Obama's Bait and Switch

The president climbed to power demonizing Bush's national security policies; how many has he really changed?

We all remember the slogan that defined then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign: “Change.” He would be the polar opposite of President George W. Bush, a man the Democrats ridiculed as a stubborn war-monger, an imbecile with an elementary worldview, and even a man so evil he’d send soldiers to die in Iraq for a lie. Yet, here in 2010, many of those dreaded “neocon” policies haven’t gone anywhere.

Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq made him a darling among the anti-war left. Few seem to recall that in July 2004 Obama said “There’s not much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage.” The Bush Administration was opposing any timetable for withdrawal and opposed sending more troops. The strategy was to maintain current troop levels and reduce them as the Iraqi forces became more capable of taking on the insurgency themselves. And Obama agreed. Ironically, it was Obama’s future general election opponent, Senator John McCain, who was among the toughest critics of the strategy, arguing for a major troop increase.

Yet, by 2006, Obama was a forceful advocate of withdrawing from Iraq within 16 months. What happened between 2004 and 2006 to make Obama change his mind? The polls. The public had turned sharply against the war as it took a turn for the worse. The reasons Obama opposed a withdrawal remained just as valid in 2006 as they were in 2004. Furthermore, his reasons for a withdrawal in 2006—like that it’d make resources for Afghanistan available and that it’d force the Iraqis to come together—could just as easily have been made in 2004.

Obama also opposed the “surge” of 30,000 additional soldiers into Iraq authorized by President Bush that stabilized the country enough for Bush to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the elected Iraqi government that set a timetable for withdrawal. Once in office, Obama adjusted his withdrawal to take three months longer than he had said during the campaign. He successfully brought home all combat troops in August 2010 as he promised, but the withdrawal process had already begun under his predecessor. Had Bush been eligible for another term, it is quite likely that his pace of withdrawal from Iraq would have been similar to that of Obama because of the improved conditions on the ground.

Furthermore, Obama’s withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq still left 50,000 soldiers including 5,000 special operations personnel behind. These are soldiers that are still armed, engaging in “counter-terrorism” missions, and being called in by the Iraqis to intervene when necessary. They simply play this secondary role under the name of “advisory and assistance brigades” instead of “combat.” In fact, U.S. forces were engaged in combat in Baghdad less than one week after the so-called end of combat operations.

This transition of the U.S. role from “combat” to “advisory” is not new but a simple re-branding of how the forces are being used. As the Director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Kenneth Pollack, explains, “It’s more or less what they have been doing since the ‘clear and hold’ operations to take back the country from militias and insurgents ended in 2008.”

Another prominent difference between Bush and Obama on foreign policy was the question of whether the President of the United States should directly meet with the leaders of rogue states like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il. Obama chastised Senator Clinton during the campaign for the Democratic nomination for her opposition to such meetings and consistently compared her foreign policy to Bush’s only to then choose her as his Secretary of State.

President Obama has offered to begin direct diplomacy with countries like Iran, but the reality is that this difference is relatively minor considering the attention it was given during the campaign. The Bush Administration actually promoted diplomacy between Europe and Iran on the nuclear issue and had direct discussions on Iraq, such as in May 2007 when American and Iranian officials met face-to-face for the first time in nearly 30 years. The strategy of Bush was diplomacy and sanctions, not regime change—just like Obama today and even the rhetoric is now the same.

When President Obama first came into office, he videotaped a greeting for the Persian New Year where he respectfully referred to the “Islamic Republic of Iran” and offered a new beginning. There was not a sentence dedicated to the pro-democracy fight of the people. This began to change in the summer of 2009 after millions of Iranians poured into the streets to protest the regime’s fraudulent “re-election” of Ahmadinejad. After pressure from Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and Republican critics, President Obama belatedly offered strong words of support for the people.

The refusal of the Iranian regime to react positively to Obama’s overtures has forced him to reconsider his approach. In his second Persian New Year greeting, Obama had a less pleasant tone and included four paragraphs listing the regime’s human rights abuses and expressing American solidarity with the Iranian people. He reacted in the same way to Ahmadinejad’s latest speech at the U.N. where he accused elements of the U.S. government of carrying out the 9/11 attacks.

