Entry from November 30, 2008

Not enough attention has been paid to the significance of Barack Obama’s apparent decision, to be announced tomorrow, to leave the Bush administration’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, in place when he takes office in January — and especially to that of the applause he is getting from the media for it. When you consider what a huge part of the original Obama candidacy was based on its opposition to the Bush foreign and defense policy in general and to the Iraq war in particular, it is astonishing that such a volte face should be passed over in the media as nothing more than a part of the new “pragmatism” which the President-elect has been showing elsewhere by appointing so many former Clinton-administration officials, including the former First Lady herself whose secretaryship of state is to be announced at the same time, to powerful positions within his administration.

On Thanksgiving day, for instance, Thom Shanker in The New York Times noted with approval the apparent agreement of Mr Obama with the recently negotiated timetable for the draw-down of American combat troops in Iraq, which would leave large numbers of support and training troops in place, possibly for years to come. The reporter adds casually that,

while Mr. Obama’s most heartfelt supporters in the antiwar movement may have heard “end the war” as a promise to end the American troop presence in Iraq in 16 months, the president-elect has spoken only of a timeline for withdrawing combat troops, not all American forces.

So that’s all right then. You silly antiwar movement types just didn’t listen closely enough! This raises the question of what other shocking accommodations with the once so-hated Bushites he might be able to get away with, and even be applauded for. In today’s Times, Jonathan Mahler appears to be preparing the ground for a reversal on Guantánamo, which candidate Obama unambiguously (so far as anyone is now aware) promised to close, as well as a repudiation of the notion, once central to the Democrats’ differences from the Bush approach, that the proper metaphor for the country’s approach to international terrorism ought to be that of law-enforcement, not war:

Some critics of President Bush are now urging President-elect Obama to abandon the war paradigm in favor of a pure criminal-justice approach, which is to say, either subject captured combatants to criminal trials or let them go. This will almost certainly not happen. Mr. Obama may be more inclined to prosecute suspected terrorists in the federal courts than Mr. Bush has been, and he may even avoid referring to the battle against terrorism as a “war.” But ceding the military paradigm altogether would severely limit his ability to fight terrorism. On a practical level, it would prevent him from operating in a zone like the tribal areas of Pakistan, where American law does not reach.

Instead of adopting the once-usual media attitude to the Bush presidency as a mass of error with respect to the war on terror, Mr Mahler is careful to note that “the military approach to fighting terrorism predates the Bush administration” — presumably as a way of anticipating further continuities of the same sort under President Obama.

Moreover, in proposing new legal instruments to facilitate the prosecution of terrorists as part of a larger war-like enterprise, he quotes approvingly the words of the former Bush administration official, Jack Goldsmith, when he says that “We need a strong president to fight this war, and the way to ensure that there’s a strong president is to have the other institutions on board for the actions he feels he needs to take.” It’s hard to imagine such a point of view receiving the sanction of The New York Times if the strong president in question were George W. Bush rather than Barack H. Obama.

Such “pragmatism” was, after all, foreseeable, but was strenuously unforeseen during the campaign, when every policy question on which the Obama campaign took a position seemed to begin — and many of them also to end — with its difference from the practice of the axiomatically “discredited” or “failed” Bush administration. Let’s remember this. It is one measure of the extent to which the media and political cultures alike have accepted the central principle of postmodern politics, namely that the dicta of campaign rhetoric now operate according to their own rules and conventions and without reference to the actual business of governing. Back in 1936, FDR — to whom the media have lately been so busy comparing BHO — was sufficiently embarrassed about his promise, in a speech in Pittsburgh in 1932, to balance the budget that he asked his aide, Sam Rosenman, what he should say about it. “Just deny you were ever in Pittsburgh,” Rosenman famously advised. Nowadays, that wouldn’t be a joke. He wouldn’t need to bother with even so transparent an excuse as that.


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