Blame Bush, Obama–or Us?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

When someone screams about a terrible policy of the present administration, just pose four questions:

First, was the controversial decision taken with bipartisan support? Second, were there precedents for such action in prior Democratic administrations? Third, will such polices continue under the newly elected Obama administration? Four, have the media changed their position on the issue since the November election?

If the answer is yes to these questions, then the acrimony was probably about politics and style, not principle and substance.

Take the so-called war on terror. The Patriot Act passed Congress in October 2001 by majorities in both parties — and was reauthorized in 2006. The original versions of the FISA wiretapping accords were enacted under the Carter administration in 1978.

Both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were given authorization by Congress. The pre-9/11 precursor for the removal of Saddam Hussein was the unanimous passage of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act — prompted by then-President Clinton’s warnings about Saddam’s dangerous weapons: “Some day, some way, I guarantee you he’ll use the arsenal.”

President-elect Barack Obama no longer believes that the controversial FISA accords should be repealed. And the retention of George Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, along with the impressive appointments of Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and former Bush Mideast envoy Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser — all of whom were in favor of removing Saddam — suggest that those who once supported the Iraq war will have more foreign policy influence in the Obama administration than those who opposed it all along.

Talk of a shredded Constitution and the need to immediately shut down Guantanamo Bay are no longer daily fare in the U.S. media — particularly after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Suddenly we have sober reflection about how to stop such a paramilitary attack here in the U.S. — and what to do about monsters in custody in Guantanamo, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed architect of 9/11.

Like it or not, radical Islamic terrorism antedated George Bush and will continue after him. And while we may lament how Bush sometimes conducted or articulated his policies, his support for beefing up homeland security, hitting terrorists hard abroad, supporting Democratic movements in the Middle East, and replacing two odious tyrannies with consensual governments once appealed to a broad number of Americans.

Because they are largely sound strategies, they will not change much under a more charismatic President Obama — who for at least a while will enjoy the benefit of the doubt when confronting the same old nasty lose/lose choices.

On the economic front, we can apply the same type of critique to the present meltdown.

The origins of our current mess were threefold: high energy costs, reckless borrowing and skyrocketing housing prices that squeezed family budgets. Promiscuous lending at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae created undue risks and increased foreclosures. The lack of proper oversight of Wall Street speculation ensured that a ripple of worry soon became a torrent of panic.

But deregulation of Wall Street finance accelerated first under Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Radical risk-taking at Freddie and Fannie was overseen by former Clinton officials and heartedly supported by Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, the chief Democratic congressional watchdogs.

The controversial Bush bailout plan will be continued — or expanded — by a President Obama. We may see Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke remain in office in the manner that Bush extended Alan Greenspan’s eight years under Clinton.

Faulting Bush for the wild climbs in oil prices to $147 a barrel would mean also praising him for reducing gas costs below $1.50 a gallon as oil in tough times crashed to less than $50 a barrel. In truth, American dependency on foreign oil and vulnerability to wild swings in price have been chronic since the first Arab embargoes over three decades ago. Note that President-elect Obama has dropped talk of a windfall-profits tax on omnipotent oil companies. Supposed energy cabals that jacked up gas prices have now morphed into clueless oil companies that can’t stop them from crashing.

Many of our unpopular policies concerning terrorism, energy and finance are of long duration. They resulted from collective decisions by Congress, past administrations — and us, the people, in our daily lives. They were no more the fault of George Bush than they can be easily solved by Barack Obama.

We should remember that fact in 2009, when the once-messianic Obama will become all too human, as he is overwhelmed by structural problems of terror, war and money not all of his own making — and the once-demonized but now retired George Bush will seem downright competent.

©2008 Tribune Media Services

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