Earlier this year, I wrote (see here) an op-ed piece for our campus newspaper laying out my expectations for the Obama presidency. Probably my most controversial prediction, and one that elicited more than a little negative reaction from some of my colleagues, was the following: “Obama’s foreign policy in its broad outlines is not likely to differ much from the Bush administration’s: no retreat from the global war on terror, a lengthy (albeit slightly diminished) presence in Iraq and a beefed up security commitment in Afghanistan.” I concluded by writing, “Obama faces hard choices at home regarding closing Guantanamo Bay, restoring confidence in the nation’s intelligence services, and generally balancing the need to protect the nation’s borders without sacrificing basic civil liberties. He will find – as Bush did – that in the struggle to balance the two, the weight of constitutional responsibilities will push him toward securing national security first.”
Needless to say, many readers disagreed. If there was one aspect of Obama’s presidency that surely would differ from Bush’s, it would be his handling of foreign relations, particularly as they impacted civil liberties at home. For many Obama supporters, the promise to reverse the Bush era policies on interrogation, military commissions, rendition and prisoner detention formed the foundation of his promise to be a “change” president.
It is still far too early in the Obama presidency to come to any final conclusions, of course, but not too early to assess my claim that, contrary to what many expected, Obama’s foreign policy will not significantly differ from Bush’s.
Let’s look at the Obama record to date on key foreign policy decision related to the war on terror and civil liberties, and compare it to Bush’s:
1. Closing Guantanamo Bay prison: During the campaign, Obama criticized the use of Guantanamo (Gitmo) to hold enemy combatants for extended periods of time, arguing that it became an unwelcome symbol of the Bush administration’s willingness to violate accepted international norms for treating prisoners. In his second day as president Obama issued an order to close Gitmo within a year. As I have long taught my students, however, a president’s executive orders carry very little weight unless they are in accord with the preferences of (or not actively opposed by) Congress. Although Obama’s executive order met with initial bipartisan congressional support, there was some concern that Obama had not yet adequately addressed what to do with the detainees there. That concern became a full-fledged political problem for Obama within the last week when an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress signaled their opposition to closing the prison until Obama comes up with a plan for dealing with the roughly 240 individual still held there. Two days ago, by a vote of 90-6, the Senate denied Obama’s request for $80 million to close the prison. That vote came on the heels of similar vote in the House last week. The problem, from Congress’ perspective (among both Democrats and Republicans) is the political cost of relocating these detainees to mainland prisons – no one wants to accept suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in their backyard. The issue is further complicated by the leak of an unreleased Pentagon report that estimates that about 1 in 7, or roughly 70 of the 534 detainees already released from U.S. detention facilities including Gitmo are now engaged in terrorism or related acts. Understandably, politicians are leery of being accused of releasing someone who may perpetrate the next 9-11 attack.
Bush, you will recall, also advocated closing of Gitmo, but not until the cases of those held there were disposed through trials by military commissions and/or an alternative location for holding detainees could be found. We see, then, that Obama is discovering what Bush realized: that Gitmo appears to be a horrible choice for holding enemy combatants – except when compared to the alternatives. It is one thing to say you will close Gitmo – quite another to do it. Because Obama made closing Gitmo a symbol of change, I do not doubt that in the end he will follow through on this promise. But it will require the expenditure of tremendous political capital, and will likely not occur on his preferred timetable.
2. Ending the use of certain “enhanced interrogation procedures”, such as waterboarding, that many believe constitute torture. Obama also issued an executive order on his second day in office requiring that the Army field manual be used as the guide for terrorism interrogations, thus apparently ending the Bush-era practice of waterboarding prisoners. As you’ll recall that technique was used, sometimes repeatedly, on at least three of the several hundred enemy noncombatants captured during the war on terror. Despite his belief that waterboarding is torture, Obama has repeatedly said that he will not pursue charges against anyone who used this or similar interrogation techniques, and he has opposed calls from members of his own party and from the netroots to investigate the use of these practices. One reason for his reluctance to do so may be his realization that leading Democrats – as indicated by the recent controversy regarding Nancy Pelosi – may have tacitly endorsed the use of such techniques.
3. Rendition: At the same time that he outlawed waterboarding, Obama also appeared to establish a potential loophole by allowing the continuation of rendition, a policy that allows the CIA to capture suspected terrorists and hold them for short periods in jails in other countries. Although Obama’s executive order states that: “(a) CIA Detention. The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.”, it also declares that “(g) The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in section 4(a) of this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Critics argue that this simply allows the CIA to oversee the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by third parties on captured enemy combatants before transferring them to U.S. facilities – exactly the policy the Bush administration was accused of employing.
