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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.