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George W. Obama? Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency | The Nation

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George W. Obama? Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency

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When it comes to national security policy, Sunstein is a particularly strong example of Bush-Obama continuity. Though sometimes identified as a liberal, from early on he defended the expansion of the national security state under Cheney’s Office of the Vice President, and he praised the firm restraint with which the Ashcroft Justice Department shouldered its responsibilities. “By historical standards,” he wrote in the fall of 2004, “the Bush administration has acted with considerable restraint and with commendable respect for political liberty. It has not attempted to restrict speech or the democratic process in any way. The much-reviled and poorly understood Patriot Act, at least as administered, has done little to restrict civil liberty as it stood before its enactment.” This seems to have become Obama’s view.

About the Author

David Bromwich
David Bromwich teaches English at Yale. His most recent book is Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry (Chicago).

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To believe that our nation has always been exceptional requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism and a belief that calls for extraordinary arrogance.

Obama takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch—a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. 

Charity toward the framers of the Patriot Act has, in the Obama administration, been accompanied by a consistent refusal to initiate or support legal action against the “torture lawyers.” Sunstein described the Bush Justice Department memos by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, which defended the use of the water torture and other extreme methods, in words that stopped short of legal condemnation: “It’s egregiously bad. It’s very low level, it’s very weak, embarrassingly weak, just short of reckless.” Bad lawyering: a professional fault but not an actionable offense.

The Obama policy of declining to hold any high official or even CIA interrogators accountable for violations of the law by the preceding administration would likely not have survived opposition by Sunstein. A promise not to prosecute, however, has been implicit in the findings by the Obama Justice Department—a promise that was made explicit by Leon Panetta in February 2009 when he had just been named President Obama’s new director of the CIA.

As head of the president’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, with an office in the White House, Sunstein adjudicates government policy on issues of worker and consumer safety; yet his title suggests a claim of authority on issues such as the data-mining of information about American citizens and the government’s deployment of a state secrets privilege. He deserves wider attention, too, for his 2008 proposal that the government “cognitively infiltrate” discussion groups on-line and in neighborhoods, paying covert agents to monitor and, if possible, discredit lines of argument which the government judges to be extreme or misleading.

5. Eric Holder: Holder once said that the trial of suspected 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City courtroom would be “the defining event of my time as attorney general.” The decision to make KSM’s a civilian trial was, however, scuttled, thanks to incompetent management at the White House: neither the first nor last failure of its kind. The policy of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts seems to have suffered from never being wholeheartedly embraced by the administration’s inside actors. Local resistance by the New York authorities was the ostensible reason for the failure and the change of venue back to a military tribunal at Guantánamo. No member of the administration besides Holder has been observed to show much regret.

During his thirty-month tenure, in keeping with Obama’s willingness to overlook the unpleasant history of CIA renditions and “extreme interrogations,” Holder has made no move to prosecute any upper-level official of any of the big banks and money firms responsible for the financial collapse of 2008. His silence on the subject has been taken as a signal that such prosecutions will never occur. To judge by public statements, the energies of the attorney general, in an administration that arrived under the banner of bringing “sunshine” and “transparency” to Washington, have mainly been dedicated to the prosecution of government whistle-blowers through a uniquely rigorous application of the Espionage Act of 1917. More people have been accused under that law by this attorney general than in the entire preceding ninety-three years of the law’s existence.

Again, this is a focus that Bush-era attorney generals John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey might have relished, but on which none would have dared to act on so boldly. Extraordinary delays in grand jury proceedings on Army Private Bradley Manning, suspected of providing government secrets to WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange, who ran that website, are said to have come from a protracted attempt to secure a legal hold against one or both potential defendants within the limits of a barbarous and almost dormant law.

6. Dennis Ross: Earlier in his career, Obama seems to have cherished an interest in the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In Chicago, he was a friend of the dissident Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi; during his 2007 primary campaign, he sought and received advice from Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Both were “realist” opponents of the expansionist policy of Israel’s right-wing coalition government, which subsidizes and affords military protection to Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.

Under pressure from the Israel lobby, however, Obama dissociated himself from all three chosen advisers.

Ross, as surely as Gates, is a member of Washington’s permanent establishment. Recruited for the Carter Defense Department by Paul Wolfowitz, he started out as a Soviet specialist, but his expertise migrated with a commission to undertake a “limited contingency study” on the need for American defense of the Persian Gulf. An American negotiator at the 2000 Camp David summit, Ross was accused of being an unfair broker, having always “started from the Israeli bottom line.”

He entered the Obama administration as a special adviser to Hillary Clinton on the Persian Gulf, but was moved into the White House on June 25, 2009, and outfitted with an elaborate title and comprehensive duties: special assistant to the president and senior director for the central region, including all of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. Ross has cautioned Obama to be “sensitive” to domestic Israeli concerns.

In retrospect, his installation in the White House looks like the first step in a pattern of concessions to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that undid Obama’s hopes for an agreement in the region. Here, caution precluded all inventiveness. It could have been predicted that the ascendancy of Ross would render void the two-state solution Obama anticipated in his carefully prepared and broadly advertised speech to the Arab world from Cairo University in June 2009.

7. Peter Orszag: Director of the Office of Management and Budget from January 2009 to August 2010, Orszag was charged with bringing in the big health insurers to lay out what it would take for them to support the president’s healthcare law. In this way, Orszag—along with the companies—exerted a decisive influence on the final shape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. In January 2011, he left the administration to become vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup. A few days out of the White House, he published an op-ed in the New York Times advising the president to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 2 percent of Americans—adding that Obama should indicate that the cuts would continue in force only through 2012. Obama took the advice.

8. Thomas Donilon: National Security Adviser and (after the departure of Gates) Obama’s closest consultant on foreign policy. Donilon supported the 34,000 troop-escalation order that followed the president’s inconclusive 2009 Afghanistan war review. He encouraged and warmly applauded Obama’s non-binding “final orders” on Afghanistan, which all the participants in the 2009 review were asked formally to approve. (The final orders speak of “a prioritized comprehensive approach” by which the United States will “work with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai when we can” to set “the conditions for an accelerated transition,” to bring about “effective sub-national governance,” and to “transfer” the responsibility for fighting the war while continuing to “degrade” enemy forces.)

Donilon comes from the worlds of business, the law, and government in about equal measure: a versatile career spanning many orthodoxies. His open and unreserved admiration for President Obama seems to have counted more heavily in his appointment than the low opinion of his qualifications apparently held by several associates. As assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Clinton administration, he helped arrange the eastward expansion of NATO after the cold war: perhaps the most pointless and destructive bipartisan project of the epoch. He was executive vice president for law and policy at Fannie Mae, 1999-2005.

The Sacked

Advisers and nominees with views that were in line with Obama’s 2008 election campaign or his professed goals in 2009, but who have since been fired, asked to resign or step down or seen their nominations dropped:

1. General James Jones: Former Marine Corps Commandant and a skeptic of the Afghanistan escalation, Jones became the president’s first National Security Adviser. He was, however, often denied meetings with Obama, who seems to have looked on Gates as a superior technocrat, Petraeus as a more prestigious officer, and Donilon as a more fervent believer in the split-the-difference war and diplomatic policies Obama elected to pursue. Jones resigned in October 2010, under pressure.

A curious point: Obama had spoken to Jones only twice before appointing him to so high a post and seems hardly to have come to know him by the time he resigned.

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