Should Elections Shape National Security Policy?

Obama campaigned against the Bush approach to fighting terrorism. We elected him. Does he owe us follow through?

In the clip above, neoconservative David Frum and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald conduct a riveting argument about the War on Terrorism. They share these beliefs: 1) the September 11 attacks caused Republicans and Democrats alike to conceive of anti-terrorism as war rather than a matter of criminal justice; 2) Election 2004 marked the arrival of the Democratic Party's dissent from that paradigm -- a core John Kerry assertion was that terrorists should be treated like criminals; 3) In 2008, the Democratic Party and its standard bearer, Barack Obama, denounced various Bush Administration anti-terrorism policies in the strongest language imaginable; 4) Since taking office, President Obama has embraced many of the very policies he once denounced, and most Democrats haven't objected anywhere near as forcefully as they once did.

What these men disagree about is whether this "bipartisan national security state" is a good thing. Greenwald insists that Obama's campaign rhetoric and subsequent victory obligates him to follow through. "When a presidential candidate stands up and repeatedly says that our counter-terrorism policy is a fundamental betrayal of our values," he argued, "that it requires fundamental change; that I intend to reverse it all and restore who America is, what our values are, and the rule of law; and to eliminate these policies, and close Guantanamo, and no longer hold people without due process, and no longer treat this as some kind of global battlefield, but instead to do it in comportment with our values and our legal principles -- that becomes a covenant between him and the American people, and when he violates it that's a bad thing."

Frum disagrees. Obama and his supporters issued their blistering critique, he says. "And then they won, and decided that the people who they used to think were sullying the fine name of the United States may have had a point after all. What you see as a tragedy -- the Democrats falling away from their positions of 2004 -- may be maturation. Maybe the things John Kerry was saying in 2004 were irresponsible, unconsidered, and driven by the needs of his anguished base. Now the Democrats have elected a president. They've elected a Congress. They've looked at the situation. They had to make the decisions. There were some things about the Bush-Cheney policy they didn't like as it existed in 2002 or 2003... and looking at the Bush-Cheney policy from 2007 or 2008, they think it basically laid down some positive tracks. I tend to think of this as American government working. This is the feature, not the bug."

In this telling, the Bush Administration panicked a bit in 2002 and 2003, then course corrected -- and candidate Obama overshot in his rhetoric, then course corrected himself upon entering the White House. And what if candidate Obama was in fact right, Greenwald retorts, but was just too inept, cowardly, or unprincipled to follow through on the campaign promises that he made?

If Obama is scared of following through on his pledges, Frum replies, it's because he knows that by doing so, he'd put himself on the wrong side of the American people. Thus it makes no sense to say that he has broken a covenant with the electorate by breaking campaign promises. "Give him credit for knowing his business," Frum says. "Maybe he is someone who got elected and said, 'That due process for terrorists stuff was fine in the primary, but it hurt me in the general. I was elected because the economy was terrible... and people wanted health care.'"

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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