President Barack Obama reaffirming his oath of office on Jan. 21, 2013, with his hand on Bibles belonging to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. (White House photo)
American progressives tend to have two conflicting views of President Barack Obama: one that he had good intentions but inherited a poisonous mess from George W. Bush and then faced partisan, even racist obstructionism, or two that he was always a phony with a great smile who turned out to be "worse than Bush."
Of course, there is much middle ground in assessments of Obama among progressives as from other political perspectives, but some prominent critics on the Left have opted for the latter point of view and berate anyone who takes the more forgiving position as an Obama "apologist."
For instance, Oliver Stone's Showtime documentary, "The Untold History of the United States," likened Obama's expansion of Bush's lethal drone program against suspected terrorists to President Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, both presidents inviting a reckless arms race, according to Stone. But is that a fair comparison?
Surely, the drone program raises troubling policy and moral issues, including the acceptance of targeted killings (or assassinations) as a routine practice of U.S. statecraft, an issue that Obama will have to address in his second term. (And one would have to be naive to think that assassinations have not been used by many presidents over the years, whatever euphemisms or middlemen were deployed.)
But drones simply don't represent the qualitative change in warfare that nuclear weapons did. Indeed, the idea of standoff attacks by a military, i.e., firing from remote locations outside the range of an enemy's reach, is as old as the catapult and has advanced through history from the longbow to artillery to aerial bombing to Cruise missiles fired from aircraft carriers far offshore.
It's true that drones may be the most extreme application of this age-old military tactic -- with strikes launched from the other side of the globe -- but drones don't compare with the introduction of nuclear warfare with its indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and the potential to exterminate all life on Earth. To put the two weapons advances in the same sentence is a bit like comparing Obama to Hitler, an extreme example of hyperbole.
Obama's "Team of Rivals"
But there are other criticisms of Obama's foreign policy that have more merit, such as why he failed to break decisively from Bush's foreign policy after winning election in fall 2008. Still, that choice can be read in different ways: that he was too accommodating to the Establishment out of a sense of insecurity or that he shared its outlook.
The political reality that Obama confronted as a new President was that -- even though Bush had been discredited in the eyes of most Americans -- the Establishment, which had shared Bush's eagerness for war in the Middle East, remained in place. The editorial writers who had promoted Bush's Iraq War still dominated the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, from the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to the Times' Thomas Friedman.
The major Washington/New York think tanks had padded their staffs with high-profile neocons, from Robert Kagan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution to Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mainstream Democrats, like former Sen. David Boren and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, mostly urged Obama to opt for continuity over change, and more often than not, the mainstream media, even liberal-oriented outlets like MSNBC, followed the lead of the pro-war pundits.
So, after winning election, Obama bowed to these paragons of conventional wisdom who were then abuzz about the need to apply the lessons from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. Official Washington's takeaway from the book was that the ever-wise Lincoln had surrounded himself with political rivals so he could benefit from their strongly held alternative viewpoints. And, in late 2008, Lincoln's supposed blueprint was hailed as the way to build Obama's new administration.
In the real history, however, some of Lincoln's Cabinet appointments were political payoffs promised at the Republican Party's Chicago convention of 1860 so Lincoln could secure the presidential nomination. Yes, Lincoln did cut political deals. And the national crisis of the Civil War may have tamped down the fires of ambitions within other "rivals."
In 2008, the danger of applying that ancient governing template to a very different era wasn't taken into account. The idea of Obama surrounding himself with powerful people who had profoundly different policy prescriptions was a recipe for trouble, since these "rivals" could -- and would -- sabotage him with leaks and other bureaucratic warfare if he veered off in his own direction.
But Obama -- with very limited management experience -- went along. To the applause of Washington's pundit class, he retained Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates; he kept on Bush's military stars like Gen. David Petraeus; and he named neocon-lite Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State.
Faced with this line-up of heavy hitters, Obama predictably got shelled in 2009 when he wanted only a limited escalation and withdrawal plan for the Afghan War but was pushed into signing off on a broad counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, an approach favored by Gates and Petraeus with Clinton's support. The Pentagon denied Obama the more limited options he requested and then -- facing leaks about his "indecisiveness" -- he acquiesced to the Gates-Petraeus plan. He reportedly regretted his decision almost immediately. [For details, see Robert Parry's America's Stolen Narrative.]
Focusing on Bin Laden