GOP and TP on Obama's foreign policy "successes"

To wild GOP crowd cheers, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman vehemently defend Obama's assassination policy

Published November 13, 2011 12:54PM (EST)

(updated below [Mon.])

Prior to last night's GOP foreign policy debate, the Center for American Progress Action Fund's Think Progress blog -- which has several good and independent commentators who do excellent work -- announced that it had compiled a list of "what you won't hear at tonight's GOP foreign policy debate: Obama's successes." It is very worth reviewing what this self-proclaimed progressive site now -- under a Democratic President -- considers to be a "foreign policy success," beginning with this:

As I pointed out just yesterday, many Democrats not only passively acquiesce to Obama's continuation of core Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, but enthusiastically cheer it as proof that they, too, can be Tough and Strong (manly virtues demonstrated by how many human beings their leader kills from afar). So here you have Think Progress heaping praise on Obama for seizing what is literally the most radical power a President can seize: the power to target -- in total secrecy and with no checks or due process -- their fellow citizens for execution: specifically, assassination-by-CIA.  Worse, to justify what Obama has done, TP spouts a blatant falsehood (that Awlaki was "a senior Al Qaeda leader"), even though actual Yemen experts have mocked that claim mercilessly and the administration itself refuses to reveal any evidence whatsoever about what it did or why. Revealingly, TP trumpets the claim that "Al Awlaki’s death brought a damaging blow to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)"; its link to justify that claim goes to the blog operated by the right-wing Heritage Foundation: that, quite understandably, is who TP must now cite as authoritative to justify Obama's foreign policy conduct.

But what's most notable here is how inaccurate TP's prediction was: it turned out to be completely wrong that the Awlaki assassination was something "you won't hear at tonight's GOP foreign policy debate." In fact, we heard a lot about it -- from the GOP candidates who heaped as much praise on Obama as TP did for murdering this American citizen. Indeed, among the most vocal cheers of the night from the GOP South Carolina crowd -- second only to its vocal swooning for the virtues of waterboarding -- was when their right-wing candidates hailed Obama's decision to kill Awlaki.

Michele Bachmann gushed about Obama's decision this way: "Awlaki, who we also killed, he has been the chief recruiter of terrorists, including Major Hassan at Fort Hood, including the underwear bomber over Detroit, and including the Times Square bomber. These were very good decisions that were made to take them out." Here was the exchange with Mitt Romney on this issue:

CBS' SCOTT PELLEY: Governor Romney, recently President Obama ordered the death of an American citizen who was suspected of terrorist activity overseas.  Is it appropriate for the American president on the president's say-so alone to order the death of an American citizen suspected of terrorism?

MITT ROMNEY: Absolutely.  In this case, this is an individual who had aligned himself with a-- with a group that had declared (CHEERING) war on the United States of America.  And-- and if there's someone that's gonna-- join with a group like Al-Qaeda that declares war on America and we're in a-- in a-- a war with that entity, then of course anyone who was bearing arms for that entity is fair game for the United States of America. 

And here was one of most revealing exchanges of the year, which Pelley (whose questions were quite good on this topic) had with Newt Gingrich:

SCOTT PELLEY: Speaker Gingrich, if I could just ask you the same question, as President of the United States, would you sign that death warrant for an American citizen overseas who you believe is a terrorist suspect?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, he's not a terrorist suspect.  He's a person who was found guilty under review of actively seeking the death of Americans.

SCOTT PELLEY: Not-- not found guilty by a court, sir.

NEWT GINGRICH: He was found guilty by a panel that looked at it and reported to the president.

SCOTT PELLEY: Well, that's ex-judicial.  That's-- it's not--

NEWT GINGRICH: Let me-- let me-- let me tell you a story-- let me just tell you this.

SCOTT PELLEY: --the rule of law.

NEWT GINGRICH: It is the rule of law.  (APPLAUSE) That is explicitly false.  It is the rule of law.


NEWT GINGRICH: If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant.  You have none of the civil liberties of the United States.  (APPLAUSE) You cannot go to court.  

Of course, whether someone is an "enemy combatant" and has "engaged in war against the United States" is exactly what is in question in these controversies. But, critically, this mindset -- that the President has the power to secretly and unilaterally decree you guilty of being an Enemy Combatant and then take whatever steps he wants against you (warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, consignment to Guantanamo, execution) -- was until very recently the hallmark, the defining crux, of right-wing Bush/Cheney radicalism. That's why Newt Gingrich -- Newt Gingrich -- defends Obama's actions by claiming with a straight face that Awlaki was "found guilty" -- meaning "found guilty" by a secret White House committee and thus "has none of the civil liberties of the United States."  Thanks to Barack Obama, this twisted mentality about what the "rule of law" means and how treason is decreed (not by a court, as the Constitution requires, but by the President acting alone) has now been enshrined as bipartisan consensus. That's why Think Progress, Bachmann, Romney and Gingrich all find full common ground in embracing it as a "success" to be celebrated.

It took Ron Paul -- whom every Good Progressive will tell you is Completely Crazy and Insane -- to point out to the GOP the rather glaring inconsistency between, on the one hand, distrusting government authorities to run health care, but on the other, wanting to empower the President to kill whomever he wants with no transparency or due process. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote last year in Newsweek about who and what is "crazy":

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. . . . If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant?

Crazy/Insane Ron Paul also objected to the killing under Obama not only of Awlaki, but, two weeks later, of Awlaki's 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen, and his 17-year-old cousin. Think Progress forgot to include those dead teenagers on its list of Obama's "foreign policy successes" -- just as they forgot to include such smashing successes as thisthis, this, this and this. But Ron Paul yet again showed how insane he is by pointing out that it's a bad thing -- both morally and prudentially -- for the U.S. Government to run around continuously killing Muslim children from the sky. All Sane and Serious People know that the President has the right and the duty to keep killing Muslim teeangers such as Awlaki's 16-year-old son; only crazies like Ron Paul object to such necessities.

