Motto for the Obama administration: “The more things change, …”

Today we have here an excerpt from “Bush’s Third Term? You’re Living It“,  David Swanson, TomDispatch, 1 September 2009 — Posted with permission. At the end are links to other posts about change and the Obama administration.

Introduction by Tom Englehardt

A presidential candidate opposed to the Iraq War is elected and enters the Oval Office. Yet six months later, there are still essentially the same number of troops in Iraq as were there when his predecessor left, the same number, in fact, used in the original invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Moreover, the new president remains on the “withdrawal” schedule the previous administration laid out for him with the same caveats being issued about whether it can even be met.

That administration also built a humongous, three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar embassy in Baghdad, undoubtedly the most expensive on the planet. Staffed with approximately 1,000 “diplomats,” it was clearly meant to be a massive command center for Iraq (and, given neocon dreams, the region). Last weekend, well into the Obama era, the Washington Post reported that the State Department’s yearly budget for “running” that embassy — $1.5 billion (that is not a misprint) in 2009 — will actually rise to $1.8 billion for 2010 and 2011. In addition, the Obama administration now plans to invest upwards of a billion dollars in constructing a massive embassy in Islamabad and other diplomatic facilities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here, too, there will be a massive influx of “diplomats,” and here, too, a U.S. command center for the region is clearly being created.

What’s striking are the continuities in American foreign and military policy, no matter who is in the White House. The first-term Obama foreign policy now looks increasingly like the second-term Bush foreign policy. Even where change can be spotted, it regularly seems to follow in the same vein. The New York Times, for instance, recently reported that the controversial “missile defense shield” the Bush administration was insistent on basing in Poland and the Czech Republic is being reconsidered in a many-months-long Obama administration “review.” While this should be welcomed, the only option mentioned involved putting it elsewhere — in Turkey and somewhere in the Balkans. At stake is one of the great military-industrial boondoggles of our age. Yet cancellation is, it seems, beyond consideration in Washington.

Organizer David Swanson, founder among other things of the website, was long in the forefront of those calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — and now for bringing them to trial. He gives the term “activist” a good name and he’s a prodigious, energetic, thoughtful writer as well. If you’re as struck by today’s piece as I was, you should consider giving his new book, Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, published on this very day, a careful look. He’s special.

David Swanson’s article

It sounds like the plot for the latest summer horror movie. Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been allowed a third term as president, had run and had won or stolen it, and that we were all now living (and dying) through it. With the Democrats in control of Congress but Bush still in the Oval Office, the media would certainly be talking endlessly about a mandate for bipartisanship and the importance of taking into account the concerns of Republicans. Can’t you just picture it?

There’s Dubya now, still rewriting laws via signing statements. Still creating and destroying laws with executive orders. And still violating laws at his whim. Imagine Bush continuing his policy of extraordinary rendition, sending prisoners off to other countries with grim interrogation reputations to be held and tortured. I can even picture him formalizing his policy of preventive detention, sprucing it up with some “due process” even as he permanently removes habeas corpus from our culture.

I picture this demonic president still swearing he doesn’t torture, still insisting that he wants to close Guantanamo, but assuring his subordinates that the commander-in-chief has the power to torture “if needed,” and maintaining a prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan that makes Guantanamo look like summer camp. I can imagine him continuing to keep secret his warrantless spying programs while protecting the corporations and government officials involved.

If Bush were in his third term, we would already have seen him propose, yet again, the largest military budget in the history of the world. We might well have seen him pretend he was including war funding in the standard budget, and then claim that one final supplemental war budget was still needed, immediately after which he would surely announce that yet another war supplemental bill would be needed down the road. And of course, he would have held onto his Secretary of Defense from his second term, Robert Gates, to run the Pentagon, keep our ongoing wars rolling along, and oversee the better part of our public budget.

Bush would undoubtedly be following through on the agreement he signed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 (except where he chose not to follow through). His generals would, in the meantime, be leaking word that the United States never intended to actually leave. He’d surely be maintaining current levels of troops in Iraq, while sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan and talking about a new “surge” there. He’d probably also be escalating the campaign he launched late in his second term to use drone aircraft to illegally and repeatedly strike into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands with Afghanistan.

