During his second term, his approval rating heading stubbornly south, President George W. Bush was fond of comparing himself to Harry Truman. The dour Missourian, too, was “misunderestimated” — lightly regarded when thrust onto the world stage and then raked over the coals for strike breaking and a stalemated war in Korea. Like Truman, Bush mused, he would be reviled in his own time only to be accorded great respect in popular history.
It was a typically Bushian historical parallel: simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-defeating. If Truman is recalled indulgently today, it is because no one remembers why he was disliked. In 1953, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ambled into office, all smiles and golfing knickers, and both the post-World War II industrial battles and the Korean conflict were forgotten. In 2009, another supremely affable stage presence became commander-in-chief, also with a mandate to banish his predecessor down the memory hole. If Bush’s reputation is one day rehabilitated, it will be because Barack Obama mitigated the case against him.
But there the comparison stops. On the domestic front, no one could describe the initial two years of the Obama administration as placid. Abroad, Obama has persisted in the wars bequeathed to him by Bush, in some ways escalating them. He has fattened the purse of the Pentagon. He has drawn down troop levels in Iraq only to “surge” in Afghanistan. And since the October 2009 publication of the New America Foundation’s Revenge of the Drones, the press corps has cottoned to the fact that Obama has authorized a sharp increase in the number of Predator-borne missile attacks upon alleged terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan (with a few more in Yemen, where the United States is trying to kill an American citizen, the radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi). The New America Foundation concludes that civilian casualties caused by drones have spiked as well.
The Predators’ projectiles are aimed at what the Bush administration called “enemy combatants” and, like that category of person, the strikes remain legally dubious. In 2008, the UN tasked law professor Philip Alston with investigating the drone attacks as “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,” and he has lambasted the Predator program as having “absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws.” As Newsweek has reported, the main difference between Bush and Obama on this score is that Obama defends drone strikes in legal terms, dispatching State Department legal adviser Harold Koh to argue that “lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war.” Where Bush was willing — indeed proud — to wage war in defiance of international norms, Obama wants to use the same dirty tactics, but with a veneer of propriety to shine in the eyes of Europeans and American liberals.
Naturally, the people on the receiving end of the Predator strikes are not bedazzled. At the May 2 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama japed at some teen pop stars in attendance that he would scramble the drones if the boys tried to woo his daughters. A handful of the White House press corps thought the jest improper, comparing it to Bush’s mocking search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction under the tables at the 2004 dinner. In Pakistan, the joke was heard as nothing less than a US president making fun of Pakistani deaths.
The incident, silly as it was, illustrates an unfunny irony of the Obama era. Despite the “surge” in Afghanistan, despite the stepped-up Predator strikes, despite the defense in court of Bush’s unconstitutional detention practices, despite the free pass for Bush-era torturers, the American right is hawking the line that Obama is soft on terrorism. Obama can toss off references to his lethal executive powers as casually as Bush did; he can exhort graduating West Point cadets to greatness in the war on terror with far more eloquence. But in American political discourse he will nonetheless contend with the post-Vietnam specter of the crypto-pacifist Democrat, the bleeding heart so averse to US military force that he does not, as conservative media complained of his West Point speech, use the word “victory.”
True to the Democrats’ post-Vietnam form, the Obama administration has no answer whatsoever for these accusations other than to try to prove them wrong. Hence the additional bloat in the Pentagon budget and the perseverance in the fights started under Bush. The 2010 National Security Strategy, released on May 28, asserts that the US will avoid the use of force “whenever we can,” but that “the US must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests.” No crypto-pacifists here, though the document takes great pains to couch its dedication to the US “military advantage” in paeans to a “rules-based international order.” And again, the Predators embody the counterpoint: Just as the Obama administration’s signature weapon allows the trigger-puller to distance himself from the kill, so the administration’s homage to legal accountability allows it to distance itself from an actual accounting.
The Washington Post found a “clear break” with Bush’s “unilateral military approach” in the 2010 Strategy’s inclusion of economic, educational and technological superiority in its definition of US national security. This observation is odd, since politicians of both parties are constantly harping on the need for America to be number one across the board. But, more to the point, the document minces no words in identifying the sine qua non of US hegemony: “The United States remains the only nation able to project and sustain large-scale military operations over extended distances. We maintain superior capabilities to deter and defeat adaptive enemies and to ensure the credibility of security partnerships that are fundamental to regional and global security. In this way, our military continues to underpin our national security and global leadership, and when we use it appropriately, our security and leadership is reinforced.” And the Strategy says that detainees in the war on terror will be prosecuted “when we are able,” licensing indefinite detention without charge.
The bipartisan establishment has long been united behind bolstering the sole superpower standing of the United States by means military and otherwise. Obama is no challenger of that status quo — in the 2010 National Security Strategy, it is called “an international order advanced by US leadership.” The Republican sniping — attacking Obama simultaneously for stealing Bush’s thunder and channeling it too meekly — masks the commitments that Republicans and all but the most left-leaning Democrats have in common. But the intra-elite debate, while superficial, is of deep consequence: It robs Americans of the opportunity to hear a genuinely alternative set of ideas about national security and global affairs and it continually goads the Obama team to plow up another Pakistani hillside.
During the latter Bush years, the master narratives of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were shaped by what one might call “weapons of the weak” (with apologies to the scholar James Scott, who coined this phrase to refer to non-violent actions). Despite the unquestioned US domination of both theaters, the Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban sowed deep doubts in American minds that the US would prevail, using such low-tech armaments as the roadside bomb and the signal flag.
Obama’s phase of the wars, initiated under Bush, is marked thus far by greater reliance on weapons only the strong can muster — the $4.5 million Predators and the legions of military officers, think tankers, defense contractors and bureaucrats employed in full-time study of the ways of war in the twenty-first century. This node of the military-industrial complex is, in many ways, a legacy of both Truman and Eisenhower. As Laleh Khalili, B. D. Hopkins and Steve Niva demonstrate in this issue, there is nothing new about the conclusions of all its quasi-scholarly output — the counterinsurgency doctrines guiding the Pentagon in Iraq and Afghanistan hearken back to the experiences of the British in Afghanistan and Malaya, the French in Algeria, US Marines in the Philippines and Vietnam, and the Israelis in Lebanon and Palestine. There is nothing new, either, about the mindset underlying the supposedly smarter warfare under Barack Obama, that if the natives cannot be bashed into submission, they can be persuaded to cooperate if a few Americans learn the language. Indeed, one historical lesson of the Bush and Obama years may be that a prime weapon of the weak is the hubris of the strong.