Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 6, 2011

A COURSE CORRECTION THAT BRED SUCCESS.... When it comes to progressive criticism of President Obama, arguably the most persuasive relates to civil liberties and the national security state. The routine law-breaking of the previous administration is gone, but those hoping for a significant break from Bush-era policies have an entirely legitimate beef.

That said, Obama's approach to national security is not a carbon copy of his predecessor's. In fact, this week, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, those on the right who aren't dismissing the development's significance are saying Obama only succeeded because he followed the trail Bush already blazed.

As Condoleezza Rice put it, there was "continuity across two presidencies."

Today, National Journal's Michael Hirsh explains the extent to which this argument is wrong, and credits the successful mission in Abbottabad to this White House's "new conception of terrorism."

Behind Obama's takedown of the Qaida leader this week lies a profound discontinuity between administrations -- a major strategic shift in how to deal with terrorists. From his first great public moment when, as a state senator, he called Iraq a "dumb war," Obama indicated that he thought that George W. Bush had badly misconceived the challenge of 9/11. And very quickly upon taking office as president, Obama reoriented the war back to where, in the view of many experts, it always belonged. He discarded the idea of a "global war on terror" that conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah. Obama replaced it with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.

This reorientation was part of Obama's reset of America's relations with the world. Bush, having gradually expanded his definition of the war to include all Islamic "extremists," had condemned the United States to a kind of permanent war, one that Americans had to fight all but alone because no one else agreed on such a broadly defined enemy. (Hezbollah and Hamas, for example, arguably had legitimate political aims that al-Qaida did not, which is one reason they distanced themselves from bin Laden.) In Obama's view, only by focusing narrowly on true transnational terrorism, and winning back all of the natural allies that the United States had lost over the previous decade, could he achieve America's goal of uniting the world around the goal of extinguishing al-Qaida.

In fundamental ways, Bush and Obama perceive the terrorist threat in very different ways, and only one of those visions makes sense and has borne fruit.

I'll give you a hint: it's not Bush's.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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Terrorist are criminals.

It's as simple as that, and always was.

To make them into some sort of "Evil-doers" is to validate them, to legitimize them, and to make them larger in the worlds eyes than the serial killer using a child as a human shield that they are.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on May 6, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

"In fundamental ways, Bush and Obama perceive the terrorist threat in very different ways, and only one of those visions makes sense and has borne fruit."

And thirty-five piece suits like David Gregory and Wolf Blitzer will be lining up this weekend to help America understand the bleak differences and why Obama's approach bore fruit and Bushit's ended up with animosity, fear, loathing, and mistrust...

Posted by: Stevio on May 6, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen wrote: "... Bush and Obama perceive the terrorist threat in very different ways ..."


Obama perceives the threat as what it is.

Whereas Bush perceived it as a pretext for corrupt use of the US military for purposes of private financial gain for his oil company cronies and financial backers.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on May 6, 2011 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

the only thing worse than George Bush's misunderestimation of Osama before 9/11 was his misoverestimation of the threatthe world posed to the US thereafter.
the US needs to amend its Constitution to narrow eligibility for the Presidency to individuals who hold and have used a US passport, say minimum of 3 times over adult liftime on trips each lasting a minimum of 3 weeks. (trips to Canada don't count)

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on May 6, 2011 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Rice is clueless. The answers she gave to Lawrence O'Donnell's questions last night were evasive and embarrassing.

The Bush administration was full of incompetents, who did their best to destroy the country.

Posted by: Holmes on May 6, 2011 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK

As Condoleezza Rice put it, there was "continuity across two presidencies."

Funny. If there had been a continuity with Rice's boss from his predecessor, bin Laden might've been captured in 2001 and put on trial for the Cole bombing.

Posted by: Grumpy on May 6, 2011 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

In fundamental ways, Bush and Obama perceive the terrorist threat in very different ways, and only one of those visions makes sense and has borne fruit.

I'll give you a hint: it's not Bush's.

I have to disagree with your conclusion. Bush's vision, as it were, has borne fruit for companies like KBR and Xe (nee Blackwater). And wasn't that the point of his so-called vision? It's all part of the new world of feudal corporatism. We might abhor their aims and fight against them, but that doesn't mean that their dark vision doesn't make a perverted sense or bear toxic fruits.

Posted by: josef on May 6, 2011 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

the differing concepts of who or what we are fighting is only half of the difference. the other, equally important, distinction is how we face the threat once defined. Bush et al let testosterone (and military contractor lobbyists) get the best of them and took the approach that projection of massive power was most important; anything else showed weakness. Team Obama clearly is more willing to engage in more precision (I'd call it finesse, but that would only cause the Exceptionalists to say he's a pansy)and matching all available tools to the details of the task -- law enforcement, intelligence, multinational coorperation, and yes, occasionally limitary force.

As any thinking person would expect, the more complex and tailored approach is kicking the ass of Bush's more simplistic, one-bomb-fits-all approach.

Posted by: zeitgeist on May 6, 2011 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

as interesting as "limitary force" might be, I meant military force but cannot type on just one cup of coffee.

Posted by: zeitgeist on May 6, 2011 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

I am at a loss for the proper word to express my feelings as I observe some Republicans twisting themselves into knots to credit Bush and torture for the mission that took out Osama bin Laden. Pathetic, false, almost funny, take your pick. None capture the inabilty of the GOP to be real Americans, which they love to claim being, and just say job well done.

The beautiful picture of young Christopher Cannizzaro shaking the President's hand yesterday, which has been widely seen, is the image we should celebrate. Christopher was 10 months old when his father, a firefighter from Brooklyn, was killed at the World Trade Center. He is quoted saying "It means, like, the world to me."

