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Bush policies still alive in Obama White House

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2013

President Obama came into office promising to be the opposite of George W. Bush, but after nearly five years as commander in chief, his policies are more like his Republican predecessor than he would care to acknowledge.

From drone strikes in foreign countries to the troop surge in Afghanistan to drawing up legal justification for killing U.S. citizens abroad, Mr. Obama's administration has embraced and even expanded on some of Mr. Bush's more controversial programs.

"The policies that have produced successes in the foreign arena have been policies where he has stuck the closest to the Bush legacy," said Peter Feaver, who was a national security aide to Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush will share a stage Thursday at the dedication of the Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It's their first public meeting since Mr. Obama's re-election campaign, in which he frequently blamed Mr. Bush's stewardship — especially on economic policy — even four years after Mr. Bush left office.

The two men show no outward signs of friction, perhaps because they belong to an exclusive club. (The three other living former presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, also will attend the dedication.) In May 2012, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Bush for his service when the Republican's official portrait was unveiled at the White House, saying he had gained a deeper appreciation of the burdens faced by Mr. Bush and their predecessors, adding, "We all want America to succeed."

Doubling down on drones

If there is a holdover Bush policy that Mr. Obama has seized with both hands, it is the use of drone missile strikes to kill terrorist suspects overseas. The Obama administration has greatly expanded the covert program, essentially replacing a "boots on the ground" approach to fighting terrorists with a strategy that rains death instantaneously and unseen from the air.

The Bush administration began using drone strikes in 2004 and had launched a total of 49 by the time Mr. Bush left office in early 2009, according to the New America Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington. Of those strikes, 48 were in Pakistan and one was in Yemen, and they killed as many as 356 militants.

Under Mr. Obama, through mid-April, the U.S. has launched another 379 drone strikes — nearly eight times more than the Bush administration. Of those attacks, 72 occurred in Yemen. As many as 2,895 militants have been killed on Mr. Obama's watch, according to the foundation, including nearly 1,000 in Yemen.

The foundation said as many as 368 civilians have been killed by the U.S. in the drone war, including up to 233 during Mr. Obama's administration.

"President Obama has used many of the tools that the Bush administration and previous administrations developed against al Qaeda, particularly including the drones, to strike at places where it was difficult to get U.S. troops or commandos," said James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Feaver, now a professor at Duke University, said Mr. Obama "has taken a modest program that he inherited from the Bush administration and ratcheted it up."

Flexibility cited

While the president and his national security aides don't discuss the drone program, they have said Mr. Obama's strategy against al Qaeda is more targeted than those of previous administrations, while the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's war on terrorism was the invasion of Iraq and a seven-year war in which nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed and more than 22,000 were wounded.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Mr. Obama's National Security Council, said the president has directed America's principal counterterrorism focus "on the network that poses the most direct and significant threat to the United States: al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its adherents."

"The president responsibly ended a war in Iraq and intensified our focus on the important work of defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan," she said in an email. "Rather than pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach, the Obama administration relies on flexibility and precision, applying the right tools in the right way and under the right circumstances to ensure the outcome furthers our national security interests."

The increased use of drones provoked an outcry among libertarians and liberals in Congress this spring during the confirmation of CIA Director John O. Brennan about the need for clearer guidelines in the drone war. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, filibustered Mr. Brennan's nomination until Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. stated that drones could not be used to kill noncombatant U.S. citizens on American soil.

Hawks, meanwhile, applauded Mr. Obama's aggressive pursuit of the Bush drone policy.

"People are astonished that President Obama is doing many of the things that President Bush did," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. "I'm not astonished. I congratulate him for having the good judgment to understand we're at war."

Terrorism cases

Yet Mr. Obama has taken a softer approach toward the handling of captured terrorism suspects such as 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a Boston Marathon bombing suspect who has been charged in federal court instead of being treated as an enemy combatant, as some conservatives have urged.

Mr. Carney said the administration had no choice because Tsarnaev is a U.S. citizen, and said hundreds of terrorism suspects have been prosecuted successfully in civilian courts since 2001.

Some critics accuse the Obama administration of downplaying the role of Islamist radicalization in attacks on U.S. soil, saying the FBI is turning a blind eye to religious motivations. For example, the Obama administration has labeled as "workplace violence" the attack by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 that killed 13 people and wounded 30 others, despite emails linking the Muslim major to leading al Qaeda figures.

Other Obama terrorism policies invite comparisons to Mr. Bush, but some have major differences. Both presidents have tried unsuccessfully to close the detention center for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The center opened during the Bush administration, and Mr. Obama campaigned on a pledge to shut it down.

The Obama administration issued a secret legal memo authorizing the killings of American terrorism suspects overseas, which some compared to the Bush administration's legal memo justifying harsh interrogation techniques. As a candidate for president, Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Bush for "an unacceptable abuse of power."

Mr. Obama came into office pledging to end the war in Iraq, which he did, and to withdraw troops gradually from Afghanistan, which he also is doing. But he did order a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009, which brought more comparisons to the surge that Mr. Bush ordered in Iraq in 2007.

The foreign-policy crisis in which Mr. Obama probably differs most from Mr. Bush is in Syria. As he has worked to end two wars, Mr. Obama has resisted all calls to send troops or military aid to help anti-government rebels fighting the Damascus regime of Bashar Assad in the 2-year-old civil war. Instead, the president has focused on providing humanitarian aid for refugees and has exerted diplomatic pressure to try to force Mr. Assad to step down.

"He's clearly trying to be the anti-Bush," Mr. Feaver said.

Domestic similarities

Domestically, there are a few parallels between Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush. Both have presided over a dramatic increase in the national debt, though the rise has been steeper under Mr. Obama. As a candidate, Mr. Obama said Mr. Bush was "irresponsible" and "unpatriotic" for borrowing so much.

Mr. Obama has defended some of his increased annual deficits as necessary to recover from the severe recession that began under Mr. Bush, and Mr. Obama also has raised taxes as part of his stated plan to lower deficits in his second term. He is trying to raise more tax revenue; congressional Republicans are resisting.

That impasse brings up another similarity between Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama: Both presidents came into the White House promising to solve the hostile partisanship of Washington. Both men failed.

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