By ROSS DOUTHAT
New York Times News Service
President Barack Obama’s speech on national security last week was a dense thicket of self-justifying argument, but its central message was perfectly clear: Please don’t worry, liberals. I’m not George W. Bush.
You can see why his supporters might be getting nervous on that front. The continuities between Obama and Bush on national security have always been there for those with eyes to see, but much more attention has been paid to them of late — to the expansive drone campaign that has targeted U.S. citizens for execution without trial, to an anti-leaks campaign that has flirted with criminalizing investigative reporting, and to the perpetual postponement of supposed administration priorities like shuttering the prison at Guantanamo.
Against this backdrop, the president’s rhetoric last week was calculated to reassure and soothe. The promises he made in 2008, when he campaigned as a critic of wartime overreach, were revived, reasserted, amplified.
Of course the year is no longer 2008, and Obama has been “the decider” for more than four years now. Which meant that his address had an air of self-critique that’s rare in presidential rhetoric. In the words of Esquire’s Tom Junod, one of the most perceptive writers on Obama’s drone policy, the speech didn’t just “speak to Americans in the language of moral struggle.” It tried to make the president himself ” representative of moral struggle,” by turning “personal, almost confessional, in its weighing of doubt and its admission of second thoughts.”
This willingness to grapple with moral complexity has always been one of the things that Obama’s admirers love about him, and even liberals who feel disappointed with his national security record still seem grateful for the change from George W. Bush.
I am not particularly nostalgic for the Bush era either, but Obama’s Reinhold Niebuhr act comes with potential costs of its own. Whereas the last president exuded a cowboyish certainty, this president is constantly examining his conscience in public — but if their policies are basically the same, the latter is no less of a performance. And there are ways in which it may be a more fundamentally dishonest one, because it perpetually promises harmonies that can’t be achieved and policy shifts that won’t actually be delivered.
That’s a cynical reading on Obama’s speech, but it feels like the right one. Listened to or skimmed, the address seemed to promise real limits on presidential power, a real horizon for the war on terror. When parsed carefully, though, it’s not clear how much practical effect its promises will have.
Overall, as the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes put it, the speech seemed written to align Obama “as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility in actual fact.”
There are obviously good reasons to preserve this flexibility. The problem is that by making it sound as if U.S. policy were about to change more than it actually will, the president’s rhetoric risks coming across as a bait and switch — on his supporters at home, but more important, on audiences across the Muslim world.
There, this White House’s foreign policy, in many ways reasonably successful, has met with its biggest disappointments. Far from abating, anti-Americanism has hardened in many Muslim countries, which presumably reflects disillusionment with the gap between candidate Obama’s promises and President Obama’s policies.
There is no good reason to overpromise yet again. Where the United States can step back from a wartime footing, we absolutely should. But where we don’t actually intend to, we should be forthright about it — rather than pretending that change is perpetually just around the corner, and behaving as though our choices are justified by how much anguish we express while making them.