President Obama Owes George W. Bush an Apology

If his predecessor's wartime policies were so bad, why is President Obama continuing and expanding them?

A little embarrassingly now, the last time I remember putting on a tie was on Inauguration Day 2009. I didn’t go anywhere special—just the office—but after eight years of George W. Bush, the inauguration of Barack Obama seemed portentous. After years of war (and a year of increasingly terrifying economic news) the ascendance of our first African-American president seemed to hold out the promise of good things, at last, to come.

I watched President Obama on a computer in my office. I saw him take the oath, and then I saw him spend much of his inauguration basically spitting in his predecessor’s eye—all while that predecessor sat there on the dais, forced by tradition and protocol to just take it.

I kind of loved it.

President Obama’s Surveillance State

This is the last (really!) in a series of three columns about President Obama and civil liberties. Earlier entries on the topic can be found here and here.

And as somebody who hated things like warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, torture, indefinite detention and all the other hallmarks of war under President Bush, it thrilled me to hear the new president utter these words:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our Founding Fathers—(applause)—our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man—a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

I thought I knew what those words meant at the time. Yes, then-Sen. Obama had just a few months previously voted to give telecommunications companies immunity from lawsuits for their roles in the warrantless wiretapping roles. Yes, I was worried about what that meant. But mostly, I trusted Obama’s rhetoric and what it seemed to signify: No more Gitmo, a more targeted program of surveillance, and end to endless war. (The whole world understood the same thing: It was why President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize just a few months into his first term of office.) Everybody knew what “Hope and Change” meant: I’m not the old guy. The old guy sucks.

Patrick Radden Keefe sums up the disconnect in The New Yorker:

Obama built his political identity as a national leader on revulsion at the excesses of the Bush years. Yet, from warrantless wiretapping and torture to dodgy intelligence in Iraq, he knew the full extent of those excesses because of unauthorized disclosures to the press. Without leaks, Barack Obama might never have been elected to begin with.

Right. Which is why I now believe something that would’ve appalled me five years ago:

President Obama owes George W. Bush an apology.

Face-to-face, if possible. And it should be delivered publicly, so that Americans can fully understand what has changed during the last five years.

Understand, there have been changes from the Bush years in America’s approach to threats from abroad. There is—I trust—no more torture being used against terror suspects. We’re not invading countries on flimsy pretexts. And hey, at least we’re getting court approval for our massive wiretapping programs these days.

The differences are real. So are the similarities. Gitmo still exists. We’re still enmeshed in dozens of tiny wars around the world that could produce blowback against Americans. (Think Yemen or Pakistan, among them. ) We know now that President Obama reserves the right to assassinate “enemy” Americans abroad. And as we’ve seen the last week, massive surveillance still exists.

This is not what civil libertarians expected. It’s not what anybody, either the president’s friends or foes, expected. (Though, apparently, much of the country doesn’t care that much.)

It can’t be what George W. Bush, who had to sit and listen as he was offered up as a sacrifice to the war-weary crowds, expected either.

It may be that President Obama has learned that the threats against America are too persistent and too dangerous to choose a different direction. I’m skeptical. But if that’s the case, he owes Americans an explanation of why he has changed—and an apology to Bush for using him as a scapegoat for so long. It’s not the politically wise thing to do, perhaps. It would, however, be the right thing to do.