If Bush were still “the decider” he’d be employing mercenaries like Blackwater and propagandists like the Rendon Group and he might even be expanding the number of private security contractors in Afghanistan. In fact, the whole executive branch would be packed with disreputable corporate executive types. You’d have somebody like John (“May I torture this one some more, please?”) Rizzo still serving, at least for a while, as general counsel at the CIA. The White House and Justice Department would be crawling with corporate cronies, people like John Brennan, Greg Craig, James Jones, and Eric Holder. Most of the top prosecutors hired at the Department of Justice for political purposes would still be on the job. And political prisoners, like former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and former top Democratic donor Paul Minor would still be abandoned to their fate.

In addition, the bank bailouts Bush and his economic team initiated in his second term would still be rolling along — with a similar crowd of people running the show. Ben Bernanke, for instance, would certainly have been reappointed to run the Fed. And Bush’s third term would have guaranteed that there would be none of the monkeying around with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that the Democrats proposed or promised in their losing presidential campaign. At this point in Bush’s third term, no significant new effort would have begun to restore Katrina-decimated New Orleans either.

If the Democrats in Congress attempted to pass any set of needed reforms like, to take an example, new healthcare legislation, Bush, the third termer, would have held secret meetings in the White House with insurance and drug company executives to devise a means to turn such proposals to their advantage. And he would have refused to release the visitor logs so that the American public would have no way of knowing just whom he’d been talking to.

During Bush’s second term, some of the lowest ranking torturers from Abu Ghraib were prosecuted as bad apples, while those officials responsible for the policies that led to Abu Ghraib remained untouched. If the public continued to push for justice for torturers during the early months of Bush’s third term, he would certainly have gone with another bad apple approach, perhaps targeting only low-ranking CIA interrogators and CIA contractors for prosecution. Bush would undoubtedly have decreed that any higher-ups would not be touched, that we should now be looking forward, not backward. And he would thereby have cemented in place the power of presidents to grant immunity for crimes they themselves authorized.

If Bush were in his third term, some of his first and second term secrets might, by now, have been forced out into the open by lawsuits, but what Americans actually read wouldn’t be significantly worse than what we’d already known. What documents saw the light of day would surely have had large portions of their pages redacted, and the vast bulk of documentation that might prove threatening would remain hidden from the public eye. Bush’s lawyers would be fighting in court, with ever grander claims of executive power, to keep his wrongdoing out of sight.

Now, here’s the funny part. This dark fantasy of a third Bush term is also an accurate portrait of Obama’s first term to date. In following Bush, Obama was given the opportunity either to restore the rule of law and the balance of powers or to firmly establish in place what were otherwise aberrant abuses of power. Thus far, President Obama has, in all the areas mentioned above, chosen the latter course. Everything described, from the continuation of crimes to the efforts to hide them away, from the corruption of corporate power to the assertion of the executive power to legislate, is Obama’s presidency in its first 7 months.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t differences in the two moments. For one thing, Democrats have now joined Republicans in approving expanded presidential powers and even — in the case of wars, military strikes, lawless detention and rendition, warrantless spying, and the obstruction of justice — presidential crimes. In addition, in the new Democratic era of goodwill, peace and justice movements have been strikingly defunded and, in some cases, even shut down. Many progressive groups now, in fact, take their signals from the president and his team, rather than bringing the public’s demands to his doorstep.

If we really were in Bush’s third term, people would be far more active and outraged. There would already be a major push to really end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the Democrats still wouldn’t impeach Bush, especially since they’d be able to vote him out before his fourth term, and surely four more years of him wouldn’t make all that much difference.

Copyright 2009 David Swanson

About the author

David Swanson is the author of the new book Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (Seven Stories Press, 2009). He holds a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia and served as press secretary for Kucinich for President in 2004. Swanson is just beginning a book tour of 48 cities and hopes to see you on the road. Check out his tour schedule by clicking here.


