It has become somewhat common for disaffected but casual observers of politics to refer to President Obama as being “worse than Bush.” This sentiment was the subject of Gary Younge’s Guardian article, titled Is Obama Worse Than Bush? That’s Beside the Point. In it, he contrasts Campaign Obama, who once said:
“This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. it is not…This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”
And President Obama, who retorted:
“You can’t have 100% security and then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices.”
Suddenly, it seems, Obama developed a nuanced view on the issue of compromised civil liberties to defend against non-state combatants. Younge notes that politicians contradicting themselves and “evolving” on issues is not new, although Obama has committed a full flip-flop by becoming the very thing he campaigned against. It seems that most observers, Younge included, believe that Obama shifted on the issue when faced with the realities of being the President of the still-most-militarily-and-economically-powerful country in the world.
Younge’s key argument is that those who say Obama is worse than Bush on civil liberties are missing the point, which is that US presidents are so constrained by political realities that they are functionally similar in foreign policy. This is similar to the neorealist notion that the particularities of leadership should not matter for attempting to explain foreign policy, that the pressures of the international system result in states that behave similarly regardless of leadership (Waltz 1979). In effect, the domain of international politics is devoid of agency. It is structure all the way down.
This denial of agency seems to have the potential to excuse Obama of any moral responsibility in the foreign policy domain. After all, he was marketed as a champion of the most politically disempowered: the general American public. His election was advertised as a triumph of a healthily functioning democracy, of the rejection of a failed past policy. Indeed, one of the presumable functions of democracy is to allow the public to signal their desire for broad changes in policy direction. While it would not have been reasonable to expect Obama to be a saint on issues like NSA spying and whistleblowers, it would have been fair to expect him to be at least marginally less aggressive than his predecessor.
Instead, as Younge says, what Bush pursued and accomplished with great fanfare, Obama has done with stealth. And this is one of the very reasons that there has been a strong reaction against Obama from within his own base. While those of us who rallied against Bush thought that he was the worst president of our times, we knew who we were dealing with. Bush was relatively open about his intentions and resolve, and unashamedly swaggered in his “bring ‘em on” cowboy attitude. Today with Obama, we have a president who is charming, eloquent, and intellectual, who waxes progressive on all of the key issues he is expected to: from gay marriage to environmental protection. But issues of foreign policy, Obama has stripped the cowboy rhetoric but retained the draconian substance.
So in this respect, it seems that it is Younge who has missed the point. The question we should ask is whether or not Obama is actually so constrained by the realities of his office that he had no choice but to escalate Bush’s post-9/11 policies. This escalation would presume that Bush would have also done the same had he continued to be president from 2008 onward. If this is the case, we would have no choice but to forgive his deviation from the pacifist path he espoused. Perhaps even despite Obama’s apparent escalation of Bush’s policies, it is still less aggressive than (thank goodness) hypothetical third and fourth Bush terms.
If we are not to explain Obama’s foreign policy through a structuralist lens, we are left with an agential one which says that Obama had the opportunity to roll back Bush-era policies, and instead chose to escalate them despite his campaign promises. Of course, the social world is never purely structure or agent driven. The truth lies somewhere in between. There are certainly political realities Obama was not prepared for when he assumed office, faced with potentially hostile state and non-state aggressors who might seek to do harm to the United States. He may certainly have had the desire, first and foremost, to protect US citizens and interests (however we may define a national interest). On the other hand, he knew that he was elected by a public that through electing him said fairly clearly: “we’d like to roll the dice on living in this dangerous world with our civil liberties intact.”
If we are to accept Younge’s argument that all US presidents would behave the same once assuming office, we essentially cant take any campaign promise regarding foreign policy seriously. Not only that, we absolve all presidents of any responsibility by saying that their behavior was dictated by political realities, whatever they may be. But the fact is that there is no objective political reality. Whether the world we live in is too dangerous to allow for civil liberties is truly in the eye of the executive beholder, and we must hold Presidents responsible for their foreign policy choices. Failing to do so would constitute not only a denial of agency, but also a denial of moral responsibility in a domain where politicians are supposed to respond to electoral mandates.