Shifts of a Ruling Class: Continuities of Bush-Obama Transition



by Mike Ely


I don't usually praise analyses by moderate Republicans, but I'm going to post a New York Times editorial by David Brooks below.

Its central thesis is that Cheney's "Genghis Khan side" (as it was called within the Daddy Bush 1 administration) had a heyday of three years after 2001. And that this peaked in 2004. We all know its features: global triumphalism, expanded torture, unilateralism, Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, crude rejection of Geneva Accords and other treaties, etc.

It also coincided with a high tide of religious fundamentalism of a hyper-patriotic Christian kind -- an attempt to wield religion to conservatize the American culture and politics in radical ways.

Brooks then raises that the period from 2004-2008 represented a series of struggles and slow begrudging shifts -- sharply conditions by the prospect of catastrophic failure in Iraq and by the visible revulsion of most of the world. They had overreached after 9/11, and were driven toward various forms of retrenchment. All kinds of people are viscerally relieved to see an Obama replace a George W. -- and the contrast seems stark. But what comes out here is a far more nuanced sense of continuity -- and the ways the current policies of Obama were gestating within the debates of the ruling class even during the W years themselves.

And, Brooks goes right into this: pointing out the  continuity from W's second period with some of the "new" Obama policies.

This is in fact often how shifts in ruling class strategy happen: there was a growing sea-change within the ruling class. An attempt of a new start, some modification of policies, some plans for new offensives.

Bush started to speak about closing Guantanamo, bringing back combat troops from Iraq after the "surge," etc. But in the pursuit of that shift in strategy, Obama emerged as the figure most likely to pull it off (not McCain, who was also differentiating himself on torture, etc.) The religious right got knocked back a peg (after 2004 and then hard after 2006) -- just as some (in both the liberal and radical left) were hyping the immediate danger of theocracy.

All of this has importance for evaluating the analyses of liberal and left forces in the U.S. (then during the Bush years, and now during the Obama years.) Extreme as the  Bush years were, they were not a single-minded linear trajectory toward fascism and unilateral hegemonism. Theocracy was not on the agenda, and the rise of the religious right was always a subordinate part of the ruling class coalition.

The transition to Obama was not that clear  a rupture with the policies of Bush.

Brooks has his own agenda, of course (to put it mildly) -- which is to discover and encourages shades of difference among Republicans (and to discover a Republican Party that is not defined by Darth Cheney). And in service to that, he clearly exaggerates the differences within the Bush administration and so on. But still, there is here an opening for a more nuanced understanding of the last years, and how the ruling class of this empire confronted and seeked to overcome its own serious failures post-9/11.

In many ways, the choice of new "commander-in-chief" flowed from the emergence of a wind (in the ruling class) favoring changes -- some changes in policies, and certainly major changes in image. Obama was the chance for an imperialist reboot, after a period of disasterous overreaching, real setbacks and glaring strategic miscalculations.

In importance ways, the possibilities and objective need for policy shifts are struggled out in the ruling class, and elections serve them as a vehicle for picking point-men who can best carry through a newly emerging consensus.

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May 22, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist

Cheney Lost to Bush


President Obama and Dick Cheney conspired on Thursday to propagate a myth. The myth is that we lived through an eight-year period of Bush-Cheney anti-terror policy and now we have entered a very different period called the Obama-Biden anti-terror policy. As both Obama and Cheney understand, this is a completely bogus distortion of history.


The reality is that after Sept. 11, we entered a two- or three-year period of what you might call Bush-Cheney policy. The country was blindsided. Intelligence officials knew next to nothing about the threats arrayed against them. The Bush administration tried just about everything to discover and prevent threats. The Bush people believed they were operating within the law but they did things most of us now find morally offensive and counterproductive.

The Bush-Cheney period lasted maybe three years. For Dick Cheney those might be the golden years. For Democrats, it is surely the period they want to forever hang around the necks of the Republican Party. But that period ended long ago.

By 2005, what you might call the Bush-Rice-Hadley era had begun. Gradually, in fits and starts, a series of Bush administration officials — including Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Jack Goldsmith and John Bellinger — tried to rein in the excesses of the Bush-Cheney period. They didn’t win every fight, and they were prodded by court decisions and public outrage, but the gradual evolution of policy was clear.

From 2003 onward, people like Bellinger and Goldsmith were fighting against legal judgments that allowed enhanced interrogation techniques. By 2006, Rice and Hadley brought Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in from a secret foreign prison to regularize detainee procedures. In 2007, Rice refused to support an executive order reviving the interrogation program. Throughout the second Bush term, officials were trying to close Guantánamo, pleading with foreign governments to take some prisoners, begging senators to allow the transfer of prisoners onto American soil. (It didn’t occur to them that they could announce the closure of Gitmo first, then figure out what to do with prisoners.)

Cheney and Obama might pretend otherwise, but it wasn’t the Obama administration that halted the practice of waterboarding. It was a succession of C.I.A. directors starting in March 2003, even before a devastating report by the C.I.A. inspector general in 2004.

When Cheney lambastes the change in security policy, he’s not really attacking the Obama administration. He’s attacking the Bush administration. In his speech on Thursday, he repeated in public a lot of the same arguments he had been making within the Bush White House as the policy decisions went more and more the other way.

The inauguration of Barack Obama has simply not marked a dramatic shift in the substance of American anti-terror policy. It has marked a shift in the public credibility of that policy.

In the first place, it is absurd to say this administration doesn’t take terrorism seriously. Obama has embraced the Afghan surge, a strategy that was brewing at the end of the Bush years. He has stepped up drone activity in Pakistan. He has promoted aggressive counterinsurgency fighters and racked up domestic anti-terror accomplishments.