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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about change:

  1. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  2. “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
  3. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  4. Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
  5. Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009
  6. Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009 — Connect the dots between Bush and Obama to see the nice picture.
  7. Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009

14 thoughts on “Motto for the Obama administration: “The more things change, …””

  1. If I weren’t absolutely convinced that this is all going to end badly and fairly soon I’d be really upset about it. As it is, I see this as just the next logical step in the road to Hell (paved with good intentions, of course).
    Fabius Maximus replies: Buck up! Things have looked darker in the past and we’re come though OK. I recommend reading some posts from Good news about America, a collection of articles!.

  2. Roberto Buffagni

    Just a little footnote from a faraway perspective. I’ve always been impressed by a fact: both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have had serious problems with their respective fathers. In Bush’s case, the father was a towering, aristocratic figure of power and authority.

    In Obama’s case,when a child he has been abruptly abandoned by his father.
    My professional experience (I have been working as a playwright in the European theatre for 25 years ) teaches me that most male actors (usually, the best) very often have had serious problems with their fathers. When they were children, they simply
    a) could not learn who, how and what they should be (too little father)
    b) feeling inadequate, were crushed by father’s expectations about who, how and what they should be (too much father).

    So that they became very good in pretending to be someone else. When a man with such a personal attitude becomes an actor, he usually finds a safe haven, and somehow a cure for his sorrows and weaknesses. When he becomes a politician…or better, when somebody else makes him a politician, or a king…well…
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t followed the life stories of politicos, but this is the first I’ve read of Bush Jr having “serious problems” with his Dad. Citing as evidence that his Dad was a “towering, aristocratic figure of power and authority” is the lowest form of psycho-babble. However, it might make a good laugh line in your next play.

  3. “As it is, I see this as just the next logical step in the road to Hell (paved with good intentions, of course).”

    Road? Road, you say? I take great umbrage. It’s not a road, it’s a twelve-lane superhighway built from the finest reinforced concrete with reflectors embedded in the roadway made from the best grade of diatomaceous earth, triple-reinforced siderails, and the finest on-ramp signs money can buy.

    Go America! Number one!

  4. FM: “this is the first I’ve read of Bush Jr having “serious problems” with his Dad

    Thought this was well known, but then inside the US media bubble is quite different to outside.

    What people forget is that Bush was just a detour, a wild goose chase run by madmen for an American public driven crazy by fear. The most serious problems in the US stem from decades of bad decisions by “reasonable” presidents. Bush wasted a decade and it will take at least a second decade to clean up after him but then the US will be back to 9/10/2001 with a foreign policy that will prove to be a spectacular disaster.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. Everybody gets some bad leaders. Why we applaud and follow them is my question.

  5. Roberto Buffagni

    FM: “I don’t followed the life stories of politicos, but this is the first I’ve read of Bush Jr having “serious problems” with his Dad. Citing as evidence that his Dad was a “towering, aristocratic figure of power and authority” is the lowest form of psycho-babble.

    I beg your pardon for not having cited any evidence for this, but I thought it to be widely known, even a clichè. Making a little research on Google, in thirty seconds I’ve found:

    a) “Bush and the Psychology of Incompetent Decisions“, By John P. Briggs, MD, and J.P. Briggs II, PhD, Truthout, 18 January 2007 — Excerpt:

    President George W. Bush prides himself on “making tough decisions.” But many are sensing something seriously troubling, even psychologically unbalanced, about the president as a decision-maker. They are right.

    Because of a psychological dynamic swirling around deeply hidden feelings of inadequacy, the president has been driven to make increasingly incompetent and risky decisions. This dynamic makes the psychological stakes for him now unimaginably high. The words “success” and “failure” have seized his rhetoric like metaphors for his psyche’s survival.

    The president’s swirling dynamic lies “hidden in plain sight” in his personal history. From the time he was a boy until his religious awakening in his early 40s, Bush had every reason to feel he was a failure. His continued, almost obsessive, attempts through the years to emulate his father, obtain his approval, and escape from his influence are extensively recorded.

    His biography is peppered with remarks and behavior that allude to this inner struggle. In an exuberant moment during his second campaign for Texas governor, Bush told a reporter, “It’s hard to believe, but … I don’t have time to worry about being George Bush’s son. Maybe it’s a result of being confident. I’m not sure how the psychoanalysts will analyze it, but I’m not worried about it. I’m really not. I’m a free guy.”

