What exactly did Bush and Cheney do wrong?

Democratic and media elites attack Obama for departing from the prior administration's Terrorism approach

Published February 2, 2010 10:03AM (EST)

(updated below)

As I noted several days ago, it is not only Republicans -- but Democratic and media establishment figures as well -- who clearly crave the preservation of the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties.  When Bush's popularity collapsed to historic lows, political and media elites pretended for awhile to object to his administration's fear-based and radical policies as extremist and an assault on "our values."  But that was all just such a transparent pretense.  In those few instances where Obama has rejected the Bush/Cheney template, the outrage and hysteria from Democratic and media voices is pervasive, and is growing louder.

Just look at these illustrative incidents.  Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell went on Fred Thompson's radio show yesterday to demand that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed be put before a military commission -- at Guantanamo.  Over the weekend, Time's Joe Klein lambasted the Obama DOJ, and embraced Bush's former CIA and NSA Chief Michael Hayden, by objecting to the criminal charges and Constitutional rights afforded the accused Christmas Day bomber, with Klein decreeing:  "the bomber is an enemy combatant.  He doesn't have Miranda rights."  MSNBC personalities Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie chatted yesterday with their boss, MSNBC Washington Bureau Chief Mark Whitaker, all agreeing that the decision to grant civilian trials for "Terrorists" is "a pure, self-inflicted wound."  When Najibullah Zazi was arrested for allegedly plotting a serious Terrorist attack, The New Republic's Michael Crowley said he was so frightened by this that he was open to torturing Zazi.  Democratic Senators are threatening to join the GOP in cutting off funds for civilian trials.  Democratic members of Congress joined with the GOP to prevent even modest reforms of the Patriot Act and other surveillance abuses.  City officials compete with one another over who can be the most frightened and terrorized by Terrorists.

And The Washington Post's Richard Cohen -- who was so frightened by Terrorism that he wrote multiple screeds screeching that we must have vengeance on Saddam -- devotes his entire column today to criticizing Obama for putting us In Grave Danger by rejecting a handful of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies (headlined:  "Obama administration is tone-deaf to concerns about terrorism"):

There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer.  Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America's critics but the message sent to Americans themselves. When, oh when, will this administration wake up? . . .

No doubt George Bush soiled America's image abroad with what looked liked vigilante justice and Dick Cheney's hearty endorsement of ugly interrogation measures. But more is at stake here than America's image abroad -- namely the security and peace of mind of Americans in America. . . . The Obama administration, on the other hand, seems to have bent over backward to prove to the world it is not the Bush administration and will, almost no matter what, ensure that everyone gets the benefit of American civil liberties. But the paramount civil liberty is a sense of security and this, sad to say, has eroded under Barack Obama.

Leave aside that Bush -- like Obama -- also tried some accused Terrorists in civilian trials and some before military commissions.  Leave aside that the second-term Bush -- like Obama -- withdrew authorization for waterboarding.  Leave aside the factually inaccurate claim that Obama is "ensuring that everyone gets the benefit of American civil liberties" when he is, in fact, detaining many people without any charges at all and putting many others before military commissions.

Beyond all those factual errors, look at what Cohen is saying:  Bush "soiled America's image," but what he did was right, just and necessary, and Obama should follow that -- which is essentially what many Democratic Party and media elites are saying as well.  Seriously:  if you were a Bush follower, wouldn't you feel as though you were owed a major apology for all the accusations and the fuss that came from Democrats and media figures, accusing you of supporting radical and Constitution-shredding policies when, it turns out, they actually crave those policies in order to feel safe?  Doesn't all of this bolster the Republican claim that those attacks on the Bush administration for civil liberties abuses were not due to genuine conviction, but rather for partisan gain (in the case of Democratic officials) and cheap, preening, wet-finger-in-the-air moralizing (in the case of media stars)?  

Consider the example of military commissions.  When the Bush administration unveiled those, the reaction from Democrats, progressives and media outlets was overwhelmingly and intensely negative, on the ground that military commissions (no matter what rules they followed) were appropriate only for "battlefield justice," when there was no other alternative.  The consensus was that our normal system of justice -- developed over two hundred years -- was the only just and proper venue to try accused Terrorists, had been proven effective, and beyond that, the perception that we were inventing new and inferior tribunals of justice for Muslims would fuel Terrorism and make us more unsafe.  What happened to all of that?  Was there a single Democrat or progressive defending military commissions when Bush and Cheney unveiled them as their preferred method for trying Terrorists?  Now, suddenly, Terrorists belong in military commissions -- at GITMO?  So the defining creations of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld approach are now the centerpieces of the Democratic and media consensus. 

All of these attacks on the Obama administration really leave one wondering:  what is it exactly that Bush and Cheney did wrong?  Was it just the waterboarding (the official authorization for which was withdrawn several years before Bush left office and which, in any event, people like Richard Cohen and Michael Crowley still crave)?  Everything else other than the "enhanced interrogation techniques" was good?   What happened to all the profound talk about how they ruined our image in the world and violated our "core principles" and how we can simultaneously Stay Safe and adhere to our values -- which happened to be a central theme of Obama's successful presidential campaign?  How can Democrats and media stars claim to find Bush and Cheney so distasteful as they simultaneously attack Obama for reversing their defining policies in a few isolated instances?  In the areas of civil liberties and Terrorism, what exactly did Bush and Cheney do wrong?


UPDATE:  Noting this insightful Adam Serwer post -- which equates the willingness of many Democrats and Republicans to scream political epithets they don't really mean (Obama is a foreign, Terrorist-loving socialist; Bush is a Constitution-shredding fascist) -- Atrios writes:

Just adding to the post below, at some point it became clear that the consensus of official Washington, including many Democrats, the scribblers at Kaplan Test Prep Daily, the Great Minds at Very Serious Think Tanks, and guests at Sally Quinn's table dancing parties, is that torture is awesome, the rule of law only applies to Al Gore, Bill Clinton's penis, and all people who don't have important DC jobs, and all it takes to nullify the constitution is to call someone a terraist. I don't know how to change this, and electing the Hopey Changey guy didn't help much. I think they're playing Calvinbill a bit more fairly, but they're still playing it.

That about sums it all up.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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