The dedication for George W. Bush’s presidential library included the presence of one current and four former United States presidents: George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush himself. A number of world leaders, such as Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Ehud Olmert, were in attendance as well.
When he ran against Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama campaigned in 2008 against what he called “eight years of failed policies” from George W. Bush. But, today, Obama spoke reverently about becoming a part of “the world’s most exclusive club,” a group of “living former presidents” and one that included Bush.
We do have a pretty nice clubhouse. But the truth is, our club is more like a support group. The last time we all got together was just before I took office. And I needed that. Because as each of these leaders will tell you, no matter how much you may think you’re ready to assume the office of the presidency, it’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it’s yours, until you’re sitting at that desk.
And that’s why every President gains a greater appreciation for all those who served before him; for the leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders. And for me, that appreciation very much extends to President Bush. [emphasis added]
His remarks made clear the reality that there is a moment upon election for presidents, where politics are replaced by a commitment to continuing the project that is American empire.
No matter the corruption or crimes committed by previous administrations, this “support group” is there for presidents to inform them of what to do and not to do, how to get things done and how not to get things done and who to alienate and not to alienate and how best to keep agencies, institutions and policies working and, most important, what it takes for a president to “defend” and “keep America safe” (i.e., keep the empire strong).
As a current president, the greatest gift Obama could give to a former president, like George W. Bush, was given through his speech. He eloquently amplified the part of his persona that most Americans are known to respect to cloud the other more vile aspects that made him unpopular.
As we walk through this library, obviously we’re reminded of the incredible strength and resolve that came through that bullhorn as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.
We remember the compassion that he showed by leading the global fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria, helping to save millions of lives and reminding people in some of the poorest corners of the globe that America cares and that we’re here to help.
We remember his commitment to reaching across the aisle to unlikely allies like Ted Kennedy, because he believed that we had to reform our schools in ways that help every child learn, not just some; that we have to repair a broken immigration system; and that this progress is only possible when we do it together.
Obama added, “Seven years ago, President Bush restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” And, like that, Bush’s torture policies, which Obama opposed as a candidate in 2008, were forgotten. The lawlessness he enabled through warrantless wiretapping and the invasion of Iraq were disregarded. The use of Guantánamo Bay prison camps as a facility that could operate outside of the law so interrogators would have no limits when collecting “intelligence” through torture and abusive interrogations is dismissed. The reality that immigrants practicing Islam were targeted in the aftermath of 9/11 and continue to live in communities where there is a culture of fear was neglected.
Obama also declared:
… [A] President bears no greater decision and no more solemn burden than serving as Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military that the world has ever known. As President Bush himself has said, “America must and will keep its word to the men and women who have given us so much.” So even as we Americans may at times disagree on matters of foreign policy, we share a profound respect and reverence for the men and women of our military and their families. And we are united in our determination to comfort the families of the fallen and to care for those who wear the uniform of the United States…
It was an endorsement of U.S. militarism that easily could have been articulated in this way, “We may disagree how to use the military forces of the country with the world’s largest military capabilities, but we agree that, no matter the mission and its impact on other people of the world, we both can celebrate the sacrifices of soldiers and their families.”
He closed his speech with words infused with faith and nationalism, “America needs leaders who are willing to face the storm head on, even as they pray for God’s strength and wisdom so that they can do what they believe is right. And that’s what the leaders with whom I share this stage have all done. That’s what President George W. Bush chose to do. That’s why I’m honored to be part of today’s celebration.”
Each of the words in his speech were deliberately chosen. Each of the words had a purpose and meaning, and he believed each of them because today President Obama has more in common with former President George W. Bush than with Sen. Barack Obama, who decided to run for president in the 2008 election.
That is partly because Sen. Barack Obama did not know what it would be like to be the most powerful man in the world. It is also because Obama has bought into many of Bush’s counterterrorism policies and that has helped Bush’s legacy in ways that many of his supporters probably never imagined.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden, who served under Bush, has said, “Obama came to embrace Bush’s positions. Both Bush and Obama said the country was at war. The enemy was al-Qaida. The war was global in nature. And the United States would have to take the fight to the enemy, wherever it may be.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney said in an NBC interview in January 2011, “In terms of a lot of the terrorism policies — the early talk, for example, about prosecuting people in the CIA who’ve been carrying out our policies — all of that’s fallen by the wayside. I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate.” Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who authorized torture at Abu Ghraib, said in September 2011 Obama had accepted much of the Bush doctrine out of necessity.
Jack Goldsmith, who served as an Office of Legal Counsel lawyer under Bush, wrote in 2009, “The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit.” He argued, “Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. This does not mean that the Obama changes are unimportant. Packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric, it turns out, are vitally important to the legitimacy of terrorism policies.”
Thus, Obama has done what Bush could not do: He has taken policies that were unpopular or reviled and transformed them into something legitimate and acceptable. He also has made the “war on terror” more permanent by abandoning the phrase “war on terror” and relying on covert operations that involve targeted assassinations by drones or the outsourcing of detentions and interrogations to unsavory characters that national security agencies have allied themselves with (like, for example, in Somalia).
Accepting much of the Bush doctrine was a necessary requirement for being accepted as a member of the “club,” and, for Bush and his cabal, Obama’s preservation and even expansion of policies is the real “mission accomplished.” More than four years since Bush left office, the world is still a battlefield.