George W. Obama? Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency
2. Karl Eikenberry: Commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan before he was made ambassador, Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, had seniority over both Petraeus and then war commander General Stanley McChrystal when it came to experience in that country and theater of war. He was the author of cables to the State Department in late 2009, which carried a stinging rebuke to the conduct of the war and unconcealed hostility toward any new policy of escalation. The Eikenberry cables were drafted in order to influence the White House review that fall; they advised that the Afghanistan war was in the process of being lost, that it could never be won, and that nothing good would come from an increased commitment of US troops.
Petraeus, then Centcom commander, and McChrystal were both disturbed by the cables—startled when they arrived unbidden and intimidated by their authority. Obama, astonishingly, chose to ignore them. This may be the single most baffling occasion of the many when fate dealt a winning card to the president and yet he folded. Among other such occasions: the 2008–09 bank bailouts and the opening for financial regulation; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the opportunity for a revised environmental policy; the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns and a revised policy toward nuclear energy; the Goldstone Report and the chance for an end to the Gaza blockade. But of all these as well as other cases that might be mentioned, the Eikenberry cables offer the clearest instance of persisting in a discredited policy against the weight of impressive evidence.
Ambassador Eikenberry retired in 2011, and Obama replaced him with Ryan Crocker, the Foreign Service officer brought into Iraq by Bush to help General Petraeus manage the details and publicity around the Iraq surge of 2007–08.
3. Paul Volcker: Head of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, Volker had a record (not necessarily common among upper-echelon workers in finance) entirely free of the reproach of venality. A steady adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign, he lent gravity to the young candidate’s professions of competence in financial matters. He also counseled Obama against the one-sidedness of a recovery policy founded on repayment guarantees to financial outfits such as Citigroup and Bank of America: the policy, that is, favored by Summers and Geithner in preference to massive job creation and a major investment in infrastructure. “If you want to be a bank,” he said, “follow the bank rules. If Goldman Sachs and the others want to do proprietary trading, then they shouldn’t be banks.” His advice—to tighten regulation in order to curb speculative trading—was adopted late and in diluted form. In January 2010, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, which paid no federal taxes that year, replaced him.
4. Dennis Blair: As Director of National Intelligence, Blair sought to limit the expansion of covert operations by the CIA. In this quest he was defeated by CIA Director Leon Panetta—a seasoned infighter, though without any experience in intelligence, who successfully enlarged the Agency’s prerogatives and limited oversight of its activities during his tenure. Blair refused to resign when Obama asked him to, and demanded to be fired. He finally stepped down on May 21, 2010.
Doubtless Blair hurt his prospects irreparably by making clear to the president his skepticism regarding the usefulness of drone warfare: a form of killing Obama favors as the most politic and antiseptic available to the United States. Since being sacked, Blair has come out publicly against the broad use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
On his way out, he was retrospectively made a scapegoat for the November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree by Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan; for the “underwear” bomber’s attempt to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit on Christmas day 2009; and for the failed Times Square car bombing of May 2010—all attacks (it was implied) that Blair should have found the missing key to avert, even though the Army, the FBI and the CIA were unable to do so.
5. James Cartwright: As vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright passed on to Obama, and interpreted for him, a good deal of information that proved useful in the Afghanistan war review. Their friendship outlasted the process and he came to be known as Obama’s “favorite general,” but Cartwright stirred the resentment from both Petraeus and Mullen for establishing a separate channel of influence with the president. Like Eikenberry, he had been a skeptic on the question of further escalation in Afghanistan. His name was floated by the White House as the front-runner to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs after the retirement of Mullen. Informed of the military opposition to the appointment, Obama reversed field and chose Army Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, a figure more agreeable to Petraeus and Mullen.
6. Dawn Johnsen: Obama’s first choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel, a choice generally praised and closely watched by constitutional lawyers and civil libertarians. Her name was withdrawn after a fourteen-month wait, and she was denied a confirmation process. The cause: Republican objections to her writings and her public statements against the practice of torture and legal justifications for torture.
This reversal falls in with a larger pattern: the putting forward of candidates for government positions whose views are straightforward, publicly available, and consistent with the pre-2009 principles of Barack Obama—followed by Obama’s withdrawal of support for the same candidates. A more recent instance was the naming (after considerable delay) of Elizabeth Warren as a special adviser to organize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, followed by the decision in July not to nominate her as the first director of the bureau.
