Sunday, January 22, 2012

Continuation of Policy vs. Endorsement

I guess if we're grading on a curve, among his political peer group Frum is "usually pretty honest in his reasoning", but I have a difficult time ignoring his past sophistry, a professed devotion to rationality that arose largely after he found himself somewhat exiled from the Republican inner circle, and his continuing tendency to stray from the facts on hot button issues.

I recently saw Frum echo the line I've heard from various right-wing sources that President Obama has followed the Bush Administration's approach to the "War on Terror", even expanding some aspects of it, and how that stands as both vindication of the Bush Administration and as evidence of the hypocrisy of everybody who criticized Bush's stances on human rights and torture. I have a difficult time accepting that Frum is offering that line as "honest reasoning".

First, it's a simplistic comparison. It's not inherently unfair to take a big picture perspective, nor is it incorrect to argue that in a big picture sense the Obama Administration has largely followed the model defined by the Bush Administration as of, say, Bush's sixth year in office. The Obama Administration has been more forceful in its rejection of torture, but the Bush Administration backed away from its early tactics even as it continued its public defense of those tactics. But the Obama Administration has changed its approach to terrorism to much less of the a state-focused model of the Bush Administration, and its claim that invading nations that posed us no threat would somehow create a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, and much more of an international effort focused on finding and stopping terrorists wherever they are.

Frum ties his hands to some extent, by endorsing terrorist attacks in the name of slowing down the weapons programs of hostile states, specifically the assassination of Iranian scientists - something that nobody seems to argue will have a material impact on its weapons programs, but no doubt does create a lot of fear among the Iranian scientific community. Whatever the U.S. knowledge of, or role in, those assassinations, the Obama Administration has stepped up the use of drones and "targeted killings" in its effort to squelch al-Qaeda. Frum argues that it's legitimate to commit acts of terrorism against Iran, because Iran commits acts of terrorism against other states, never mind the obvious circularity. That's just another display of the outrage directed by those who applauded Reagan's characterization of the USSR as an "evil empire" when hostile states make an equivalent over-the-top condemnation of our nation or an ally. It's always different when "we do it" - and as we're acting as a force of good, we are excused from all constraints of law or morality. Never mind that the hostile nation employs pretty much the same set of rationalizations.

Were Frum able to admit to others, or perhaps to himself, that terrorism is terrorism - that despite the rhetoric of the speeches he helped pen, you cannot eradicate terrorism if you're going to engage in terrorism as a tactic against your enemies - he might sound like Glenn Greenwald, who condems the Obama Administration for escalating aspects of its war effort while ignoring both its campaign promises and issues of law and justice. But even if Frum perceives that escalation, he has bound himself to a narrative in which this isn't something new, it's more of the same. But I don't see how somebody as bright as Frum, and somebody as intimately familiar with the tactics of the Bush Administration during its first few years in office, is unable to find meaningful distinction between the Bush Administration's approach and that of the Obama Administration. Many of the same people who were squarely behind the invasion of Iraq now favor the invasion of Iran. It would be more than fair for Frum to acknowledge that President Obama is disinclined to start new land wars, let alone a project as vast as an invasion and occupation as Iran. But part of me suspects that Frum is among those who would favor the invasion, so perhaps there's self-interest in his failure to draw that distinction.

Second, the continuation of policy from one administration to another is not a surprise - it's to be expected. Many presidents have inherited wars started by a predecessor. Not a one has summarily ended the war on his first day in office, and many have continued or escalated wars that they, personally, would likely not have started. The U.S. government is like an ocean liner. You can't simply spin the wheel and head in a different direction. Turning the ship is a long, slow process. President Obama promised to wind down Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was inevitable that doing so would be a years-long process.

As many have pointed out over many decades, even when an incoming administration is critical of the policies of a predecessor, even when it characterizes the policies as "undemocratic" or as a "power grab", it's rare for an incoming President to actually roll back the change once in office. Even if they are less likely to employ the power, or choose not to do so, Presidents enjoy having the potential of exercising the new powers claimed by a predecessor. In the context of "national defense" this phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that as the face of the government, the President is apt to be held personally responsible for a security issue that his opponents claim resulted from his retreat from a prior President's position, even if the new position is more consistent with our nation's heritage and professed values. Consider, for example, right-wing demagoguery in response to the reading of Miranda rights to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Underwear Bomber". If we uphold our nation's basic values, at least from the professed standpoint of those demagogues, the nation is doomed.

Here's the deal: Even if there are material changes in the details, Frum's argument boils down to any "big picture" continuation of policy stands as proof that the former administration's policies "worked". Often that will be the case, but in many cases we're dealing with the aforementioned problem of momentum - once the country starts heading in a particular direction you can't turn on a dime. Frum knows this - his own demagoguery on health reform reflects his understanding that, whatever flaws the program might have, once you implement a national healthcare program it's virtually impossible to eliminate that program. Frum could also look to programs like Social Security and Medicare - would he argue that their continuation reflects the Republican Party's acceptance of those programs as sound policy? That G.W.'s massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare through a prescription drug benefit shows a wholehearted Republican embrace of Medicare? Of course not.

Which is to say, when it comes to addressing some of the most important issues of our time, Frum's not being honest.

Update: More of Frum's "honesty" in action.

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