    A psychoanalyst would note that he is revealing here that he has been worrying about being his father’s son quite a lot.”

    b) “The Bush Tragedy”, by Jacob Weisberg (2008) — Excerpt from Amazon’s description:

    “…Here is the bitter and fascinating truth of the early years of the Bush dynasty, with never-before-revealed information about the conflict between the two patriarchs on George W.’s father’s side of the family–the one an upright pillar of the community, the other a rowdy playboy–and how that schism would later shape and twist the younger George Bush; his father, a hero of war, business, and Republican politics whose accomplishments George W. would attempt to copy and whose absences he would resent; his mother, Barbara, who suffered from insecurity, depression, and deep dissatisfaction with her role as housewife; and his younger brother Jeb, seen by his parents as steadier, stronger, and the son most likely to succeed.”

    c) a lot of other stuff.

    If you think that one should not explain all of politics and history through personal biography and/or psychology, I certainly agree. But I would not underrate the above said factors.

    However, I’ll think about your advice for my next play. Father/son, and in general family problems have a VERY long history in my trade; they even can be said to be the very first, and surely the most longlasting subject of theatre; and they can be useful both for sheer fun, and for bleakest tragedy. Thank you very much.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I’m no fan of psychoanalytical explanations, but this is a good one. Thank you for posting these! And good luck with you next play!

  6. The federal government of the United States grows more and more like the party guest who has overstayed his welcome and simply will not go.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All the developed nations have this problem, to varying degrees. Esp UK and the EU. For a deep analysis see Martin van Creveld’s magnum opus “The Rise and Decline of the State”.

  7. FM: “I don’t followed the life stories of politicos, but this is the first I’ve read of Bush Jr having “serious problems” with his Dad. Citing as evidence that his Dad was a “towering, aristocratic figure of power and authority” is the lowest form of psycho-babble. However, it might make a good laugh line in your next play.

    FM, the snark in your responses is well-known, even expected, but this one is (I sincerely hope) beneath you. It’s the Glenn Beck method. RB is absolutely correct in his description; W is widely, and publicly, known to have had issues with his father. The fact that you haven’t read about it speaks both highly of you for not wandering down the more national-enquirer-esque political analysis so common; but also poorly of you for not acknowledging the psychology of leadership as a factor in strategic thought.
    Fabius Maximus replies: He came back with some excellent cites, which I acknowledged.

    As for the initial comment, saying Bush had a strong Dad explains nothing. Lots of folks have strong Dads. Do they all need therapy? Or just the sons? It sounds like feminism run amok.

  8. FM: “I agree. Everybody gets some bad leaders.

    The point wasn’t that everyone gets some bad leaders but that Obama is just bringing America back to before Bush, not resolving the deeper problems. Bad as Bush was he wasn’t responsible for the decisions that lead to 9/11. Once the disaster of Iraq and Afghanistan is undone America will still have to face the far greater problem that it’s foreign policy is leading to of terrorism attacks on the mainland. Obama will be out of power by then anyways but it’s something he is not addressing.

    FM: “Why we applaud and follow them is the question.

    Americans seem to think that they are the only ones that complain about their leaders. Ask a swed what he thinks of his politicians and you will get a pretty negative picture. Politicians are universally despised.

    Similarily for political participation, if anything Americans take a greater interest and participate more in politics then most (though not all) western countries. At least in the middle classes. And so on.

    What is more interesting is where the US is different: For example Americans are much more likely to dismiss the need for a government at all. They are very impressed by military power and they feel that their culture is universal.

    It’s in these differences that America’s unique problems arise not in the common attitudes that all countries have

  9. What common factors do ‘ good ‘ leaders have ? The most useful thing , perhaps , for businesses ( and individuals , and other govs ) is to be able to predict the leaders response to big events . So they can plan ahead. Which is hard when a leader has no clear principles they live by ( or is blown around by others ) .

