Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Credit, Where It Isn't Due

It has almost been amusing, watching the contortions of Republicans trying to reconcile their reflexive disdain for Barack Obama with the unquestionable merit of his accomplishment in the bin Laden operation. Ever since he emerged as the Democratic nominee in 2008, they have tried to paint him as unprepared, naïve, and indecisive. His measured but steely command in this instance has given the lie to those charges.

In response, Republicans have launched a campaign to argue that any success Obama may have had is due to his continuing the policies of the Bush administration. The more shameless variety has even tried to assert that the lead that eventually led to bin Laden originated from Bush-era torture. Others, like Ross Douthat of the New York Times, have made a more subtle--but no more convincing--case.

Douthat's column on Monday claims that "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." Not satisfied with that somewhat dubious claim, he even refers to the "Bush-Obama era."

Douthat is not completely wrong: there is a trite truth in his observation, one that seems shocking to people who pay more attention to campaign rhetoric than to policy, but is glaringly obvious to those who know our history. Students of American diplomacy know that continuity in foreign policy is more common than dramatic change, even when the presidency changes parties.

Perhaps the best example of how overheated political rhetoric can create the illusion of major policy differences comes from the 1952 campaign. Dwight Eisenhower, seeking to placate the McCarthyite right-wing of the Republican Party, suggested that he would pursue rollback of communism rather than mere containment. In reality, he did no such thing. Most famously, when the people of Hungary bravely rose up in 1956, Eisenhower did nothing. Like Harry Truman before him, he knew that acting to liberate the states of eastern Europe would mean World War III. He practiced containment too.

That does not mean, however, that there was no difference between Truman and Eisenhower. The latter feared that limited wars, like the one in Korea, would sap America's military and economic strength, and he determined to avoid them. When the French pleaded for American intervention in Vietnam in 1954, he said no. He relied far more on covert action (such as the CIA-assisted coup that brought the Shah to power in Iran) and nuclear brinksmanship to accomplish his goals.

There were continuities, to be sure. There always are: the nation's core interests do not change overnight. But there were important differences, too.

And that brings us back to Douthat's column. He asserts, seemingly in all seriousness, that "the most visible proof of this continuity" between Bush and Obama is the killing of bin Laden. The raid that killed Osama, he says, "operationalized Bush's famous 'dead or alive' dictum.'"

This is almost too silly to rebut. Bush's "dictum," as he calls it, was not a policy. It was an all-too-typical example of Bush's knee-jerk bravado, one that he did not follow up with a consistent and focused policy. When bin Laden was seemingly trapped at Tora Bora in December 2001, the necessary troops were not sent to prevent his escape, likely because the administration had already shifted its attention and resources to the coming war in Iraq.

Six months after the attacks on 9/11, Bush glibly said: "I don't know where he is, nor, I just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with you." He said that people who were fixated on bin Laden lacked understanding: "The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me that people don't understand the scope of the mission." By March 2002, Bush had decided "the mission" was moving on to invading Iraq.

Contrast that to Obama. He opposed the war in Iraq from the start. From the beginning of his campaign for the presidency in 2007, Obama has been saying that it was a mistake to take the nation's focus off Afghanistan, and that as president, he would finish the job against Al Qaeda there. Obama also said back in 2007 that capturing or killing Osama bin Laden would be a priority, even if he were in Pakistan (and he was roundly criticized by conservatives for that position). By that time, the Bush administration had long stopped talking about bin Laden.

It is simply not true to say, as Douthat does, that Obama was merely completing what Bush started. On the two major pieces of unfinished foreign policy business that Bush bequeathed to Obama--the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--Obama has reversed the Bush's priorities, with positive results. He has done much to salvage something positive from the shambles he inherited.

This pathetic attempt by conservative critics to credit Bush for Obama's accomplishment does have some small merit, come to think of it. If Bush had done his job well, Obama never would have had the opportunity to clean up his predecessor's mess.

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