Obama After Bush: Leading by Second Thought
President Obama’s decisions this week to retain important elements of the Bush-era system for trying terrorism suspects and to block the release of pictures showing abuse of American-held prisoners abroad are the most graphic examples yet of how he has backtracked, in substantial if often nuanced ways, from the approach to national security that he preached as a candidate, and even from his first days in the Oval Office.
Mr. Obama’s opening gambits as president were bold declarations of new directions, from announcing the closing of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to sweeping restrictions on interrogation techniques. He advertised both as a return to traditional American values, after the diversions taken by George W. Bush to the detriment of America’s image abroad and of itself.
But as he showed this week in the way he dealt with those two hard cases, Mr. Obama has begun to scale back. Faced with the choice of signaling an unambiguous break with the policies of the Bush era, or maintaining some continuity with its practices, the president has begun to come down on the side of taking fewer risks with security, even though he is clearly angering the liberal elements of his political base.
But the bottom line is that Mr. Obama’s course corrections have real-life consequences. Mr. Bush kept saying that he wanted to close Guantánamo Bay but could not find an effective replacement for it. So he never acted. Mr. Obama began with that action, and now discovers it is more difficult to accomplish than it seemed a few months ago.