But even the craziest and most radical policies are immediately removed from the realm of craziness as soon as the leadership of both political parties agree on them. As evidenced by Think Progress' listing of the Awlaki assassination as an Obama "success" -- joined in that assessment by Bachmann, Gingrich and Romney -- that is what Barack Obama has achieved for due-process-free presidential killings of our fellow citizens.  Is there anyone, anywhere, who denies that had George Bush (rather than Obama) claimed the power to assassinate American citizens with the CIA with no due process or transparency, Think Progress would be vociferously objecting rather than celebrating?

There are a couple of other "foreign policy successes" hailed by Think Progress worth highlighting, such as this one:

Here we have Think Progress celebrating Obama's subservience to Netanyahu and the Israeli Government as a grand "success." Obama, you see, has "strengthened America's military and intelligence relationship with Israel," has given unprecedented "support and cooperation" to Israeli actions ("even better than under President Bush"), and has "markedly increased" U.S. military aid to Israel -- and these are all deemed Good Things by this progressive site. Here, again, there is extreme common ground with the Evil GOP, most of whom demanded last night that the U.S. get even closer to Israel (Think Progress is right that, minor rhetorical deviations on the settlement issue aside, Obama has been exactly as subservient to Israel -- and exactly as hostile to Palestinians -- as the GOP demands). That they consider this approach to Israel a "success" is telling indeed.  Then there's this:

Amazingly, Think Progress admits that Obama withdrew troops from Iraq only because he failed to convince the Iraqis to allow them to stay under a shield of legal immunity. In other words, American troops are leaving because Iraq forced them to leave, even though Obama tried desperately to have them stay. Still, Think Progress somehow classifies it as an Obama "success" that he "ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year" -- the very result he tried desperately for many months to prevent. Think Progress also forgot to mention the Obama "success" of keeping a "small army" of private contractors in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline -- but, to be fair, so numerous are such "successes" for Obama that no single site can be expected to list all of them. Then we have this:

So it's now Democratic orthodoxy -- rather than just Weekly Standard dogma -- that Iran is a threat, that it is developing nuclear weapons, and that its government needs to be "isolated" and "weakened." Even more notably, Think Progress insists that Obama, contrary to GOP complaints, still aggressively preserves the "military option" as a means of dealing with Iran, and apparently considers this to be a good thing (does anyone doubt that a large majority of Democrats will vigorously support military action against Iran if the U.S. either does it directly or supports Israel in doing it?). Ironically, all of the steps which Newt Gingrich demanded be taken against Iran are already being pursued by some combination of the U.S. and Israel; here's what Gingirch demanded last night:

First of all, as maximum covert operations-- to block and disrupt the Iranian program-- in-- including-- taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems.  All of it covertly, all of it deniable.  Second, (LAUGH) maximum-- maximum coordination with the Israelis-- in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran.  Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher did in the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down.

Gingrich's proposals perfectly capture the Obama administration's policies of aggression toward Iran. And the GOP and Think Progress are of like mind that these are noble and Strong. Perhaps the most dishonest of the claimed "successes" is this:

At the debate I had last week at Brown with former Bush drug czar John Walters, I could barely maintain my civility when he told the audience that they should be proud of the role their government played in helping to bring democracy to Egypt; the very idea that a member of a government that long funded and armed the Mubarak regime would claim credit for bringing democracy to that country is offensive in the extreme. And it's every bit as offensive for Think Progress to try to claim Egyptian democracy as an Obama "success."

The Obama administration supported Mubarak up to the very last minute. Tear gas cannisters shot by Egyptian police at protesters bore the "MADE IN THE USA" mark. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family." And when Mubarak's fall became inevitable, Obama tried to engineer the empowerment of Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's long-time trusted lieutenant most responsible for its policies of torture and brutality. The U.S., under both the Bush and Obama administrations, did more to entrench Mubarak than any other single force; to attribute the fall of Mubarak to Obama is propaganda so deceitful that it defies words.

Some of the successes noted by Think Progress are genuinely that: Obama's repeal of DADT was masterfully executed, and the negotiation with Russia of a reduction in nuclear weapons was a very modest though positive development. And tactically, Obama's pursuit of the same foreign policy goals as his predecessor has been, in many cases, more tactically shrewd and subtle, and more multilateral. Obama is a more competent technocrat than Bush, and it's perfectly reasonable, I guess, for progressives to claim those limited tactical differences as a "success."

But the list of foreign policy "successes" compiled by Think Progress -- echoed in many progressive precincts -- is grounded  in little more than the premise that "success" is defined as: that which Barack Obama does, even when what he does prompted years of progressive anger when done by George Bush. As Ali Abunimah perfectly put it last night: "all the questions in the GOP debate [were] about which countries these sinister clowns would bomb, invade, subvert, occupy, etc etc etc." That's true, but that is basically what American "foreign policy" generally entails (on Meet the Press this morning, Michele Bachmann said of Obama's drone policies: "Those are good things that I think all Americans would agree with").  That D.C.'s leading Democratic Party think tank celebrates so many of those acts, and particularly thinks exactly like Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann on one of the most controversial civil liberties issues of our generation -- the power of the President to secretly target even American citizens for assassination -- speaks volumes about the true legacy of the Obama presidency in these areas.


UPDATE: More success:

See also here, where former Guantanamo chief prosecutor and vocal Bush critic Morris Davis complains about the Obama presidency: "it seems like a third Bush term when it comes to national security." Let the celebratory party at Think Progress resume.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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