On wiretaps and drone strikes, it’s time for liberals to accept that Obama is worse than Bush

On questions of “US national security”, from wiretaps to Gitmo to drone strikes, Barack Obama has shown his thinking is even less unenlightened than that of the junior Bush. And liberals everywhere better accept that.

Barack Obama is not George W Bush,” the liberal French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy told me in a recent interview for al-Jazeera. “Everybody knows that.”

Until a few years ago, “everybody” included Edward Snowden. The 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant, responsible for one of the biggest intelligence leaks in US history, first considered “exposing government secrets” back in 2008, according to the Guardian, and then chose not to because “the election of Barack Obama . . . gave him hope that there would be real reforms, rendering disclosures unnecessary”.

But then the intelligence analyst, like the rest of us, “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in” and as a result he “got hardened”.

After the NSA surveillance scandal, which comes hot on the heels of allegations that the Obama administration spied extensively on the Fox News reporter James Rosen and secretly wiretapped the offices of the Associated Press, it isn’t just Snowden who has been “hardened”.

In the US, the Huffington Post splashed on an image of Obama morphing into George W Bush, an image first used on the cover of the New Statesman in 2009. The president “finds himself in Bush territory”, said the Obama-supporting Washington Post. Here in the UK, the Guardian’s Americanophile-in-chief, Jonathan Freedland, labelled the president “George W Obama”.

How times change. “In the field of counterterrorism and on the issue of executive power as a whole, Obama has distressingly begun to resemble George W Bush,” I wrote in this magazine in October 2009 under the headline “Barack W Bush”. Ten months in to the president’s first term, Obamania was still in full flow and my piece was received in liberal circles with a mix of ridicule, scorn and outrage.

Claiming that Obama was “nothing like his predecessor”, Ken Gude, vice-president of the pro-Obama Centre for American Progress, mocked me for having “unrealistic expectations” of the US president. That has been the standard defence from Obama apologists in the past five years. It’s not Barack’s fault that his “fucking retarded” critics on the left (to quote the former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel), who “ought to be drugtested” (to quote the president’s former press spokesman Robert Gibbs), hold him to unfairly high standards.

I guess we shouldn’t have taken it seriously when Senator Obama claimed in 2005 that President Bush’s Patriot Act “seriously jeopardises the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for”. We shouldn’t have listened when he pledged to end the “illegal wiretapping of American citizens” in August 2007. We should have put our hands over our ears in November that year when we heard Candidate Obama, on the campaign trail, outlining his plan to “lead by example” on human rights and civil liberties. “That’s easy,” he said. “Close down Guantanamo. Restore habeas corpus. Say no to renditions. Say no to wireless wiretaps.”

Nor should we have expected a professor of constitutional law to respect a constitutional right to privacy (or, for that matter, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to opt for diplomacy over drones).

These were unrealistic expectations. We should have assumed the worst. We should have predicted that Obama would not just continue where Bush left off but – astonishingly and shamelessly – go far beyond Dubbya in several respects.

Consider the row over mass surveillance. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone,” Snowden told the Guardianon 9 June. “I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.” On Fox News on the same day, Bush’s former NSA director Michael Hayden confirmed that the agency’s surveillance programme had indeed “expanded” under Obama, adding that “there is incredible continuity between the two presidents”.

Second, Obama authorised six times as many drone strikes in his first term in office as Bush did over two terms. Dubbya had terror suspects detained and even tortured; Barack just has them bumped off.

Third, Obama has sanctioned the extrajudicial killing – again, by drone strike – of four US citizens since 2009. Where is the liberal outcry? The Bush administration killed the Buffalo-born Kamal Derwish in 2002 – but claimed he was collateral damage and, to be fair, never claimed the legal right to assassinate Americans in the way that the Obama administration has done, with its Orwellian “kill lists” and “secret panels”.

Fourth, on war powers. Senator Obama told the Boston Globe in December 2007 that “the president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorise a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”. Yet President Obama took the United States into war with Libya in 2011 even though Colonel Gaddafi posed zero threat to the security of the US. Despite his imperial pretensions, Bush allowed Congress to vote on the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan; on Libya, Obama didn’t bother to ask.

The US president is cool, calm and mediasavvy. But presidents must be judged by their policies, not their personalities. And, seen from a liberal perspective, US national security policies aren’t pretty. Don’t take my word for it. Just think about the verdict of the former Bush press spokesman Ari Fleischer, who gleefully wrote on Twitter after Snowden’s NSA revelations: “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. [Obama] is carrying out Bush’s 4th term.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crosspostedHis new interview series on Al Jazeera English, "Head To Head", airs on Fridays at 9pm.

Barack Obama and George W Bush at the dedication of the George W Bush Presidential Library in April 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit