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Explaining ObamaBush to the Base

In the October 8 issue of the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills explains how the Obama administration, in the area of national security, “quickly came to resemble Bush’s,” as the Obama people “grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium.”

At his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA, Leon Panetta said that “extraordinary rendition”—the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries—was a tool he meant to retain. Obama’s nominee for solicitor general, Elena Kagan, told Congress that she agreed with John Yoo’s claim that a terrorist captured anywhere should be subject to “battlefield law.” On the first opportunity to abort trial proceedings by invoking “state secrets” . . . Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, did so. Obama refused to release photographs of “enhanced interrogation.” . . . Obama refused to release documents describing [CIA-destroyed] tapes.

Notwithstanding Obama’s adoption of the Bush national-security policies, Wills spares him the opprobrium relentlessly leveled against Bush. He advises the left-wing readership of the Review that perhaps turning things around is “a hard, perhaps impossible, task”—not because of Bush but because of the “lasting institutional security apparatus” assembled in the 1940s and 1950s, which created a “National Security State” that rendered the president a “self-entangling giant” bound by worldwide hordes of “agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments,” requiring the president to observe “all manner of commitments.”

[A president] becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the bomb, a modern president cannot not use the huge powers at his disposal. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

. . . Any president, wanting leverage to accomplish his goals, must find it hard to give up the aura of war chief, the mystery and majesty that have accrued to him with control of the Bomb, the awesome proximity to the Football, to the Button.

Given Wills’s analysis, it seems almost unfair for Obama’s “base” to blame him for a situation that really results from things that happened before he was born. Nor can the base fairly criticize Obama if “any president” would find it hard to give up the “mystery and majesty” and is necessarily a “self-entangling giant” who is a “prisoner of his own power.”

There may be a certain lack of perspective in Wills’s analysis, of the sort that caused him last year to compare Obama’s campaign speech on Jeremiah Wright to Abraham Lincoln’s address at Cooper Union. But it is a shame the base did not have the benefit of Wills’s analysis back when George W. Bush was the self-entangled prisoner-giant with huge powers he simply could not not use. We might have been able to avoid that whole Bushitler thing.



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