Goldsmith variations, Part Two

Like Scott, I was not persuaded by Jack Goldsmith’s discussion of how Presidents Bush and Obama stack up as war time presidents in comparison to Lincoln and Roosevelt. Scott has already done the heavy lifting on this point, but three additional considerations occur to me, two related to Bush and one to Obama

First, I believe that Franklin Roosevelt operated at a time when foreign policy was a less partisan affair. I don’t want to overstate this because the concept of bipartisan foreign policy did not come into vogue until after World War II, and isolationism was a powerful force in Roosevelt’s time. Nonetheless, my sense is that, unlike Bush, Roosevelt did not face a Congress in which the opposition party was dead-set on using foreign policy and national security issues as a club to beat the president.

Goldsmith has argued that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the congressional Democrats were willing to cooperate with the president on national security issues. But even then, the Dems were attempting to juxtapose a liberal agenda that had little to do with national security, e.g., the establishment of a vast new bureaucracy (the Department of Homeland Security) with pro-union rules. The White House could reasonably have believed that the Democrats’ would push back against aspects of the president’s anti-terrorism agenda at a time when swift action was imperative. It could also have believed, even more reasonably, that Democratic “sign-on” would be worth less than Goldsmith assumes — this turned out to the case with Democratic support of the war in Iraq and the support (express or implicit) of key congressional Democrats for various Bush anti-terrorism measures. I’m not arguing here that Bush necessarily made the right call on how much to involve Congress; only that his approach was reasonable and likely driven by concerns that Roosevelt probably didn’t have to worry about.

Second, Goldsmith praises Roosevelt and Obama for putting together a bipartisan national security team. Bush put his original national security team in place before he knew he would be a war time president. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Colin Powell as Secretary of State made the team as close to bipartisan as it could have been without the inclusion of a registered Democrat. Powell’s inclusion, along with that of the largely non-partisan Condi Rice and the veteran public servant Donald Rumsfeld, sufficiently conveyed what Goldsmith calls the sense that the president’s “national security actions are in the public interest and not a partisan one.” That sense was lost only when Powell came to be seen as not influential and, more importantly, when the war in Iraq turned sour.

Moreover, Bush eventually replaced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates. I’ve read that Gates is registered as an independent. In any event, he is not a partisan figure or a particularly “conservative” one (certainly he is no neo-con). Indeed, when Bush selected Gates, he had been associated with the Iraq Study Group, an ostensibly non-partisan blue ribbon outfit that was preparing to call on Bush to substantially change his policies in Iraq and the Middle East generally.

Earlier, Bush had replaced Powell with Rice. This move is viewed as having sharply reduced the influence of Vice President Cheney, the symbol of the partisan approach to national security that Goldsmith deplores.

Third, the comparison of Obama to Lincoln and Roosevelt overlooks the fact that Obama inherited the war on terrorism, whereas Lincoln and Roosevelt (and Bush) were “present at the creation.” Obama is better compared to presidents like Eisenhower and Kennedy, who took power during a prolonged struggle as to which the fundamental rules of engagement had already been formulated. If Goldsmith is correct then, like Eisenhower and Roosevelt (and unlike Carter), Obama does not intend to substantially re-write these rules. This would be to his credit. But it would not make Obama comparable to Lincoln or Roosevelt.


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