of the great levelers in what passes modern liberal thinking today… if you didn’t serve, you cannot possibly have a valid opinion.

    Not at all. This is just directed strictly at punk chickenhawk keyboard warriors such as yourself.

    Now why don’t you run along and patrol the shores of lake Huckelberry or wherever it is you hand out on the weekend. I know you are keeping the terrorists and socialists at bay there…

  31. Eric Florack says:

    Grow up, Anjin.

  32. The Strategic MC says:

    “And are we really supposed to take seriously Ridge as a challenge for Cheney and his veracity?”
    No, we are not. Tom Ridge, if he still has designs on elected office, will always try to play it down the muddle. Specter, but with some integrity.

    That said, he didn’t call Cheney a liar. I think that he disagreed with both the President and the former V.P. in equal measure. He clearly doesn’t want to take sides in this one.

    “But were I The Strategic MC…” I tend to view cries of “chickenhawk!” in the same manner that I view throw-away charges of racist!; the last refuge of scoundrels. Ho-hum.

    One other thing: Karpinski?!, you got to be effin’ kidding me. She is indeed a joke. Especially on those who find her a credible advocate for their POV.

  33. anjin-san says:

    Grow up, Anjin.

    This is coming from someone who cannot speak two sentences without throwing “socialist” into the mix.

    So, grow up and be like you? LoL. Pass. Look skippy, just ignore me. I am sure there are plenty of people who have served our country in uniform you could be trashing right now instead of burning daylight on me.

    Look Bit, why not man up and just get water boarded yourself? After all, you are an aspiring conservative hate blogger. Take some of that big dinero you make off your site, hire a doctor, get someone who is trained in water boarding, bring in the video cameras, and have at it. All you have to take is 20 seconds. Should be a snap for someone with police explorer training.

    After all, what’s Mancow have that you don’t have? Well, aside from guts and apparently some integrity…

  34. anjin-san says:

    Pretty good MC, you trashed two vets in one post. You are a Cheney man indeed…

  35. The Strategic MC says:

    Us vets have an agreement with one another: Critical views, honestly expressed, are an accepted form of discourse.

    I did 30 yrs, day for day, more than Tom and Karpinski combined. What’s the number on your DD214?

  36. The Strategic MC says:

    “You are a Cheney man indeed…”

    Chickenhawk. You forgot to say chickenhawk.

  37. An Interested Party says:

    Us vets have an agreement with one another: Critical views, honestly expressed, are an accepted form of discourse.

    Hmm, so where does that leave Cheney, who had the opportunity to be a military vet but passed…other priorities, you know…

  38. The Strategic MC says:

    I would suppose that would be between Cheney and the veteran(s) in question.

    I have it on good authority that Dick is held in high regard by most vets.

  39. An Interested Party says:

    Here’s a vet who wouldn’t be included among those supposed “most”…

  40. anjin-san says:

    I have it on good authority that Dick is held in high regard by most vets.

    And Cheney had it on good authority that Saddam had WMD and we knew were they were.

  41. Eric Florack says:

    This is coming from someone who cannot speak two sentences without throwing “socialist” into the mix.

    What is this aversion to the truth you continually demonstrate?

    “But were I The Strategic MC…” I tend to view cries of “chickenhawk!” in the same manner that I view throw-away charges of racist!; the last refuge of scoundrels. Ho-hum.

    It’s all they have, ya know?

  42. anjin-san says:

    What is this aversion to the truth you continually demonstrate?

    Hey flounder, can you let us know when you finish your graduate work and become a fully accredited moron?

  43. The Strategic MC says:

    An Interested Party-

    Didn’t read where he was a “vet”; did I miss something? Sounds more like NCIS or civilian contract guy.

    One other thing. Anyone who willfully conflates WWII Japanese “water cure” and contemporary waterboarding are talking out of their azz. Different procedures, different intent, different results.

  44. The Strategic MC says:

    “And Cheney had it on good authority that Saddam had WMD and we knew were they were.”

    You gotta get it right.
    That was Cheney and the CIA, DIA, MI6, DGSE (French Intelligence), and the Mossad had it on very good authority that Saddam had WMD. Oh, and every Democratic member of Congress who had access to the classified information. Not that any of them would remember.

  45. anjin-san says:

    Hey MC. I see you served your time. There is an expression that Deferment Dick Cheney has for guys like you. “Canon fodder”.

  46. An Interested Party says:

    One other thing. Anyone who willfully conflates WWII Japanese “water cure” and contemporary waterboarding are talking out of their azz. Different procedures, different intent, different results.

