The Obama Doctrine?

How helpful are last night's Obama/Bush comparisons? Not very.

In the flurry of reactions to Obama’s Afghanistan speech, we’re seeing a lot pieces like this: “Echoes of Bush in Obama’s Speech.” And this: “How Obama’s Surge Is Like Bush’s.” And this: “George W. Obama or Barack H. Bush?” And this: “Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy Copies Obama’s Surge.” The basic logic being: Obama, in his Afghanistan strategy, is acting like George W. Bush.

The ‘Just Like Bush’ charge is, of course, a common conceit—or, more cynically, a common talking point—among progressive media figures. The idea being, apparently, that comparison to Bush the Younger is pretty much the worst insult that can be leveled at a fellow president/politician/human. And it’s a comparison that was exacerbated last night, in particular, by the fact that Obama delivered his Afghanistan strategy speech at the same storied institution—West Point—where, in 2002, President Bush articulated his own strategy for a U.S. presence in the country. Where, specifically, Bush declared—in a line heard ‘round the world save for Wasilla, Alaska: “Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”

Yet while the Bush comparo-accusations may pack a rhetorical punch from the partisan perspective…they’re incredibly unhelpful from the journalistic one. Last night’s news coverage, at its best, added nuance and context and a sense of consequence to the statecraft and stagecraft that was Obama’s articulation of his war strategy. But reductive ‘just like Bush’ arguments anchor us in the past, rather than focusing on the present—and they mislead by suggesting a whole slew of subsidiary Bush/Obama comparisons that simply aren’t borne out by reality. They do a lot to disdain; they do little to explain. And audiences, last night—particularly given the myriad complexities of the situation in Afghanistan and its region—deserved the latter.

Take, for example, Rachel Maddow, who last night took the Bushbama logic a decisive step beyond that of its typical blanket Bushism. Obama’s strategy, she declared, amounts to a continuation—and a reinvigoration—of Bush’s call for “preemptive action” itself. Obama’s strategy, in other words, is part and parcel of the most defining—and infamous—aspect of the previous presidency: the Bush doctrine.

The proclamation that the United States would no longer reserve the right just to wage war against countries or forces that threatened us, but that we would wage war to stop the emergence of threats in the future…. And thus was born not only the justification for, in the name of 9/11, attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, but also the maximalist Bush doctrine concept of America at war globally, indefinitely, against anyone, at our own discretion….

It is a really radical concept if you think about it—not only about war, but about us—about America. And it may have survived the Bush presidency.… A war reborn in what the president is describing in his own image, his own strategic terms, but which is justified, fundamentally, by what sounds like the Bush doctrine….

Is the massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan announced tonight—President Obama’s own implementation of the preventive war Bush doctrine that Sarah Palin couldn’t understand and that no one’s really been able to justify—this war is not about threats to the United Stations from Afghanistan. To the extent that it is justified by preventing threats to us from emerging from Pakistan sometime in the future—that’s preventive war. That’s the Bush doctrine, in all its Orwellian extremism.

Back to Maddow in a moment—but it’s worth noting, as well, that the progressive pundit wasn’t the only one to subscribe, last night, to the “Obama doctrine” line of logic. During CNN’s speech wrap-up, Republican strategist Mary Matalin made the Obama-adopting-the-Bush-doctrine case from a different angle:

If you look at it from the big picture, essentially what this speech was, was a rehash of the Bush doctrine: we’re going to go after those who harbor terrorists, we’re not going to provide any safe haven, we’re going to beef up homeland security, we’re need to maintain a better relationship with Pakistan.

The pundits have a rather broad point. Yes, there is a preemptive quality to the Afghan strategy as articulated by Obama and as understood among the media. In the sense that the strategy involves, you know, preventing future terror attacks in the United States and protecting (yes, for the future) its interests in the region. But then: every war is preemptive in that sense: what Maddow accusatorily deems a “preemptive” strategy (preemptive—it must be Bushian!) could be understood just as easily as, you know, pragmatic policy.

The ‘preemptive war’ clause of the Bush doctrine—to the extent that the thing is officially articulated in the first place—is considered nefarious not on its face, but rather because the Bushian notion of “preemptive” war is colored by history: it is conflated with the false pretenses of the war Bush waged in Iraq. And it is connected, generally, to the broader implications of a globalized notion of manifest destiny. Which is to say: “Preemptive” has several definitions, and Obama’s and Bush’s are clearly different ones. Obama isn’t choosing to start a war, but rather negotiating with one already waged. You can’t be “preemptive” about something that already exists.

The Bush/Obama comparison, in the end, washes over the particular details (such as they were) that the president articulated in his speech last night—and ignores the many supplemental pieces of information and context and insight that other journalists, admirably, provided the public last night. “Obama: so Bushian” might make for good punditry. It doesn’t, however, make for good journalism.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.