Is Obama making us more safe after all?

Jack Goldsmith, head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel for a time under President Bush, gives President Obama high marks for his approach to fighting terrorism, and rejects former Vice President Cheney’s claim that Obama’s policies are making us less safe. Goldsmith’s argument is based, in significant part, on his view that Obama is largely continuing Bush’s policies.

Based on an analysis of 11 key components of the Bush war on terror, Goldsmith concludes that “the new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit.” By way of “narrowing,” Goldsmith cites cutting back on secret detentions, probable new restrictions on interrogation, and relatively small procedural changes to military commissions. He acknowledges that these changes will “leave some suspected terrorists in a better place than they would have been under the Bush regime.” But he also says that “Obama’s increase in targeted killings will likely result in more deaths and injuries, without due process, to terror suspects and innocent civilians.”

On the plus side, as he sees it, Goldsmith believes that Obama is getting to nearly the same place as Bush while doing a much better job with the “packaging.” The Bush administration, he says, “shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation.” By contrast, “the Obama administration is intensely focused on these issues.”

Goldsmith believes that this focus not simply as an effort to “save face” as Obama departs to a significant extent from his campaign promises. Rather it is primarily “a prudent attempt to legitimate and thus strengthen the extraordinary powers that the president must exercise in the long war against Islamist terrorists.”

Goldsmith concludes:

If this analysis is right, then the former vice president is wrong to say that the new president is dismantling the Bush approach to terrorism. President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run. Viewed this way, President Obama is in the process of strengthening the presidency to fight terrorism.

Goldsmith’s analysis should be a must-read, especially for those of us who are partial to Cheney’s view of this matter. My initial thought is that the policies of Bush’s first term were, for the most part, the correct response to the situation that existed then. The policies of the second Bush administration and those of the Obama administration are a response to a somewhat different situation.

Of the latter two policies, Bush’s is preferable to Obama’s on the merits, mainly for reasons that Goldsmith cites. And (unlike during the first term) Bush was not indifferent to many of the packaging issues Goldsmith raises. By that point, however, Bush hatred and raw partisanship, which was based on far more than his first-term packaging of specific policies on terrorism, meant that he could not “fortify” his anti-terrorism policies in the way that Obama can fortify his similar (but less effective) ones.

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