Some of the commentary on Obama’s speech yesterday (this morning’s David Brooks column, for instance) has argued that whatever he might say, Obama is basically retaining the prior administration’s policies in the war on terror, so defenders of those policies shouldn’t react so harshly to his descriptions and insults.
It is true that on the whole Obama is retaining the substance of the Bush administration’s policies even as he criticizes them. But policy is not just a set of rules worked out in the abstract and expressed precisely in careful legal language on a piece of paper. Policy is also the activity of thousands of government officials, guided by instructions from above but expressed in countless small judgments and decisions. There is a big difference between telling the public servants in question here that they have been teetering on the edge of becoming war criminals for the past eight years and the new president has come to rescue them from their sins, and telling them that they are doing the crucial work of defending America and their president has their back. Obama must think the policies and practices he has retained are legal, and even appropriate and sensible, or he wouldn’t have retained them. But the hypocrisy of his method of retaining them—describing them as part of a pattern of lawless inhumanity and then keeping them in place under a different name—is bound to have a very significant effect on the judgments and inclinations of those who carry them out, and on the larger intelligence community more generally, making them far less inclined to exercise their authority to its fullest extent. That effect is itself an important policy change, and not for the better.