Secretary Clinton has even hinted at the Obama Administration’s hope for internally-driven regime change (though she denies calling for it). She said on September 19, “And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state.” She also insinuated that the regime’s oppression could spark a popular uprising. This is language that even President Bush did not use towards Iran. It is the closest the U.S. has come to explicitly calling for regime change.

The Obama Administration has actually been much more aggressive in fighting the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan than its predecessor. President Obama opposed the “surge” in Iraq, yet seems to have recognized that he was wrong (without admitting it) and has embraced the same model for his strategy in Afghanistan. He is even using the same personnel to carry it out—General David Petraeus and Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Obama sent in 10,000 less soldiers than requested by the military and gave a date for when troops must begin coming home (which means he can withdraw a miniscule amount and meet his pledge). Though he wisely embraced a counter-insurgency strategy, he repeatedly demanded that his military leaders use fewer soldiers and accept a timeline, expressing that he “can’t lose the entire Democratic Party.”

In Pakistan, Obama has been launching three times as many drone strikes as Bush did. During the campaign, he openly talked about how he’d attack terrorists there without the Pakistani government’s permission if necessary. The debate over Pakistan cannot be fully equated to the debate over the Iraq War, but these are attacks on a sovereign country without U.N. authorization that are causing outrage in the Muslim world—repercussions that the anti-war left would have moaned over had Bush been as aggressive. By any standard, these strikes are something to be expected of the stereotypical “neocon” and not of a President that boasted of his anti-war credentials.

President Obama’s stances on the domestic end of national security policy also have striking similarities that are especially outraging for the left. “All that power you didn’t like when someone else had it, you kept it. Oh my God, you’re Frodo,” exclaimed Jon Stewart, the left-wing host of The Daily Show who voted for Obama in 2008. As journalist Eli Lake wrote, “When it comes to the legal framework for confronting terrorism, President Obama is acting in no meaningful sense any different than President Bush after 2006, when the Supreme Court overturned the view that the president’s war times were effectively unlimited.”

One of the first actions President Obama took after taking the oath of office was to issue an executive order that was supposed to close Guantanamo Bay within one year. Today, and for the foreseeable future, the prison remains open. Nearly 50 detainees are still being held there indefinitely and others are being held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in order to deny them habeas corpus. The Obama Administration, apparently awoken to the complexity of the problem, has decided to only prosecute the terrorists in civilian courts when they are certain it will result in a guilty verdict.

Like President Bush before him, President Obama is now unwilling to try suspected terrorists like those held at Guantanamo Bay if a reasonable chance for their release exists. And even when the Obama Administration tried to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial, they ultimately had to back down because, in the words of one official, it had become “politically untenable.” The Administration has now reversed course and is looking at possibly trying him in a military tribunal, another practice President Obama has continued that has been called “Bush lite.” It should also be mentioned that President Bush had previously voiced his support for closing Guantanamo Bay, and so there is no substantive difference between the two positions.

Various other Bush-era counter-terrorism measures have been continued. Although President Obama is banning the use of secret overseas prisons to hold terrorists seized from other countries, he is allowing the use of temporary prisons to hold the captives before they are transferred to their destination. The practice called “rendition” remains in effect. President Obama also irked some of the left-wing base by authorizing the CIA to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen who is also a high-level Al-Qaeda terrorist tied to several plots against the homeland. Keith Olbermann harshly criticized the move because it effectively gives the death penalty to an American citizen without due process or even the presentation of evidence. Olbermann describes it as “a power not even claimed by the Bush-Cheney Administration.”

Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald expressed similar outrage, writing that “More critically still, the Obama administration -- like the Bush administration before it -- defines the "battlefield" as the entire world.  So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks.” [emphasis original]

The Obama Justice Department has also taken the side of its predecessor in several controversial cases. It has used the argument of “state secrets” to prevent lawsuits against the government, specifically over wiretaps. It has also served best-selling author James Risen with a subpoena in an investigation to find out who leaked classified information to him about CIA attempts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. The executive-director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reacted by saying, “as far as I can tell there is absolutely no difference [between Obama and Bush].”

President Obama is acting like a hawk in dove’s clothing, slickly continuing much of his predecessor’s national security policy while wrapping it in the articulate left-wing rhetoric that has propelled him into office. From Iraq to Guantanamo Bay, President Obama is under fire from left-wing icons like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart. Whether it is due to crude political calculation or recognition of reality once in office or both, President Obama is a different leader than the one Senator Obama campaigned to be.