  10. This is the era of “The One Big Thing”, concept of leadership. Basically, ignore everything, kick all the peripheral cans down the road, and concentrate on one big thing. For Bush, the one big thing was the war on terror. For Obama, it is currently health care reform. No distractions. Put everything you have on the key objective, and even then you might fail, but at least you weren’t distracted.
    Through massive debt, we’ve maintained the illusion this was OK. Now that we’re busted, we (the citizenry) are realizing that leadership involves walking and chewing gum at the same time. Soon, our leadership is going to be busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest, whether they want to be or not.

  11. Anna Nicholas remarked: What common factors do ‘ good ‘ leaders have ? The most useful thing , perhaps , for businesses ( and individuals , and other govs ) is to be able to predict the leaders response to big events . So they can plan ahead. Which is hard when a leader has no clear principles they live by ( or is blown around by others ) .

    It’s not clear this reflects reality. Lincoln came into office vowing not to go to war with the South and promising not to repeal slavery in the south, and he wound up doing both. FDR got elected on a vague platform to end the Great Depression, and he wound up trying all sorts of bizarre things, including packing the Supreme Court (bad idea), setting up the CCC (didn’t seem to hurt, but didn’t seem to help much either), setting up the RFC (that helped) and eventually setting up the Lend-Lease program with the Brits, which not only directly violated his campaign promises, but was quite unpopular with the American public, who wanted to stay neutral in any future European war. (It’s hard to realize at this remove in history how deeply American anti-war sentiment in the late 1930s.)

    JFK ran as an anti-Communist ultrahawk and wound up being extraordinarily dovish in the Cuban Missile Crisis, resisting persistent calls to invade Cuba. Good thing, too, since unbeknownst to anyone, the Cubans already had functional nuclear weapons on the ground.

    Leaders often get elected to deal with problems which events sweep away and render moot. Leaders with fixed principles have their downsides. Herbert Hoover offers a good example.

  12. “They are very impressed by military power and they feel that their culture is universal.”

    Well, certainly the second part: We hold these Truths … all men are created equal.

    No other country on earth, throughout history, has fought and killed and died so much for these ideas. The French fought for France, the Germans for the Fatherland, the Russians for Mother Russia, the Japanese for their Japanese Emperor.

    Bill Whittle has a fine PJTV video on Critical Thinking — criticize.
    Without alternatives.
    In neither WW I nor, especially, in WW II were Americans angels — but while we claimed to be the ‘good guys’, we never claimed to be perfect. And the only ground we wanted in Europe was … to bury our dead, those fighting for freedom (and commie victory in the East against National Socialists).

    I’m quite glad Obama is like Bush III on NOT LOSING in Iraq nor Afghanistan. But he’s quite different in US domestic. Had we had a MASSIVE tax cut, equal to only half the Porkulus, the US would probably already be growing again, with about the same huge current deficit but with prospects to reduce those.

    Since the anti-war folk refuse to accept their resposibility for commie victory & genocide in Vietnam & Cambodia, I’m sure they’d also refuse to accept any responsibility for Taliban victory in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or Iran getting and using a nuke — or for Israel deciding on a desparate first strike to pre-empt the Iranian bomb-Israel program for gaining Islamic superiority.

    The anti-Shah of Iran folk didn’t accept responsibility for the Ayatollah, either — yet that was always one of the more likely outcomes.

    Of course, Fab waves his magic wand and says anybody who believes the Iranians would both get AND use a nuke is delusional. I look at real world real history: anti-war folk WRONG about Vietnam; WRONG about the Shah; WRONG about leaving Saddam in power after 1991 Desert Storm. And Bush right about booting Sadam in 2003.

    Where Bush, & neo-cons, are wrong, is trying to build up strong central gov’ts rather than strong property rights and local community responsibility. But anti-war folk criticize the strategy of Human Rights & Democracy (thru a gun) (sometimes the best way, but seldom a good way) — so there’s little criticism of the tactics.

    America needs to learn how to do better, cheaper, nation-building. I wish Obama luck. Maybe he’ll be a fantastic Bad Example (like my own father), so our next President can avoid his mistakes.

  13. #12 just read Wikipedia on Hoover .
    Now if he HAD stuck to his ‘ humanitarian principles ‘ maybe he would have made more of his embryonic New Deal ; and not have , allowed home repossessions , let people go hungry , been brutal to the veterans , or forcibly repatraiated mexicans …

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