Rod Dreher

From today’s NYT Magazine piece on Obama’s counterterrorism strategy:

Michael Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under Bush, was willing to say publicly what others would not. “There is a continuum from the Bush administration, particularly as it changed in the second administration as circumstances changed, and the Obama administration,” Hayden told me. James Jay Carafano, a homeland-security expert at the Heritage Foundation, was blunter. “I don’t think it’s even fair to call it Bush Lite,” he said. “It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric. You see a lot of straining on things trying to make things look repackaged, but they’re really not that different.”


[Former President George W.] Bush has pointed to another historical pattern. In private discussions with associates during the 2008 presidential campaign, he predicted that if a Democrat won, he or she would be like Dwight Eisenhower to his Harry Truman. Just as Eisenhower on the campaign trail criticized Truman’s policies in the early years of the cold war only to essentially adopt them after taking office, Bush anticipated that his successor would preserve most of what he had put in place. Of course, this conveniently fits into Bush’s hope that, like Truman, he will look better in the eyes of history. A senior Obama adviser scoffed at the idea that Bush advisers see continuity, arguing that they are trying to launder their reputations by claiming validation. But it is true that much of the Bush security architecture is almost certain to remain part of the national fabric for some time to come, thanks to Obama.


When I talked with [ACLU executive director Anthony] Romero later, he would not describe his interaction with Obama, but he expressed his frustration. While relieved that the new president seems more open to rethinking Bush-era policies, Romero said he suspected Obama suffers from the “hubris” of wanting to preserve much of the power he inherited in the belief that he will use it more wisely. “He believes he can do it better and smarter and more in keeping with constitutional principles than his predecessor did,” Romero told me. “If he’s shown himself willing to adhere to some of the Bush policies in the absence of an attack, one worries about what he’ll do when an attack comes.”

OK, I’m not offering a political opinion on this, not only because this is no longer a political blog, but because I’m not sure what I think. If you all want to speculate in a political way in the comboxes, go ahead, but I’m not going to join in. But all this does bring to mind a moral question I’d like to get the room’s thoughts on: Under what circumstances does a government gain power and then voluntarily relinquish it? I suppose you can come up with examples of governments letting power claimed during times of emergency recede when the emergency passes. But doesn’t the remark by the ACLU chief bring to mind Tolkien’s lesson about the temptation of the Ring of Power? The self-deceptive view that the Other may use that power for evil, but if good people such as ourselves held that power, we would use it for good. If you were the president under Obama’s set of circumstances, how would you navigate this temptation? Would you keep the policies you once criticized in place, because you concluded that it was too dangerous to cast them aside, but do your best to implement them fairly? Or would you end the policies because (at least in part) you believed the temptation to abuse that power, to hold it firmly instead of lightly, was too great?
(Like I said, I’m disinclined to stomp out a partisan discussion here, but I think it’s far more interesting and productive to discuss the moral complexity of the issue of counterterrorism and power in the abstract than to use the issue merely as an occasion to bash Obama and/or Bush. Try to keep the discussion at that level, to keep the thread from derailing into the ditch of partisan rancor.)

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