Posted by: Kathryn on May 6, 2011 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Osama bin laden shouldn't have been killed. he should have been kept in prison and extract informations from him. Well, what happened has happened. There are lots of people thankful for him being extinct, the scars he left on other victims are slowly vanishing.

Posted by: Krehky Stubby on May 6, 2011 at 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

And while we are spreading the credit around, let's not forget Reagan is really the one that bares the most credit. Had he not armed, funded and supplied intelligence to bin Laden for his jihad, we wouldn't have had an enemy to kill.

Posted by: Chris- The Fold on May 6, 2011 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

In the short term I suspect there'll be more of this Obama terrorism policy is the same as Bush meme. It's really quite preposterous, because if you look at Obama and Bush on the macro level the contrast couldn't be more stark.

The problem is rather that there are numerous actors both on the right and the left with their own interests in muddying the waters.

On the right we have conservatives in general and the old Bush crew in particular wanting to try to save some legitimacy for their old discredited polies, steal some of the glory from the successful OBL op, and discredit Obama with his base - all at the same time.

On the "left" we have the Greenwalds and the Hamshers, that need new fuel for the pureness jihad to rally their followers. And of course interest groups that have legitimate complaints on isolated areas where Obama's shift away from Bush policies arent considered sufficient.

Here's quickly, off the top of my head, the foreign policy and Al Qaeda related areas where Obama differs from mainstream republican orthodoxy:

1) Bush doctrine rejected. Obama admin will as a rule work within the framework of the UN and international law, as exemplified by the Libya mission. With current policy, we could still undertake Enduring Freedom (it had UNSC approval), but not Iraqi Freedom (it had not). The noteable exception being the violation of Pakistani soil without their prior approval in the Bin Laden raid, but those intentions were advertised during the campaign of 08'. A general focus on putting the international framework that existed prior to GWB back together again and getting it in working order.

2) Priorities: Iraq is of small strategic importance in the fight against Al Qaeda. AfPak is of great importance.

3) Return to "talk softly, carry a big stick". We're now willing to use diplomacy with our enemies, in addition to mere threaths. Posturing rejected to the benefit of pragmatism and all options on the table.

4) Hard line towards Israeli extreme right, instead of validation of their escalation-focused and confrontational policies.

5) We are no longer trying to circumvent the Geneva conventions. Renditions occur (as they did in administrations prior to GWB), but renditions are no longer used to circumvent the Geneva convention and torture prisoners for information gathering. E.g., see here:


5) Guantanamo. Went for shutdown, but got their hands tied by congress. Now focus on ending endless detention by putting detainees through military tribunals (in order to retire the "unlawful combatant" concept for good, and being in compliance with Geneva convention).

6) A general focus on moderation in public global diplomacy instead of confrontation and escalation. Communication aimed at moderating intolerant impulses instead of amplifying and using them for political benefit.

Posted by: Danny on May 6, 2011 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

My sense is the same people in the CIA, sitting in the same cubicles since 2000, sending the same intel up the line for 11 years, finally had someone above them who encouraged them and acted on their intelligence information. That's the only intel "continuity" between these past two administrations.

Posted by: max on May 6, 2011 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

You know, after everything and everyone that the Boosh administration killed, castrated, imprisoned or otherwise shredded (liberty, etc.), it sure feels good to not have to ask "Where's Osama Bin Laden?"!

Posted by: Trollop on May 6, 2011 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

There is a small part of me (very small) that does feel a little sorry for not so curious George. He was intellectually unfit to be President yet was foisted upon the country by Cheney and the neocons to act as a figurehead while they went about their greedy ways to undermine everything this country has stood for over the years.

The good part however is that now he is being really exposed for the incompetence and criminality he presided over for 8 years. His days of judgement are here, and he knows it.

I was so looking forward to seeing him alongside President Obama in NYC yesterday dressed in his cod-piece declaring "Mission Accomplished".

Posted by: Just Guessing on May 6, 2011 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

Not to mention that his administration aided rather than move to quash the "Arab Spring" mostly peaceful revolutions that added to rendered Al Quaeda's and OBL's biggest claims that they were the only path to liberation completely moot.

I know no one is acknowledging how Obama's overall foreign policy strategy on N. Africa and the Middle East these past few months have changed the whole picture. But it has. And it will make a very big difference in the coming years.

His modesty is amazing, but his accomplishments are real. Anyone who is trying to equate him with Bush or with his policies is simply disgruntled, whether they are so-called lefties or not. Some people have nothing to offer but grumbling.

Posted by: jjm on May 6, 2011 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

More or less. In any case, note how quickly Obama's people moved to correct earlier misrepresentations, compared to e.g. the Bush misadmin people (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, etc.) I'm still conflicted over whether we should have made a point to try and kill OBL, but for comparison at least remember the deliberate assassination of Admiral Yamamoto, soon after he planned and executed the Pearl Harbor attack.

At en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Vengeance, we find this very interesting passage:
In The West Wing episode "We Killed Yamamoto," President Bartlet mulls over whether to authorize the assassination of a terrorist leader.

Posted by: neil b on May 6, 2011 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

He was intellectually unfit to be President yet was foisted upon the country by Cheney and the neocons to act as a figurehead while they went about their greedy ways to undermine everything this country has stood for over the years.

Please. Foisted upon the country by Cheney and the neocons and the American mainstream media.

Posted by: Squeaky McCrinkle on May 6, 2011 at 9:51 PM | PERMALINK
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