Rachel Maddow had a segment last night taking note of the remarkably rapid increase in the pace with which actual al-Qaeda leaders have been killed by US forces since President Obama’s inauguration. It reminded me that there’s a tendency, which I think is somewhat misguided, to take all of Obama’s “hawkish” actions and fold them into a narrative about continuity with Bush administration policies since Bush was also “hawkish.” There are some real continuities, but I think this business is actually an example of discontinuity.
The difference—and I think it’s a big difference—is that the Bush administration took a very ideological view of “the war on terror.” They viewed the United States as broadly in conflict with a vast-yet-hazily-defined array of Muslim Bad Guys such that Saddam Hussein and the government of Iran were somehow part of the same problem as Osama bin Laden. The conceptual alternative to this that Obama offered (and I think you see it in early coverage of Obama’s national security thinking from Spencer Ackerman and yours truly) was to think of al-Qaeda as a specific, narrow thing that ought to be obsessively targeted and destroyed. His team viewed the Iraq War as a catastrophic distraction from that task, and also repeatedly clashed with John McCain over the need to more forcefully disregard Pakistani government views about hitting targets in Pakistan. You see in the rising body count that this all wasn’t just talk. There’s been some kind of meaningful reallocation of national resources away from Bush’s geopolitical vision in favor of a much more literal global effort to identify, locate, and kill members of al-Qaeda. This whole suite of undertakings is in significant tension with the administration’s desire to pursue a rules-based global order and if Obama asked me I’d tell him he’s tilted too far against his own big picture ideas. Still, world affairs doesn’t exist on a two-dimensional hawk/dove axis and this militaristic aspect of Obamaism should be seen as a departure from Bush’s view of the terrorism problem.