    Even if you could prove that the waterboarding done by the Japanese during WWII was substantially different than what was practiced under the Bush Administration, that still does not prove that the methods done in the latter case weren’t torture…

    That was Cheney and the CIA, DIA, MI6, DGSE (French Intelligence), and the Mossad had it on very good authority that Saddam had WMD. Oh, and every Democratic member of Congress who had access to the classified information. Not that any of them would remember.

    Yes, it appears that many people suspected that Saddam had WMD, but no one appears to have had definitive proof, and in the absence of that, an avoidable war and botched occupation really do seem unnecessary…interesting that we should be discussing these two things at the same time…evidence is slowly coming out the torture was used by the Bush Administration to try to provide a link between 9/11 and al-Qaeda link…how lovely…

  47. The Strategic MC says:

    “…that still does not prove that the methods done in the latter case weren’t torture…”

    Nor, OTOH, does it prove that they were.

    Sorry, there is no “evidence” in the reference given that states that KSM was tortured in the search for proof of an AQ-Iraq connection. “Revelations that KSM was questioned about possible al Qaeda ties to Iraq at roughly the same time that he was undergoing waterboarding…” isn’t the same as “KSM was waterboarded to provide an AQ-IRAQ link.” It’s just the standard insinuation and conflation of discordant information.

  48. An Interested Party says:

    It’s just the standard insinuation and conflation of discordant information.

    That sounds like the justification to go to war with Iraq…by the way, how exactly is the waterboarding practiced by the Bush Administration not torture…

  49. An Interested Party says:

    So….I guess the general is wrong about closing Gitmo and ending torture…

  50. belloscm says:

    I’ll admit that “the justification to go to war with Iraq” was a case of finding a selling point to support a pre-determined course of action. I’m not comfortable with that, even though it was time for Saddam to go.

    On the subject of waterboarding, I can’t find where international statutes (i.e., U.N. Convention) against torture expressly preclude waterboarding as currently practiced. Kind of subject to interpretation, IMO. Maybe that’s why there’s this argument without end.

    While it scares the hell out of those being interrogated, does it cause “severe pain or suffering”? The temporary imposition of discomfort or fear doesn’t cross my threshold.

    Ultimately, and within reason, I defer to what works. If “torture” (not torture) provides time-sensitive info when other methods can’t, I say strap ’em in and wet ’em down.

  51. belloscm says:

    Wow, a subordinate supports his boss and agrees that we should align ourselves with the Geneva Convention on “torture.” Sounded kind of pro-forma to me and his opinions did provide support for the President. A loyal soldier.

    BTW, has anyone of substance or standing overtly stated that we should defy the Geneva Convention? Questions of applicability and definition?; yes. outright rejection?; no.

  52. An Interested Party says:

    On the subject of waterboarding, I can’t find where international statutes (i.e., U.N. Convention) against torture expressly preclude waterboarding as currently practiced. Kind of subject to interpretation, IMO.

    So, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is making the wrong interpretation even though she should be an expert on, you know, international statutes that cover this kind of thing…

  53. belloscm says:

    When I read that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had an opinion on the subject, I was mildly intrigued; then I remembered that it was Louise Arbour. Sigh…

    That said, her “interpretation” is ultimately constrained by both the substance and the intent of the Convention Against Torture. These distinctions are apparently hard to make for a former jurist who now advocates on behalf of a highly politicized POV.

  54. An Interested Party says:

    Maybe that’s why there’s this argument without end.

    Or perhaps 9/11 scared some people so mightily that they would now use any reason to excuse the use of torture…also, do tell why the same opinion of Arbour’s that is made by these other people should also be invalidated…

  55. An Interested Party says:

    If “torture” (not torture) provides time-sensitive info when other methods can’t, I say strap ’em in and wet ’em down.

    Even if you have deluded yourself into thinking that waterboarding is not torture, we have no proof that it provided any important time-sensitive info and/or saved any lives…

  56. belloscm says:

    “Or perhaps 9/11 scared some people so mightily…”

    To include most of the political class in this country. Not they many of them possess either the integrity or honesty to admit it.

    “…we have no proof that it provided any important time-sensitive info and/or saved any lives…”

    The current DNI would disagree with you. I guess that’s why the Pres needs to de-classify and release all of the relevant memos. We will then make a definitive determination of efficacy, won’t we?

  57. An Interested Party says:

    To include most of the political class in this country.

    Umm, not really…most of the political class in this country have never supported torture simply because of 9/11…

    We will then make a definitive determination of efficacy, won’t we?

    Indeed we will…

  58. An Interested Party says:

    How funny that when Bush was president, it seemed like anything that came out of the mouth of Petraeus was treated as if his words came down off of some stone tablets, but now that Obama is president, what the general has to say is described as merely the “pro-forma” words of “a subordinate [who] supports his boss”…