12/7/08

Be Careful What You Wish For

Liberal bloggers have leverage. That is at least one lesson of John Brennan's withdrawal from the foreign policy arena. On the one hand, we should be proud that people with little more than an internet connection and an opinion, working tirelessly and of their own accord, can have a profound effect on American politics and policy. On the other hand, we should be sure that the effects we have are positive.

Let's look at the facts. Brennan had twenty-five years experience in the CIA, including two years experience as deputy executive director, was the first head of the National Counterterrorism Center and was a foreign policy adviser to President-elect Obama throughout the campaign. It is true that, at the very least, some of the darker policies of the past seven years cast their shadow upon him: although he has publicly disavowed waterboarding, he has said that other controversial interrogation methods provided lifesaving intelligence. But, to quote an Associated Press article, "Finding a candidate for CIA chief who has the operational experience and is politically 'clean' will be difficult." That seems like an understatement.

Frankly, although I have been and will continue to be an outspoken critic of what is euphemistically referred to as "enhanced interrogation," I don't have an opinion on Brennan. I just don't know enough. If we take him at his word, he was not involved in the decision making process that allowed for harsh interrogation techniques to be implemented. If that is the case, then it seems that a jury, not of his peers, but of semi-professional and amateur opiners and professional opinioneers turned in their verdict based on guilt by association.

As has been duly noted here and elsewhere, Barack Obama has nominated people decidedly more hawkish than the somewhat dovish platform he ran on. Is this a cause of concern? Perhaps. But while I sincerely hope that the Obama administration will fundamentally alter the course of the war, I do not believe that in order to break with Bush's policies or disavow his worldview we need to entirely de-Bushify the federal government. These decisions should be made on a case by case basis. Otherwise, we liberals will be perpetuating the very crime we accuse the Bush administration of: politicizing non-partisan aspects of the federal government by using litmus tests for appointments.

Although the analogy is fragile at best, people may wish to recall that the current situation in Iraq is largely the product of the ill-advised jettisoning of anyone and everyone who had government experience. De-Baathification was arguably the single greatest contributing factor to Iraqi civil war. De-Bushification could have a similarly adverse effect on the war on terror. To be sure, the conduct of the war up to this point has been unconscionable, but if we expel everyone who has had any experience in the war, we will be forced to start from scratch. Instead, it would be better to appoint experienced personnel and then provide them with leadership.

Are we afraid that Obama will be misled? If I may be optimistic, Obama's expert campaign already proved that he won't easily be played. Is this, then, just a witch hunt? Reverse McCarthyism isn't going to win us any friends, whereas winning magnanimously just might.

For anyone still worried that certain appointments signal that foreign policy won't shift dramatically under Obama, it already has. Obama may just prove that change doesn't have to come in the form of Washington outsiders. It can come from experienced insiders benefiting from the vision of wise leadership.

Update: Glenn Greenwald has an in-depth analysis of what he considers to be a CIA-led media backlash against "the left." It's a solid argument. Although I disagree with some of the specific things he's advocating for, it's well worth a read. (Hat tip: Patrick Appel)

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