Where is the Liberal Rage?

While President Obama’s national security speech last week was meant to clarify his “new” approach, even the many gratuitous slaps he took at the Bush administration could not obscure the fact that he is leaving intact the essence of his predecessor’s national security architecture. The surprising response to this by the New York Times and other prominent Bush critics reveals an unseemly aspect of the mindset of liberals: they want to be seduced by a charismatic leader.

Obama’s continuation of Bush’s national security policies has attracted a lot of attention. “Tribunals, renditions, intercepts, Iraq, wiretaps, etc. — they all continue, but with a kinder, gentler Obama façade,” noted Victor David Hanson. Commentary blog’s Max Boot and Andy McCarthy, a prosecutor in the trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, have made the same observation. Even before Obama’s speech, Jack Goldsmith made the same argument in detail in the New Republic, outlining how Obama’s policies in all the key aspects of the war on terrorism perpetuate those of the Bush administration, with a few cosmetic changes.

It’s hard to argue with this conclusion. Obama’s double game is even evident in his signature issue, his much-hyped ban against waterboarding, which was used on only three people. Meanwhile, he quietly kept open the option of using the myriad other “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the future, should the need arise.

Can this bait and switch be going unnoticed by the left? They spent the better part of seven years indignantly denouncing these policies as a new form of fascism. They became experts at identifying which articles of the Geneva Convention were ostensibly being violated by Bush policies. They know exactly when habeas corpus has to be granted, and when Bush allegedly failed to do so. They can tell us which of our interrogation techniques qualify as torture, and which conditions at Gitmo violate the “rights” of detainees.

So clearly, they know that the policies they’ve attacked for years are being perpetuated by Obama. When even Maureen Dowd notices something, it’s a safe assumption that everyone else has figured it out.

One would expect the left to feel a deep sense of betrayal that their leader who promised change has embraced the very policies they despise. And yet, we see no such anguish. Instead, liberals have extolled everything about the Obama presidency, especially his national security policies.

This is most evident at the New York Times, whose editorial page gushed that Obama’s national security speech brought “relief and optimism.” It continued, “President Obama told the truth. It was a moment of political courage that will make this country safer.” This was quite a turnaround for a paper that less than two years ago, in August 2007, had instructed Democrats that opposing Bush’s national security policies was their “most important duty.”

Even more jarring was the about-face done by possibly the most emotional Bush critic in the blogosphere — Andrew Sullivan. For years, Sullivan has denounced Bush administration officials as “war criminals” and furiously demanded their prosecution. He blasts Bush’s war on terror policies as a disgraceful, inhuman, criminal negation of American values — a descent into barbarism unparalleled in our history. Indeed, his response to Cheney’s national security speech last week was so predictable that one suspects Sullivan wrote it before he even heard it; it was, he argued, “a vile and deliberately divisive attempt to use the politics of fear and false machismo against the stability of the American polity.” Fearing his point was too subtle, he further denounced the speech as “despicable,” “disgraceful,” “callow,” “arrogant,” “reckless,” unrepentant,” and full of “lies” and “distortions.”

It was interesting, then, to read Sullivan praise Obama’s national security speech. Sullivan clearly recognized that Obama’s central message was that the Bush national security paradigm will remain largely intact. And yet, instead of criticizing the betrayal, Sullivan extolled Obama’s conservatism on the issue, praising how the president “seeks first and foremost to use existing institutions to address the new challenges of the moment, and then seeks pragmatic compromises, always open to future checks and balances, in those places where such institutions clearly need reform and adjustment.”

Coming from a guy who has made a living denouncing these same policies as “war crimes” and demanding their wholesale revocation, it’s amazing to see Sullivan suddenly speak of the need for “pragmatic compromises” to “reform and adjust” whatever little things might need reforming and adjusting. If Bush’s policies were really war crimes, then why would any compromise be appropriate at all?

One might be tempted to conclude from all this that liberals have no principles. But, in fact, the untrammeled enthusiasm for Obama demonstrates that the left does have principles, or rather, it has one principle: the Fuhrer principle.

What the left wants above all else is to follow a charismatic leader whose very existence embodies their collective will. Think about the liberal mythologizing of Kennedy. What exactly was it about Kennedy that they love? His die-hard anti-communism? His attempt to invade Cuba? His deepening of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam? His tax cuts? All that may be anathema to the left in theory, but in the end it’s irrelevant in the face of Kennedy’s magnificent charisma.

Ultimately, what the left really wants is to submit to the cult of personality. They want to adulate a maximum leader who will keep them safe from conservatives. Obama reassures them on this score with his compulsive focus on the perceived faults of the Bush administration and the occasional hint that trials of Bush officials may be in the works.

In Obama, the left has found the most charismatic Democratic president since Kennedy. Because Obama alone ended their brutalizing and humiliating experience of the last eight years, liberals are more than willing to flatter his messianic pretenses. Obama’s policies can veer right as far as is necessary, he can capriciously betray them when he must, but his supporters’ only duty now is to ensure they are worthy of him.