Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Obama's terrorism policy

Jack Goldsmith has recently written this very thoughtful article in the New Republic maintaining that that there is not much difference between Obama's and Bush's terrorism policies. Most provocatively, he argues that much of the Obama changes have been symbolic and "and the changes [President Obama] has made . . . are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program in the long-run." Goldsmith's more immediate purpose is to argue that Cheney is wrong to argue that Obama's terrorism policy will put the nation at-risk because Obama's policy is not much different from Bush.

Left of center commentators are increasingly pointing out that Obama is undeniably failing in his campaign promise to be substantively different from Bush on substantive terror policies. As a general matter, although I think one has to be a bit nuanced in compararing Obama and Bush terror policies. As Goldsmith points out, the early post-911 Bush is different from the later Bush. The reaction to the Bush terror policy is particularly strong with respect the early Bush and the assertion of unlimited and unilateral executive power to conduct an unending war on terror. But Bush was forced to backtrack as a consequence of a combination of setbacks from the Supreme Court, pushback from Congress, and negative opinion. So, the contrast between Obama and this early Bush, which is the Bush that caused the most consternation in the electorate, is in fact quite strong. Second, not all terror policies were salient with the electorate. For example, whereas left of center commentators in particular strongly opposed Bush's policy on torture and waterboarding, targeted killings was not so salient. Thus, the places where you'll see the strongest contrast between Obama and Bush are areas that were politically salient--interrogation, secret prisons, GITMO, rendition. Notwithstanding these differences, I think Goldsmith is generally correct that for the most part the substance of Obama's terror policies are similar to those of his predecessor.

What I find intriguing in all this is Cheney's warnings that once Obama is subject to the full information available to the previous administration, President Obama will have to make a choice: either continue Bush-era policies or put the security of the nation at-risk. The interesting question is whether Cheney's public efforts have succeed in making the Obama administration more conservative in its terrorism policy. It seems so.

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