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How Obama morphed into George Bush III

President Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/White House

When he was running for president, Barack Obama promised a world very different from George W. Bush’s. Respect would be shown for international law, Gitmo would be shuttered, multi-lateral cooperation would be pursued, and the rights of dissenters would be preserved by overhauling the Patriot Act. Those promises and the new president’s eloquence were enough to garner him a Nobel Peace Prize less than a year in office.

What a difference two years makes.

Last month, The New York Times revealed that President Obama rejected the advice of top attorneys in his own administration who advised him that continued military operations in Libya require congressional authorization. The president sided with other legal advisers at the White House, who counseled him that the NATO bombing strikes plainly designed to kill Muammar Gaddafi did not constitute “hostilities.” Thus, an ironic distinction between Obama and his predecessor: George W. Bush used military power to force a Middle Eastern tyrant from power with congressional authorization, while Barack Obama uses military power to force a Middle Eastern tyrant from power without congressional authorization.  Good thing he pocketed that Nobel early in the game.

But Obama doesn’t always disagree with George W. Bush. In fact, he doesn’t often disagree with him. Consider the following:

  • In May, President Obama signed a four-year extension of the Patriot Act, including its most contentious provisions: the roving wiretaps, the “lone wolf” section that gives the feds permission to investigate foreigners with no clear affiliation with terror organizations, and the so-called “library provision,” which opens the personal records of terror suspects to federal inspection. During the Bush years, members of the Seattle City Council suggested that local libraries post warnings that patron’s records were now subject to search by the federal government. This time, not a peep of protest from anyone at City Hall.
  • When bin Laden was put down in Abbottabad, the action was taken without notifying the Pakistanis or any other nation. It was as unilateral as an operation can get (which is probably why is succeeded). The White House emphasized that if bin Laden had surrendered, he would have been taken alive. Anyone believe that? Three people were in bin Laden’s room. None were armed; only bin Laden was killed. There was little confusion about what to do with his body. President Obama and Democrats have joined Republicans in heaping praise on Navy Seal Team VI, part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which carried out the raid. A couple of years ago, JSOC was dubbed “Cheney’s Death Squad” by Sy Hersh and other anti-Bush journalists.
  • When Gen. David Petraeus defended the Iraq “surge” strategy in front of Congress three years ago, he was denounced as “General Betray-Us” in left-leaning newspaper ads.  Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said she didn’t trust him. Sen. Obama said the surge Petraeus designed was doomed to fail. Today, Gen. Petraeus is the president’s nominee to head the CIA. Who changed? Not Petraeus.
  • Speaking of Iraq, President Obama essentially adopted both the strategy and the timeline of the Bush administration in place of his own to draw down American troops and responsibilities.
  • But in Afghanistan, “the Good War,” he sent thousands more troops than Bush to replicate the successful “surge” policy in Iraq. After some initial success, the mission has bogged down, and the president announced that he will draw down more than 30,000 troops before the election. Perhaps a light footprint there was the smart move all along?
  • There will be no civilian trial in Manhattan for Khalid Sheik Mohammad, reputed mastermind of 9/11. Instead, he will be tried by a military tribunal at — guess where — Guantanamo Bay, which remains open despite repeated promises and early attempts by President Obama to close it. Progressive protesters here and abroad have gone mute. Cindy Sheehan is still out there; but now that her targets are Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration, the media have lost interest. So have most other voices in the Democratic Party and the left in general. And where’s Sy Hersh? The Democratic establishment has been tamed. Obama will not lose his liberal base, as President Lyndon B. Johnson did over Vietnam in 1967 and ’68.

Back to bin Laden. His take-down was a stellar operation which the president deserves credit for approving. And it reveals the illusory “alliance” we have with Pakistan. But we now know it likely wouldn’t have happened without the use of “enhanced interrogation” (low-level torture) that led us to the identity of the courier, who led us to bin Laden’s compound nestled in the Pakistani military town of Abbotabad. As Michael Barone pointed out, “You may remember that many Democrats called for criminal prosecutions of CIA interrogators who were acting under orders vetted by legal counsel. Attorney General Eric Holder actually considered bringing such prosecutions.” As with Gitmo and Khalid Sheik Mohammad, Holder has done an about-face.

The president’s rhetoric remains as lofty, eloquent, and progressive as it did when he was a candidate three years ago, but rhetoric is nothing in the Middle East. It’s all about power and the willingness to use it.

And President Obama projects that power more like President Bush than candidate Obama. All this raises a question for honest progressives everywhere: If Gitmo, JSOC, unilateral military action, and the Patriot Act amounted to a “constitutional crisis” three years ago, what do they constitute today?   

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