By Ross Douthat
May 10 2011,
For those with eyes to see, the daylight between the foreign policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama has been shrinking ever since the current president took the oath of office. But last week made it official: When the story of America’s post-9/11 wars is written, historians will be obliged to assess the two administrations together, and pass judgment on the Bush-Obama era.
The death of Osama bin Laden, in a raid that operationalised Bush’s famous “dead or alive” dictum, offered the most visible proof of this continuity. But the more important evidence of the Bush-Obama convergence lay elsewhere, in developments from last week that didn’t merit screaming headlines, because they seemed routine rather than remarkable.
One was NATO’s ongoing bombing campaign in Libya, which now barely even pretends to be confined to humanitarian objectives, or to be bound by the letter of the United Nations resolution. Another was Friday’s Predator strike inside Pakistan’s tribal regions, which killed a group of suspected militants while the world’s attention was still fixed on bin Laden’s final hours. Another was the American missile that just missed killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who has emerged as a key recruiter for al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate.
Imagine, for a moment, that these were George W. Bush’s policies at work. A quest for regime change in Libya, conducted without even a pro forma request for Congressional approval. A campaign of remote-controlled airstrikes, in which collateral damage is inevitable, carried out inside a country where we are not officially at war. A policy of targeted assassination against an American citizen who has been neither charged nor convicted in any US court.
Imagine the outrage, the protests, the furious op-eds about right-wing tyranny and neoconservative overreach. Imagine all that, and then look at the reality. For most Democrats, what was considered creeping fascism under Bush is just good old-fashioned common sense when the president has a “D” beside his name.
There is good news for the country in this turnabout. Having one of their own in the White House has forced Democrats to walk in the Bush administration’s shoes, and appreciate its dilemmas and decisions. To some extent, the Bush-Obama convergence is a sign that the Democratic Party is growing up, putting away certain fond illusions, and accepting its share of responsibility for the messy realities of the post-9/11 world.
It’s a good thing, for instance, that President Obama has slow-walked the American withdrawal from Iraq, and it’s a sign of political maturity that his base hasn’t punished him for doing so. It’s a good thing that this White House didn’t just send every Guantánamo prisoner to a civilian court (or back home without a trial). It’s a very good thing that many Democrats seem willing to opt for frontier justice over procedural justice when the circumstances call for it — as they did in Abbottabad last week.
But there are dangers in this turnabout as well. Now that Democrats have learned to stop worrying and embrace the imperial presidency, the United States lacks a strong institutional check on the tendency toward executive hubris and wartime overreach. The speed with which many once-dovish liberals rallied behind the Libyan war — at best a gamble, at worst a folly — was revealing and depressing. The absence of any sustained outcry over the White House’s willingness to assassinate American citizens without trial should be equally disquieting.
As Barack Obama has discovered, an open-ended, borderless conflict requires a certain comfort with moral grey areas. But it requires vigilance as well, and a scepticism about giving the executive branch a free hand in a forever war. During the Bush era, such vigilance was supplied (albeit sometimes cynically, and often in excess) by one of the country’s two major political parties. But in the Obama era, it’s mainly confined to the far left and the libertarian right.
This vigilance needs to be mathematical as well as moral. The most dangerous continuity between the Bush and Obama presidencies, perhaps, is their shared unwillingness to level with the country about what our current foreign policy posture costs, and how it fits into our broader fiscal liabilities.
Instead, big government conservatism has given way to big government liberalism, America’s overseas footprint keeps expanding, and nobody has been willing to explain to the public that the global war on terror isn’t a free lunch.
The next president won’t have that luxury. In one form or another, the war on terror is likely to continue long after Osama bin Laden’s bones have turned to coral. But we’ll know that the Bush-Obama era is officially over when somebody presents us with the bill.
Source: New York Times