As for the treatment of terror suspects, Jack Goldsmith has a definitive piece called “The Cheney Fallacy” online at The New Republic. He lists a broad range of policies — Guantánamo, habeas corpus, military commissions, rendition, interrogation and so on. He shows how, in most cases, the Obama policy represents a continuation of or a gradual evolution from the final Bush policy.

What Obama gets, and what President Bush never got, is that other people’s opinions matter. Goldsmith puts it well: “The main difference between the Obama and Bush administrations concerns not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging. The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation. The Obama administration, by contrast, is intensely focused on these issues.”

Obama has taken many of the same policies Bush ended up with, and he has made them credible to the country and the world. In his speech, Obama explained his decisions in a subtle and coherent way. He admitted that some problems are tough and allow no easy solution. He treated Americans as adults, and will have won their respect.

Do I wish he had been more gracious with and honest about the Bush administration officials whose policies he is benefiting from? Yes. But the bottom line is that Obama has taken a series of moderate and time-tested policy compromises. He has preserved and reformed them intelligently. He has fit them into a persuasive framework. By doing that, he has not made us less safe. He has made us more secure.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Miles Ahead

    Just for some levity...John Yoo, another mouthpiece for Cheney, and Mr. Torture is a-okay, recently got hired at the Philadelphia <i>Inquirer</i>. Here was Stephen Colbert's explanation, in retort to the <i>Inquirer</i>'s Harold Jackson:

    <blockquote>"Harold Jackson, the paper's editorial page editor defended the decision saying, "There was a conscious effort on our part to counter some of the criticism of 'The Inquirer' as being a knee-jerk liberal publication. We made a conscious effort to add some conservative voices to our mix."

    As Colbert explains the only two conservatives available were Yoo and a member of the Spanish Inquisition.</blockquote>

  • Guest - Stanley W. Rogouski

    <i>Cheney and Obama might pretend otherwise, but it wasn’t the Obama administration that halted the practice of waterboarding. It was a succession of C.I.A. directors starting in March 2003, even before a devastating report by the C.I.A. inspector general in 2004.


    But it was also the pressure put on the establishment by the massive anti-war protests in 2002 and 2003 that broke the consensus for torture and orange alert hysteria.

  • Guest - Stanley W. Rogouski

    <i>The inauguration of Barack Obama has simply not marked a dramatic shift in the substance of American anti-terror policy. It has marked a shift in the public credibility of that policy.


    I think it's probably a good idea to talk about "the Obama campaign" from "the Obama administration."

    The "Obama campaign" was a partly a corporate marketing campaign. But it was also partly a grassroots mobilization from a center/left perspective.

    I live in suburbia. Until the Obama campaign, the only visible political statements were right wing and I mean very right ring. Black POW Flags. 911 Terrorist Hunting Permits. Protect the Unborn Bumper Stickers. Lots of reactionary shit and this is multicultural New Jersey not the south.

    But after 2007 and 2008, you started to see a lot of Obama bumper stickers, signs, t-shirts. It was a way of "coming out" as a progressive in the deepest, blackest heart of suburbia and letting everybody know who everybody was.

    I think the huge crowds Obama drew spooked the far right. Remember, most people aren't Marxists or Naderites and they don't see large crowds at Obama rallies and say "look at all those Democratic Party stooges." I think they provided an intimidation factor that made the Republicans forget about trying to Diebald this one.

    On the other hand, "the Obama administration" will be Clinton II. Nothing to see here.

  • Guest - reali

    It's really hard to convey to white people what Obama means. No amount of political understanding or movement participation can translate this perhaps. I walk down the street and feel better about myself. I feel more confident. I truly imagine that people-whites, asians, latinos, whoever-see me differently. Do you have any idea what that means? What is means to my little cousins? But it's not real! It's still imperialism. Yeah yeah yeah yeah. This is true. And it's not. It is different. It means something for Black people. I even look at me and all of us differently. New Democracy? Dunno. But until people start really communicating and at least attempting to acknowledge what Black folks are experiencing..I just can't get with you, this. And please don't paint me with the dismissal of nationalist or identity politicist (made that up). I have something to say. i have feel and know something. And it is valid.

  • Guest - nando

    Thanks for writing this.

    No one here will "paint" you anything -- since anyone with a brain knows that you are describing something real and deep.

    It is a very sharp contradiction -- that this election "means" something profound to Black people (as you say), and yet this is still imperialism (as you also say). And so it "means" all kinds of things internationally (in terms of a reboot for the U.S. strategic moves, in terms of international illusions etc.)

    thanks for writing so powerfully -- in ways that give us a chance to deal with this contradiction, and these broadly felt experiences.

  • Guest - orinda

    Hey Reali,
    Some white people do get it. I've never heard liberal white people taking about "loving" a candidate or president the way they do Obama. Sure, a lot of them ignore the stuff they don't want to see or just aren't that aware of U.S. foreign policy in places like Palestine. I live in a small city with a large Black population and people of all races were out having massive street parties on Election Night, celebrating and getting drunk. Black people I work with talk proudly about "my President." While I don't agree with that completely I do think it makes a difference that a Black man was elected. I don't know what his real principles are but he has does some things to reverse Bush's policy like immediately lifting the gag rule. He seems to really want to do something about healthcare for all. Even if he wants to end U.S. imperialism, he wouldn't be allowed to. If he wants to accomplish some good he's going to have to do some really bad things too. Unless the political climate changes drastically in this country, that's what we're looking at for the immediate future.
    I'm personally not optimistic that we're going have a sizeable revolutionary movement here anytime soon. But even though everyone can predict the future, getting it right is the hard part. Things will be different next year, I have no idea if it will be for better or worse.

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