Gitmo and the Sincerest Form Of Flattery

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on October 8, 2009


The Obama Administration is becoming more and more like the Bush Administration every day. I know that may sound like a heretical thing to say, and it will certainly upset Obama fans who think the President is a political savior and that his predecessor was both a bumbling idiot and an evil genius (depending on the mood of his detractors, of course). But the more one examines the evidence, the more one finds the Obama Administration upholding Bush Administration policies which attracted the ire and fury of the Left, and which were supposed to be overturned as soon as Hope and Change arrived in Washington.

Much of the Obama Administration’s imitation of its predecessor administration centers around its exercise of Presidential power. Barack Obama and the Left denounced the supposed “Imperial Presidency” of George W. Bush, but Obama has been more than willing to use the powers the Bush Administration claimed for itself. Indeed, from the appointment of czars–many of whom did not have to obtain Senate approval–to the lack of transparency in the Obama Administration (promises of transparency notwithstanding), and the Administration’s willingness to ignore Congressional statutes whenever it suits the Administration to do so (can you say “unitary executive theory”? I knew you could), the Obama Administration has performed the role Team Obama once said John McCain’s Administration would have performed had the Arizona Senator been elected to the Presidency; serving as the third term of George W. Bush.

Never let it be said that Dick Cheney did not see this coming. Prior to the Obama Administration coming into office, the former Vice President stated that the incoming Administration would not give up the powers of the Presidency that the Bush Administration had claimed for its own use. At the time, Cheney was derided for his cynicism. Nowadays, those who mocked him don’t want to acknowledge that he was right, and that the Obama Administration has become quite Cheneyesque in its view of the powers of the Presidency, and how they can be exercised.

Perhaps the most dramatic adoption of Bush Administration policies can be found in the Obama Administration’s approach to the issue of preventive detention. Having denounced the Bush Administration’s approach on this issue, Barack Obama came into office promising wholesale change, including the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within one year. But the Obama Administration looks set to miss its own deadline for closing the prison at Guantanamo, thanks to the Administration’s inability to gauge the Congressional and popular reactions to the closing of the prison, and the Administration’s inability to understand or learn about the complexities involved in closing the prison. The following passage is instructive in understanding how the Obama Administration botched the effort to close the prison:

Some Bush administration officials contend that the one-year timeline [to close the prison] was driven by a naïveté on the part of Obama’s aides.

“To a certain extent, they had drunk a lot of the far-left Kool-aid: that everybody, or most people, at Guantanamo were innocent and shouldn’t be there, and the Bush administration was not working very hard to resolve these issues, and that the issues were fairly easy to resolve once adults who were really committed to doing something about it in charge,” said one Bush official who met with Obama’s aides during the transition on Gitmo. “It became clear to me they had not really done their homework on the details.”

As with all floundering governmental operations, a scapegoat must be found, and people within and outside of the Obama Administration have decided to make White House Counsel Gregory Craig the fall guy for the Administration’s failure to close the prison at Gitmo. While Craig has his faults (the name “Elian Gonzalez” ought to come to mind at this point), blaming him for the Obama Administration’s failure to change American policy on Gitmo is absurd:

“This clearly was a decision that had the full support of the entire national security team,” said Ken Gude, who tracks Guantanamo issues for the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. “It’s typical Washington that someone has their head on the chopping block, but it’s ridiculous that it’s Craig.”

“The implication that this was the brainchild of the White House counsel is not really credible,” said Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First.

Of course, Craig’s head is “on the chopping block” because it is better for the White House Counsel to catch the blame for the Administration’s failure to close the Gitmo prison than it is for the White House Chief of Staff, the National Security, and–Heaven forfend!–the President himself to bear responsibility for the fact that the deadline to close Gitmo will be missed.

So the Obama Administration looks to continue the Bush Administration’s policies on Gitmo. But that’s not all! It also looks to continue the Bush Administration’s policies on preventive detention in general:

The Obama administration has decided not to seek legislation to establish a new system of preventive detention to hold terrorism suspects and will instead rely on a 2001 congressional resolution authorizing military force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to continue to detain people indefinitely and without charge, according to administration officials.

Civil liberties groups appear to believe that a decision not to seek new legal authorization means that detainees will be able to win their release and that Presidential power on the issue of preventive detentions will be limited. But this does not change the fact that the Obama Administration is now relying on Bush Administration policies it once claimed to abhor. Of course, it has been clear since this past July that the Administration would imitate its predecessor when it comes to detention policy. And the imitation of Bush Administration policy is obvious. Labeling this “Obama’s Dick Cheney Moment,” Benjamin Wittes writes:

President Obama’s decision not to go to Congress for help in establishing reasonable standards for the continued detention of Guantanamo detainees is a failure of leadership in the project of putting American law on a sound basis for a long-term confrontation with terrorism. It is bad for the country, for national security and for civil liberties. It represents a virtually wholesale adoption of the failed policies of his predecessor — who, with equal obtuseness, refused to root American detention practices in clear law approved by the legislature and similarly failed to learn from repeated Supreme Court rebukes to this unilateral approach. It violates Obama’s much-noted statement this spring that he would “work with Congress to develop an appropriate legal regime so that our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution.” And it delegates a profound and difficult policymaking exercise to the judiciary and, ultimately, to a single man on the Supreme Court.

The Obama Administration was supposed to represent a stark break with the Bush Administration’s policies and practices. Instead, Barack Obama has taken to embracing the work and outlook of his predecessor on a whole host of issues. It’s time for the punditocracy and the populace to notice that “Change You Can Believe In” has morphed into “More Of The Same.” And it’s time for Barack Obama’s supporters to ask themselves why the President they worked so hard to elect has grown to resemble the President whose legacy Obama supporters wanted to sweep away.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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