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Partisanship, Then and Now



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One of the stranger behaviors of the ever-stranger Obama administration is its sudden adoption of the “wounded fawn” posture.

No opposition was more stridently critical of a sitting president than was the anti-Bush Left. Barack Obama, as candidate and president, could not start a speech without saying “Bush did it.” And have we forgotten the 2006–08 canonization of Michael Moore, the silence about the Nazi slurs, the award-winning assassination docudramas, the Knopf novel about killing George Bush, the “General Betray Us” ad, Al Gore’s vein-bulging “brownshirts”outburst, and on and on?

But suddenly, pundits and politicians have embraced a new gospel about conciliation and the need to restrain harsh discourse — which is fine, but many of these advocates for a gentler, kinder dialogue were bomb-throwers just a few years ago.

And now we hear from none other than John Brennan, the Obama-administration counterterrorism expert, who soberly sermonizes on the lamentable politicization of the war on terror, and particularly the popular derision of the decision to treat the Christmas-day airliner plot as a normal criminal-justice matter.

But isn’t Brennan the same official who used to give loud political speeches, heralding not only the superior new Obama anti-terrorism methodology but also the failings of the Bush approach (which kept us safe for seven consecutive years)?

I seem to recall that Brennan recently characterized the former vice president as “ignorant.” And in August 2009, Brennan’s first official speech lambasted the Bush administation ad nauseam (e.g., “The fight against terrorists and violent extremists has been returned to its right and proper place: no longer defining — indeed, distorting — our entire national security and foreign policy”; “President Obama has made it clear that the United States will not be defined simply by what we are against, but by what we are for — the opportunity, liberties, prosperity, and common aspirations we share with the world”; “Rather than looking at allies and other nations through the narrow prism of terrorism — whether they are with us or against us — the administration is now engaging other countries and peoples across a broader range of areas. Rather than treating so many of our foreign affairs programs — foreign assistance, development, democracy promotion — as simply extensions of the fight against terrorists”; “We see this new approach most vividly in the president’s personal engagement with the world — his trips, his speeches, his town halls with foreign audiences”; “As many have noted, the president does not describe this as a ‘war on terrorism’”; “Likewise, the president does not describe this as a ‘global war’”; “Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against ‘jihadists.’ Describing terrorists in this way — using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal — risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve”; and so on).

In other words, Brennan himself was not content simply to continue America’s anti-terrorism protocols, or to modify them in relative silence; instead, he chose to grandstand, often in obsequious fashion, about the superiority of Obama’s revisionist approach. And when Obama’s approach proved “problematic” — with the KSM trial, the Abdulmutallab mess, the Fort Hood massacre, the continuation of tribunals and renditions, and failed promises on Guantanamo — Brennan suddenly went from hyper-partisan to nonpartisan.

Then there is the strange case of Richard Clarke. He too has deplored “the partisan rhetoric” about the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism policies: “Recent months have seen the party out of power picking fights over the conduct of our efforts against al-Qaeda, often with total disregard to the facts and frequently blowing issues totally out of proportion, while ignoring the more important challenges we face in defeating terrorists.” This surely cannot be the same Richard Clarke who in the election year 2004 came out with his partisan exposé Against All Odds, which damned the Bush administration, after earlier delighting the D.C. press corps with wild charges that George Bush had “undermined the war on terrorism.”

(Brennan and Clarke should read the third book of Thucydides on the folly of arrogantly destroying protocol and tradition, and then in dire straits seeking refuge in both.)

There is a rule of thumb with the Obama administration and its most vocal supporters: Those who loudly deplore the new partisanship and acrimony are typically those who in the past were the most partisan and acrimonious.



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