Continuity We Can Believe In
WILLIAM KRISTOL / New York Times 12jan2009
Barack Obama made news Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”: The White House dog will likely be a Labradoodle or a Portuguese water dog.
I’ve got to say I’m a little disappointed. These are nice, friendly, generally obedient breeds (or in the case of the Labradoodle, a crossbreed). But what a missed opportunity! Obama could have made a bolder, edgier choice, like a mini-Australian shepherd. I happen to know one well. He’s very smart, a bit neurotic, devoted to his master (if sometimes confused about whether he or the master is the master), and always looking for people to herd. A mini-Aussie would have fit right into a White House populated by Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, Joe Biden et al. Instead, Obama’s going with a no-drama canine alternative.
And he seems to be going for the no-dramatic-change-in-policy-in-the-White-House alternative as well. Consider Obama’s reaction when George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Dick Cheney counseling Obama not to implement his campaign rhetoric until he’s fully briefed on the details of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy.
“I think that was pretty good advice, which is I should know what’s going on before we make judgments and that we shouldn’t be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric. So I’ve got no quibble with that particular quote,” said Obama. Usually, presidents pretend their campaign positions are more than “campaign rhetoric.” Not Obama.
Obama did note that he differs with Cheney on “some things that we know happened,” including waterboarding. And he did reiterate his pledge to close Guantánamo. But he warned that it was “more difficult than I think a lot of people realize,” explaining that while he was committed to the rule of law, he wasn’t interested “in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.”
And at one point he returned, unbidden, to the much-maligned vice president, commenting, “I thought that Dick Cheney’s advice was good.”
Perhaps the president-elect was just being polite. Or perhaps he just enjoys torturing (metaphorically!) some of his previously most ardent supporters who want Dick Cheney tried as a war criminal.
In fact, Stephanopoulos asked about that. He pointed to a popular question on Obama’s Web site about whether he’ll appoint a special prosecutor to investigate “the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.” Obama stipulated that no one should be above the law. But he praised C.I.A. employees, and said he didn’t want them “looking over their shoulders and lawyering.” He took the general view “that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.”
With respect to the Middle East, Obama didn’t even say we’d gotten much wrong in the past. Asked by Stephanopoulos whether his policy would build on Bush’s or would be a clean break, Obama answered, “if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach.” So: No break.
Meanwhile, the Obama transition team’s chief national security spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, was denying a press report that Obama’s advisers were urging him to initiate low-level or clandestine contacts with Hamas as a prelude to change in policy. Anderson told The Jerusalem Post that the story wasn’t accurate, and reminded one and all that Obama “has repeatedly stated that he believes that Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and that we should not deal with them until they recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements.”
On Iran, Obama did say he’d be taking “a new approach,” that “engagement is the place to start” with “a new emphasis on being willing to talk.” But he also reminded Stephanopoulos that the Iranian regime is exporting terrorism through Hamas and Hezbollah and is “pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” He said his willingness to talk would be combined with “clarity about what our bottom lines are” — one of them presumably being, as he’s said before, no Iranian nuclear weapons. And he demonstrated a sense of urgency — “we anticipate that we’re going to have to move swiftly in that area.”
So: After talks with Iran (if they happen) fail to curb Iran’s nuclear program, but (perhaps) impress other nations with our good faith, we’ll presumably get greater international support for sanctions. That will also (unfortunately) fail to deter Iran. “Engagement is the place to start,” Obama said, but it’s not likely to be the place Obama ends. He’ll end up where Bush is — with the choice of using force or acquiescing to the idea of a nuclear Iran.
And he’ll probably be calling Dick Cheney for advice.