Obama Embraced ‘Endless Wars.’ Biden Probably Will, TooRoundup
tags: foreign policy, war on terror, American imperialism
Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce professor of jurisprudence and professor of history at Yale University, and a fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
A president sweeps into office, promising to turn the page on an era of horror and recrimination. In foreign policy, he can redeem the United States’ promise, reversing a great country’s fall into temporary iniquity. He deserves every bit of the credit for genuine improvement. And yet, the very hostility the previous administration earned cloaks the leader of the new one with extra immunity from scrutiny: It provides a space in which, amid complacent uplift, many continuities in policy are established. A chance is missed to examine what actually went wrong and to debate how to put things right.
Yes, revisiting the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009 provides an excellent vantage from which to pose questions and express worries about the foreign policy of President Biden as he begins his term.
There are, of course, many disparities between the two moments. Obama’s fairy-tale candidacy for his first term in 2008 bears no similarity to the nerve-racking experience of seeing American democracy challenged during and after the 2020 presidential election. And in part because of his advanced age compared to his onetime boss, Biden stands less for innovation than restoration — albeit restoration of the promise of American life that the youthful Obama incarnated.
It was also not clear in the early phase of Obama’s presidency, as seems obvious today, that the immorality and rot that confronted Obama had as much to do with our dysfunctional domestic politics as with a misbegotten war and the unsavory overseas practices to which George W. Bush and his administration had stooped — epitomized by the illicit torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the offshore U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Yet it is precisely the choices Obama made as he sought to “reset” the U.S. war against terrorism that are illustrative of our current situation. For all of Obama’s talk about reversing the policies of his predecessor, it dawned agonizingly slowly on an expectant world that there were going to be profound continuities in wartime policies. In 2021, once again showy reorientation — including, crucially, in foreign policy — could easily mask too much substantive resilience.
After sighs of relief that he won handily enough to avoid the bitter controversy that attended Bush’s election to the highest office, Obama spent his earliest hours as president marking lines between profane vice and restored virtue — just as Biden has been doing. Obama never went as far as some demanded in providing accountability, including for outright crimes such as torture. Still, Obama’s pledge of change worked like a heady elixir of national redemption. Obama, too, declared that “America is back” — a phrase Biden has now made his own, including in his debut foreign policy speech Feb. 4. Both promised a nation once again exemplary for the world, in the familiar position to which it is predestined. The excesses of some Americans are glaring, both acknowledged, but do not reflect “who we are” (one of Obama’s favorite phrases) as a people.
No wonder our new president has been celebrated for using executive orders, from Day One, to make a clean break and impose moral limits. The most notable contained former president Donald Trump’s indecent border enforcement and lifted his racist travel ban. Executive order as moral hygiene was Obama’s approach, too. On Jan. 20, 2009, Obama banned torture — although it had not really been practiced for years — and we understandably cheered the cleansing of the nation’s most horrendous stain. “Obama consigned to history the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror,’ ” New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer commented the first week of the new age, as the nation moved from the “dark side” back into the light. Such relief captured the sensibilities of many who cared most about the restoration of a taboo after a bout of sacrilege. Obama famously won an unexpected and unwanted Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009 for the change the world believed he was bringing.
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