In the Arena

Moderation v. Extremism–Continued

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Consider today the dueling columns of Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. Krauthammer, the ideologue, makes a debater’s boutique argument: Obama is just continuing Bush’s anti-terror policies with a little window-dressing. This elides the actual truth of the matter, which Brooks approaches: Bush’s policies evolved–toward legality, away from arrant brutality–in the years after Cheney’s quiet, unconstitutional domination of anti-terror policies was confronted by Bush Administration officials and rolled back.

Once again, I refer readers to Barton Gellman’s excellent Cheney biography, Angler, in which it is made plain that Cheney’s view of the presidency (provided by his thuggish counsel, David Addington) was eccentric at best; and, at worst, a temporary coup d’etat, abetted by the President’s lack of interest or mortal dimness. It’s true, as Brooks writes, that some of Cheney’s overreach was a result of understandable panic after the 9/11 attacks. But the real problem, as evidenced by the Vice President’s actions in other areas (like environmental policy), was Cheney’s twisted belief that the Constitution confers on the President near-dictatorial powers, especially in a time of war. Cheney’s profound authoritarian streak, and his moral ignorance, were demonstrated once again in his speech yesterday:

In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground and half-measures leave you half-exposed.

Which is utter nonsense, of course: the middle ground exists between doing nothing and doing far too much, too brutally–in a way that only creates more terrorists–a path that Cheney pursued to our great national detriment. (Add: Cheney’s speech also contained his usual heaping ration of lies and distortions, as McClatchy reports today.)

I would give Obama more credit than Brooks does: this President understands, in a way that Bush never did, that a new sort of enemy–stateless terrorists–requires new policies that must be ratified by the Congress. That is no small thing. His decision to stop the enhanced interrogation techniques still available to the CIA was–contra Krauthammer–a clean and dramatic break from Bush. It is true that this set of issues has proven far more difficult than candidate Obama anticipated (the availability of detailed intelligence on the individual cases at Guantanamo forces a more nuanced reaction), and it is also true that he is still working his way through the best ways to change the laws to accomodate this new reality. But the transparent act of making these issues and the factors influencing his decision-making public is both courageous domestically and crucial internationally. Unlike Bush and Cheney, who treated the American people as blithering idiots and–disgracefully–used terrorism to question the strength and patriotism of their opponents, Obama is betting that people will understand the complexity of these issues. 

As for Krauthammer, and the assorted wingnuts he is parroting, there’s a weird disconnect going on: one paragraph, Obama is simply adopting Bush’s policies…the next paragraph, he’s running the country off a cliff. He’s following Bush on Iraq, they insist–except that Bush was forced into accepting an Obamesque timetable for U.S. withdrawal by the Iraqis in the Status of Forces Agreement last summer. The notion that it will take longer–less than a year longer, we hope–than 16 months to complete the disengagement was acknowledged by Obama throughout the campaign, as was the need to keep a considerable US force in Iraq after the main combat troops depart. 

In fact, the thrust of Obama’s national security policy is dramatically different from Bush’s. His emphasis on a comprehensive regional approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the opposite of Bush’s feckless abandonment of this far more crucial fight in the war against Al Qaeda. His decision to engage Iran, his decision to push forward in the Middle East (including the demand that Israel stop building illegal settlements), his decision to participate in global climate change talks, his decision not to indulge in the disdain–manifested by Cheney yet again in his speech–for our European allies. These are all dramatic turns for the better. 

The difference between Obama and Cheney-Bush on national security and foreign policy issues is simply put: it’s the difference between a moderate and an extremist, the difference between a leader and a bully.