George W. Bush was vulnerable in 2004 because national building in Iraq was turning out to be a lot more trouble than he had expected. He was reelected not because John Kerry was a bad campaigner, or because Bush was an unscrupulous one. Bush won reelection because John Kerry could never formulate a coherent alternative to Bush's policy on Iraq, or anything else that mattered. I have been looking, since then, for any signs that the Democratic Party is capable of generating an alternative foreign policy.
So far, there is nothing. Take Iraq. Please. President Obama is reducing U.S. troop strength there, as the situation seems mostly stable and the Iraqis seem to want it. What would Dubya have done, if he had had a third term? Pretty much the same. President Obama is shifting troops to Afghanistan. Good idea, maybe. What would Bush have done? Well, I am guessing he would have done the same. Bush replaced Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates. Good idea. President Obama's Secretary of State is so much like Robert Gates that he is in fact Robert Gates. Another good idea, maybe. But not exactly change.
And then there are the questions arising from Bush policies on terrorism. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to Congress about the "enhanced interrogation" of terrorist suspects. The Obama Administration sided against her, with CIA Director Leon Panetta insisting that the CIA doesn't mislead Congress. What would a Bush appointed CIA Director have done? President Obama said he was going to release a gob of photos showing abuse of prisoners in Iraq. That is what the Left was craving. But no, he changed his mind. Good idea, I'm thinking, but not change, so much.
And then there is this business of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Obama piously announced that he would close the detention facility there. But what do you do with the cliental? The President has clearly tried to get some of our European allies to take some of the detainees. Since he is so much more understanding, and so much less cowboy, you'd think they would melt. So far no hotel rooms in Paris or Frankfurt have opened up. Strangely enough, Democrats in Congress don't seem to be any more willing to host the detainees in their own states. If President Obama has any idea what to do with these folks, he hasn't said on Meet the Press.
A lot of the detainees were captured in war, which is not exactly the same thing as being arrested. When the police make an arrest, they have to be careful to gather evidence. When soldiers capture an enemy combatant, they have to be careful he doesn't blow them away, or alter the other insurgents, etc. Evidence isn't first on the mind of an American soldier. That means that a lot of the capture terrorists can't be tried in civil courts.
The Bush Administration solution was to try them in military courts. Barack Obama thought this was a terrible violation of human rights. Then he got elected. Apparently he now is planning to reinstitute the military courts that he suspended upon his election.
I am not sure what John McCain might have done differently, but on all the items mentioned above President Obama is channeling for George W. Bush. It's not that Obama lacks imagination, or that he doesn't care enough or than he isn't courageous enough. It's just that foreign policy is hard and doesn't always offer a lot of attractive options. It might be a good idea to recognize this. A lot of people who voted for Obama never suspected it.
On the same day that I posted the above words, Jack Goldsmith wrote a column in the New Republic defending President Obama against Dick Cheney on this very question.
There is a different problem with Cheney's criticisms: his premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. This does not mean that the Obama changes are unimportant. Packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric, it turns out, are vitally important to the legitimacy of terrorism policies.
This paragraph obviously confirms my argument above. Also interesting is this passage:
A good example of [Obama's] strategies in action is the administration's "new" rationale for detaining enemy forces indefinitely without charge or trial. The administration took the same basic position as its predecessor but placed it in prettier wrapping. It eliminated the dreaded label "enemy combatant." It narrowed the scope of those who can be detained from persons who "support" al Qaeda and its affiliates to persons who "substantially support" them--a change without large practical consequences, but a change nonetheless. And it grounded its authority to detain in Congress's authorization for the war and the international laws of war, showing that the president's detention powers were approved by bodies outside the presidency. This was the Bush position as well, but with an important difference: The Bush administration argued that it could detain enemy soldiers on its own constitutional authority, and without congressional support. The Obama administration dropped this argument (but did not reject it), and won favorable press coverage for its "departure" from the Bush position even though the change affected nothing in the president's present power to detain.
This is the substance of Goldsmith's defense of Obama: Bush 3 in prettier wrapping. My position may be absurd, as commenter Jon says, but the absrudity seems to be catching even among Obama's defenders.