You’d be forgiven for thinking it was September 11th, 2001 again. The tone of newscasts this past week recalled the hysteria of a decade ago. It is almost as though the “America Under Attack” segments which showed us the Twin Towers falling were once again being readied for replay, following ISIS’ inevitable triumph over Iraq’s US-backed Shia government.
There are two reasons for this. One is that the Republican Party is trying to rally anti-Obama sentiment on foreign policy ahead of the 2014 and 2016 elections, and their sympathizers in the media are doing a good job reaching out to Americans on their behalf. Another is that the media is simply capitalizing on a feeling of the world coming apart, that was induced by the Bush Administration, and simply never went away. Three cheers for the additional page views.
During the 2008 presidential elections, Obama dropped a (figurative) bombshell. He emphasized quite sternly that he would not hesitate to bomb Pakistan in the event that it would lead to the capture or death of al-Qaida’s core leadership. I remember talking to my family about how strange it was that someone who opposed the Iraq War would be so aggressive on this matter. However, it makes sense in retrospect. When Senator John McCain was attacking Obama on the plan, he seemed like he was actually moving left on security issues. Obama was determined not to go the way of ’70s anti-war candidate George McGovern. He was set on depriving his Republican opponents of rhetorical ammunition on foreign policy, so that he could push an agenda of domestic reform.
Since his inauguration, President Obama has continued this strategy, and has shielded his domestic initiatives by Nixonian moves on the world stage. For instance, his plan in Afghanistan has been a gradual withdrawal of US troops, and transition to local control, alongside drone strikes and cross-border raids. This has always struck me as a modern rehash of Vietnamization. Republicans have been trying to counteract this strategy for years, especially after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbotobad. Obama had done something spectacular, though. He presided over an operation that was celebrated in Times Square, the subject of an Oscar-winning film, and caused an uptick in American patriotism that appeared to make up for some of its discrediting by the Bush Administration.
I recall many friends, including some leftists, relishing in the details of the operation to liquidate the al-Qaeda leader. One of them expressed to me that it was beautiful that after everything that had happened, that Americans could still come together and celebrate a military victory. It was a shockingly right-wing statement to hear from a liberal, but it reflected the consensus about the raid. It was a popular move, especially welcome by a war-weary public who could not see any tangible results from the War on Terror. Americans who were alienated by the festivities stayed quiet, but the majority waved flags in the street and sang that song “America! Fuck Yeah!” from Team America: World Police (ignoring that it was satirizing exactly this type of behaviour.) Only an Obama presidency could have given Americans cover to indulge such typically GOP behavior.
For Republicans, the fact that a sitting Democrat’s foreign policy decisions were able to do all this was quite dangerous. This is the type of thing that Republicans are supposed to do best, though the Dems have never shied away from military action. It was more of a branding issue. What was their strategy going forward if Obama was completely outflanking them on defense? Empty rhetoric on a string of non-issues: the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission at Benghazi, the prisoner-swap that released some high-level Talibani Guantanamo detainees and freed Bowe Bergdahl, and now, the apparent conquest of northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which the Republicans (sans Rand Paul) are trying to pin on Obama.
Benghazi has always been a non-scandal. Yet Republicans have repeatedly used the event as a typically cynical ploy to distract voters from other issues, and also give them a safe vent for their frustrations about the decline of American power. It was followed up on with an even more ridiculous round of criticism about Bergdahl’s release. As a result of their efforts, both on Capitol Hill and otherwise, media reports now repeatedly cite a Pew poll that finds that a “plurality” of Americans are against the Bergdahl deal. The fact that 23% said they “didn’t know” doesn’t seem to affect its credibility.
Now, we are in the midst of another scheme: using the ISIS advance through northern Iraq to argue that President Obama is the one who lost the country. Dick and Liz Cheney penned an article in the Wall Street Journal that rewrites history, and argues that the Iraq troop surge of 2007 could have won the war completely if President Obama hadn’t withdrawn. Paul Bremer has followed suit, using an op-ed to reiterate a call for American intervention. Bush Administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol are currently touring the major networks to push both points: America needs to move against ISIS, and the collapse of Iraq was the Obama Administration’s fault.
Alas, their strategy for deflecting blame about the war may be working. Approval of Obama’s foreign policy has plummeted ahead of midterm elections this fall. Presumed 2016 Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, whose clashes with President Obama are well-known, has already begun distancing herself from him in her book Hard Choices. The reason the neoconservative push has been so effective is the President’s fault. It isn’t that Obama lacked the vision to heal the country. He didn’t even really try to do it. He wanted to save his political capital for initiatives such as Obamacare.
The result has been that there was little, if any effort, on the part of America’s political establishment, to work through the legacy of the Bush era. Take, for example the continuity in law enforcement policies, and the growth in domestic spying, permitted by the USA Patriot Act. Though the President may have brought US troops home from Iraq, he’s done nothing to stem domestic excesses by security and intelligence forces inside the country. NSA anyone? American security forces continue to operate as though they’re impervious to the legislative branch of government, and the Constitution. Granted, America needs a robust and intelligent military capability, at all times. Yet, considering how many Americans are asking themselves what the point was in Iraq (especially now, as it blows apart) a democratic and obedient defense establishment is key to winning citizen confidence moving forward. Americans need to know that the military cares about the country’s political values, as much as it does its security.
The consequence appears to have been an easy revival of thoughts and attitudes that were last rallied in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They were never properly confronted, which means that they remain simmering underneath the surface, waiting to be cultivated by conservative incitement, again. Now that we have reached that point, writing in the Wall Street Journal, former Coalition Provisional Authority chief administrator Paul Bremer, is of course cheering America’s being pulled back into Iraq. Does this mean a new era of military occupation? It’s too soon to say. What is clear, though, is that the Bush Administration is still fighting for its credibility, as though it were still in power. Someone tell them that another government took its place six years ago. And someone tell that government to do a better job in making Americans face up to the legacy of the Bush era.