4. Military Commissions: In a decision that deeply disappointed civil libertarians, Obama decided last week to revive the use of military commissions first established by the Bush administration, and later ratified in revised form by Congress, to try some of the detainees currently held at Gitmo. Obama has promised to build in more safeguards, including restrictions on the use of information obtained through torture, to protect the rights of those enemy combatants who will be tried using military commissions. But he has accepted the Bush argument that, as enemy combatants, these detainees cannot be tried under regular civil or military courts. This despite saying during the campaign that “It’s time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Upon reviewing the policy, however, Obama has apparently agreed with Bush that some detainees simply cannot be tried through these other avenues.
5. Iraq withdrawal. I’ve blogged previously on this issue, so won’t go into detail except to say that increasingly it appears that U.S. combat troops won’t be leaving Iraq by the date or in the numbers that Obama hoped for during the campaign trail. It now appears that the U.S. will miss the June deadline for a complete withdrawal of combat forces from Iraqi cities, and there remains significant debate whether Obama will even be able to hold to the Bush-negotiated deadline of removing all combat troops by the end of 2011. It may be that in order to appear to meet the deadline, the Obama administration will have to fudge the definition of “combat soldiers” in a way that makes it appear that all such soldiers have been withdrawn. His own military commanders continue to make the case for slowing the withdrawal in order to make sure that gains from the surge do not dissipate when U.S. troops withdraw.
We see, then, that Obama moved quickly upon taking office to remove the most controversial symbols of the Bush-era war on terror. Moreover, in his rhetoric, especially when speaking abroad, Obama has been quick to note the changes in U.S. policy and to condemn Bush-era practices that violated international accords. But when looking at the substance of actually policy change, there has been much less than meets the eye. In fact, what is striking – given how Obama supporters viewed his candidacy – is how much continuity between the Bush and Obama presidencies there has been when it comes to conducting the war on terror. Who would have predicted this? (Hint: see above!)
How can this be? What explains Obama’s reluctance to reverse the major polices underlying Bush’s War on Terror? It is easy to condemn Obama for failing to fulfill what many, particularly Democrats on the Left, thought he would do as president. The reason he has not done so, however, is not that he was not sincere when making his campaign promises to change the Bush policies governing the war on terror. Instead the explanation is rooted in a point I return to again and again, but one that bears repeating: campaigning is not the same as governing. When he became president, he assumed a responsibility, and a perspective on politics, that is simply unimaginable on the campaign trail. More than any single individual in our nation, it is the President who bears the burden of protecting the security of our country. That vantage point is unique among elected officials; it is not shared by anyone else, and it permeates everything presidents do. This is not to say that presidents are more powerful in foreign policy – in a later post I’ll make the claim that their foreign policy powers are actually quite weak. But they do bear a sense of responsibility that Congress, as a collective body, simply doesn’t feel as acutely.
Harry Truman was once interviewed about his decision to go ahead with the development of the H-bomb. How could he justify the decision? He replied that he felt it was his responsibility, as president, not to tie the hands of his presidential successors – he owed it to them to make sure they had every tool available to protect the country. His first thought, then, was of the individuals with whom he shared the office of the presidency. Invariably, when presidents are faced with a major foreign policy crisis, the first person they consult, if possible, is a former president. And why not? No one else really understands what they are going through.
Let me be clear here. I do not mean to denigrate the importance of the symbolic acts Obama has taken so far; the banning of waterboarding, at least directly by the U.S., and the promise to close Gitmo, are significant steps in signaling his intention to reverse, at least in name, the most controversial of the Bush-era policies. But it is also the case that substantively his policies to date have proved far less of a reversal of Bush’s policies than Obama’s supporters hoped. Note that Obama does not lack the authority to fulfill those expectations – he could have ended the use of rendition, not revived military commissions, and directed his military commanders to meet his 6-month timetable for withdrawing all combat forces from Iraq. Despite the media focus on Cheney’s claim that Obama has weakened U.S. security, the plain fact is that most leading Republicans support most of Obama’s policies discussed above precisely because they have not substantially reversed Bush’s. Put another way, if John McCain had been elected president, it is probable that we would be seeing almost the same policy steps undertaken that Obama has pursued to date.
It is easy to criticize Obama – and anyone who follows the netroots realizes he has angered the Left with his failure to reverse Bush’s policies. But that criticism, I think, is misdirected. The reason why Obama has largely continued Bush’s foreign policy is because he perceives the same threats, and operates under the same constraints, as Bush did. Safeguarding the nation is not, in the end, a partisan issue. It transcends pure politics, even though presidents cannot ignore politics in pursuing this overriding goal. It is why Obama attacks the symbols of Bush’s policies without significantly changing their substance.
The surprise is not that President Obama continues Bush’s foreign policies in the main – it is that anyone ever thought it would be otherwise.