Has Obama institutionalized Bush’s worst?

Many expected that President Obama would dismantle President Bush's war on terror and the assault on civil liberties at home in its name. But the terrorist threat still loomed and public pressure to protect the homeland remained. So did the dark precedents.

Patrick semansky/AP/File
This June 6, 2013 file photo shows a sign outside the National Security Agency campus in Fort Meade, Md. Disclosures of NSA mass surveillance raised criticism that the Obama administration had institutionalized policies of the Bush administration in its approach to civil liberties and the war on terror.

Dan Froomkin has returned to blogging at Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept. His debut posting is a doozy:

In a lot of ways, we’re worse off today than we were under George W. Bush.

Back then, Bush’s extremist assault on civil liberties, human rights and other core American values in the name of fighting terror felt like an aberration.

The expectation was that those policies would be quickly reversed, discredited – and explicitly outlawed – once he was no longer in power.

Instead, under President Barack Obama, they’ve become institutionalized.

There will be no snapping back to a pre-Bush-era respect for basic human dignity and civil rights. Thanks to Obama, it’s going to be a hard, long fight.

In some cases, Obama has set even darker precedents than his predecessor. Massively invasive bulk surveillance of Americans and others has been expanded, not constrained. This president secretly condemns people to death without any checks or balances, and shrugs as his errant drones massacre innocent civilians. Whistleblowers and journalists who expose national security wrongdoing face unprecedented criminal prosecution.


Obama has eroded the credibility of any future promises of expansive reform in the area of national security. And, in any case, no such promises are forthcoming: Congressional response to the recent disclosures has been narrowly focused and prone to loopholes; the current leadership of both political parties – and their likeliest standard-bearers in 2016 – aren’t expressing any outrage at all.

As surely – if not as enthusiastically – as his predecessor, Obama has succumbed to the powerful systemic pressures that serve the needs of the military-intelligence-industrial complex. Secrecy is rampant. Politics drives policy. There is no accountability. Congressional and judicial oversight have become a bitter joke. And the elite press gets tighter and tighter with those to whom it should be adversarial.

Like Froomkin (and Greenwald), I’ve long been concerned about these issues and have been consistent. That is, I criticized the Bush excesses, despite having voted for him twice, and yet defend Obama from over-the-top charges on the same issues, despite having voted against him twice. I am, however, less idealistic on this issues than either Froomkin or Greenwald.

That Obama would largely continue the Bush policies was predictable and predicted. I wrote several posts between Election Day 2008 and Inauguration Day 2009 to the effect that, despite lofty and sincere campaign rhetoric, President Obama would be much more like President Bush than Candidate Obama on these issues. First, because sitting presidents seldom give up power. Second, because sitting in the big chair and being responsible for the security of your country is fundamentally different from being a candidate for said office, much less a US senator (or a blogger).

Bush and his team didn’t launch the Global War on Terrorism, open Gitmo, torture a handful of suspected terrorist leaders, start a massive electronic data scooping operation, and skirt the Bill of Rights and the Geneva Conventions out of evil intent. They did so under the enormous pressures of the post-9/11 environment and frustrations that American and international laws and norms were not designed to deal with an incredibly dangerous, stateless, terrorist network leveraging an emerging telecommunications revolution.

By the time Obama took office in 2009, most of the post-9/11 fervor had died down and the Iraq fiasco had soured some of the public’s support for military adventurism. The Abu Ghraib scandal, abuses at Gitmo, and Supreme Court decisions had reminded us about the value of following our ideals. The Bush administration had long since ended our torture policy, for example.

Still, the terrorist threat loomed and public pressure to keep taking the fight to the bad guys and to protect the homeland remained. While I opposed doubling down in Afghanistan and thought the Surge an incredibly cynical ploy, it’s perfectly understandable why a new president – particularly a Democratic president – felt he had to do it. Likewise, while I’ve long thought the drone war counterproductive, its appeal to a commander-in-chief is obvious.

Moreover, some perspective is in order. While it’s absolutely essential that the Greenwalds, Froomkins, and even Joyners continue to point out when our practices fall short of our ideals – whether because doing so impinges on our own liberty, diminishes our national soft power, or is simply counterproductive to our strategic aims – it’s hardly as if Bush and Obama are the worst offenders in this regard. Certainly, the worst excesses of the GWOT pale in comparison with the firebombing of Dresden and rounding up our Japanese citizens into internment camps.

James Joyner is editor of the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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