Foreign and Defense Policy

Obama Sets a Trap for Himself

David Brooks argues that Obama’s counterterrorism policy is essentially one of a piece with that of Bush’s second term. In doing so, he’s following Jack Goldsmith, who now teaches at Harvard Law and was, briefly, the head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration. Goldsmith is the author of a recent piece (“The Cheney Fallacy” in The New Republic) arguing that on a broad range of policies—be it Guantanamo, habeas corpus, military commissions, interrogation—the Obama team has largely adopted the final Bush team’s policy. According to Brooks,

Obama has taken many of the same policies Bush ended up with, and he has made them credible to the country and the world. In his speech, Obama explained his decisions in a subtle and coherent way. He admitted that some problems are tough and allow no easy solution. He treated Americans as adults, and will have won their respect.

So, we are led to believe, what’s in the package is the same but Obama has more subtly and correctly given us attractive wrapping paper and a bow for it. Putting aside whether that is actually the case—for example, is Obama’s unequivocal opposition to the use of harsher interrogation techniques really the same as the Bush policy?—the idea that Obama has just given us and the world a better presentation of the policies ignores the effect that “pretty packaging” will have on policies down the road. By arguing that what the Bush team did was not just imprudent but rather immoral, dangerous, and perhaps illegal, Obama will be making it increasingly difficult for him to maintain what remains of those Bush policies. Rhetoric matters, and by suggesting one can deal with the tough security issues the new administration is likely to face in some pristine way, Obama will have set a trap for himself. Either he makes the tough choices necessary to protect the country and looks like a hypocrite or he avoids those choices and possibly puts us all at risk.

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