Avoidance of a drag-out fight in confirmation hearings repeatedly seems to be the recurrent motive here. Of course, the advantage of such a fight, given an articulate and willing nominee, is the education of public opinion. But in every possible instance, President Obama has been averse to any public engagement in the clash of ideas. “Bottom line is that it was going to be close,” a Senate Democratic source told ABC’s Jake Tapper when Johnsen’s name was withdrawn. “If they wanted to, the White House could have pushed for a vote. But they didn’t want to ‘cause they didn’t have the stomach for the debate.”
Where the nomination of an “extreme” candidate might have hardened the impression of Obama as an extremist, might not a public hearing have helped eradicate the very preconception that a frightened withdrawal tends to confirm? This question is not asked.
7. Greg Craig: For two years special counsel in the Clinton White House, he led the team defending the president in the impeachment proceedings in Congress. Craig’s declaration of support for Obama in March 2007 was vital to the insurgent candidate, because of his well-known loyalty to the Clintons. Obama made him White House Counsel, and his initial task was to draw up plans for the closing of Guantánamo, a promise made by the president on his first day in the Oval Office. But once the paper was signed, Obama showed little interest in the developing plans. Others were more passionate. Dick Cheney worked on a susceptible populace to resurrect old fears. The forces against closure rallied and spread panic, while the president said nothing. Craig was defeated inside the White House by the “realist” Rahm Emanuel, and sacked.
8. Carol Browner: A leading environmentalist in the Clinton administration, Browner was given a second shot by Obama as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. She found her efforts thwarted within the administration as well as in Congress: in mid-2010 Obama decided that—as a way to deal with global warming—cap-and-trade legislation was a loser for the midterm elections. Pressure on Obama from the US Chamber of Commerce to heed business interests served as a strong incitement to force Browner’s resignation after the democratic “shellacking” in midterm elections, a result that his quiet abandonment of cap-and-trade had failed to prevent. The White House had no backup plan for addressing the disaster of global warming. After Browner’s resignation in March 2011, her position was abolished. Since then, Obama has seldom spoken of global warming or climate change.
Moral and Political Limbo
The Obama presidency has been characterized by a refined sense of impossibility. A kind of suffocation sets in when a man of power floats carefully clear of all unorthodox stimuli and resorts to official comforters of the sort exemplified by Panetta. As the above partial list of the saved and the sacked shows, the president lives now in a world in which he is certain never to be told he is wrong when he happens to be on the wrong track. It is a world where the unconventionality of an opinion, or the existence of a possible majority against it somewhere, counts as prima facie evidence against its soundness.
So alternative ideas vanish—along with the people who represent them. What, then, does President Obama imagine he is doing as he backs into one weak appointment after another, and purges all signs of thought and independence around him? We have a few dim clues.
A popular book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, seems to have prompted Obama to suppose that Lincoln himself “led from behind” and was committed to bipartisanship not only as a tactic but as an always necessary means to the highest good of democracy. A more wishful conceit was never conceived; but Obama has talked of the book easily and often to support a “pragmatic” instinct for constant compromise that he believes himself to share with the American people and with Lincoln.
A larger hint may come from Obama’s recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism, where a sentence in the president’s own voice asserts: “We face the world as it is, but we will also pursue a strategy for the world we seek.” If the words “I face the world as it is” have a familiar sound, the reason is that they received a trial run in Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize speech. Those words were the bridge across which an ambivalent peacemaker walked to confront the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. with the realities of power as experienced by the leader of the only superpower in the world.
Indeed, Obama’s understanding of international morality seems to be largely expressed by the proposition that “there’s serious evil in the world”—a truth he confided in 2007 to the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, and attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—combined with the assertion that he is ready to “face the world as it is.” The world we seek is, of course, the better world of high morality. But morality, properly understood, is nothing but a framework for ideals. Once you have discharged your duty, by saying the right words for the right policies, you have to accommodate the world.
This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase. It explains, as nothing else does, Obama’s enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is.
Obama’s pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order—any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on “seeking.” Therefore, in “the world as it is,” you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power, you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.