If there was one thing the left was certain about in 2008 it was this: George W. Bush had catastrophically undermined America’s world reputation with his unprovoked aggression and use of torture. The advent of Obama would reverse the damage. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2007, among the best assets Obama brought to the “rebranding” of America was “his face.” The election of Obama and his friendly approach to the Muslim world would make the United States safer as well as more just.
No one believed this tale more fervently than Obama himself. His first official act was to direct the closing of Guantanamo Bay within one year and the elimination of harsh interrogation techniques. The “message we are sending around the world,” he intoned, “is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle … in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” In Cairo a few months later, he declared, “a new beginning” of relations between America and the Muslim world.
Obama participated in erecting a Bush straw man – a Bush who disdained and caricatured Muslims in general and committed war crimes in the name of national security. In fact, Bush had gone to great pains, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, to appear with imams and to stress that Islam was a “religion of peace.”
Because Iraq had been Bush’s war, as Obama saw it, he squandered the hard-won victory by failing to obtain an agreement that would have kept a stabilizing American force on the ground, electing instead to withdraw completely. And because Afghanistan was the war that Bush allegedly neglected, Obama sent 33,000 more troops (fewer than the generals requested) – a surge that, unlike Bush’s in Iraq – failed, but not before causing 70 percent of the American deaths in that conflict.
Most of all, the Obama administration fled from the concept of a struggle against Islamic terrorism as if fighting jihadis (the small subset of Muslims who’ve declared war on us) were equivalent to warring against all Muslims. Orwellian language flowed. The war on terror became “overseas contingency operations.” When Major Nidal Hassan gunned down his fellow soldiers shouting “Allahu Akbar!” the president warned against jumping to conclusions (a caution he failed to show himself in the Trayvon Martin and Henry Louis Gates cases). His administration later dubbed Hassan’s attack “workplace violence” rather than jihadism or terrorism.
When Faisal Shahzad attempted to explode a car bomb in Times Square, the administration at first declared it to be a lone wolf attack, only later reluctantly conceding that the Pakistani Taliban had been culpable. When the consulate in Benghazi was attacked (undermining the administration narrative that al-Qaida had died with bin Laden), the administration conducted a prolonged disinformation campaign designed to deny the obvious.
Tiptoeing through language after the Boston bombings, the administration at first declined to use the word “terror,” perhaps fearing that to use the word would imply a Muslim connection. “You use those words and it means something very specific in people’s minds,” explained David Axelrod. Besides, he continued, the president suspected “tax day” protesters.
What has this excruciating torture of the language and elaborate “rebranding” achieved? The U.S. is not safer. Terror attacks have been attempted at the same rate as during the Bush years (and have been thwarted slightly less successfully). As for U.S. standing in the Muslim world, the Guardian reports that a 2011 poll found favorability ratings for the U.S. have plummeted. “In most countries they are lower than at the end of the Bush administration, and lower than Iran’s favorable ratings.” A 2012 Pew poll of six predominantly Muslim nations – Turkey, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan – found U.S. approval ratings below those during the Bush administration and well under the popularity of China.
It’s one thing to create a bogeyman for political purposes. Obama did it to Bush in 2008 (for use against McCain), and he did it to Romney in 2012. It’s quite another to believe your own propaganda and make policy in response. Bush was no anti-Muslim bigot. If he erred, it was in believing too credulously in the readiness for Western-style democracy in the Arab world.
As for Obama, his doubletalk about the nature of our enemies – jihadis – has achieved neither greater safety for Americans nor improved popularity in the Muslim world. He’s 0 for 2.