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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.