05/26/2013 09:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

BOTH SIDES NOW : Obama Doctrine Recasts W's War

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Ron Reagan and Mary Matalin debate Obama's speech refuting Bush-Cheneyism on terrorism. Was it transformational or largely rhetorical? No more treating local thugs as UBL? And despite Noonan's & Will's best efforts to blur Obama & Nixon, 44 has the Teflon of 40.


Obama's address directly counters the Chicken-Littleism of Bush-Cheney... and diverts attention away from a GOP fanning the flames of scandal. Though indignant editorials sound as if Obama had sent drones after journalists -- see New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, everything on FOX -- Department of Justice subpoenas on security leaks do rile Right and Left alike. Have federal prosecutors periodically overreached with the press or generally? Sure -- ask Aaron Schwartz's family.

On National Defense University Speech. Obama: "This war... must end" and not be "self-defeating"... so let's revise the Authorization of the Use of Force resolution (AOUF) that gives unchecked power to the Commander-in-Chief.

Ron thinks Obama's was the most substantive presidential address in the 12-year "war against terrorism... There's no 'existential threat' and no monolithic enemy coming after us. We're rather facing radicalized individuals. So let's move away from this continuing war footing allowing a commander-in-chief to do essentially anything he wants."

Mary, however, believes that Obama's talk was an "oxymoron" by trying to end what is an existential threat demanding that we gather more intelligence rather than "obliterate intelligence." She laments going back to the pre-9/11 "law enforcement model" of trying to prosecute terrorists after-the-fact rather than aggressively seeking to preempt their actions. Indeed "this conflict has been going on since at least 1683 when the Caliphate warred against the western version of freedom... today, deterrence and containment can't apply to enemies not within state borders and who don't fear death. That required a new strategy [which Bush43 pursued]."

It's often said there is no "Obama Doctrine" but his broad, lengthy, almost anguished analysis comes close to a unified vision of how to deal with "Benghazi to Boston." Though more a framework than a blueprint, Obama specifically or implicitly renounced the invasions, torture, triumphalism, grandiosity, deceptions and fear-mongering of his predecessor's "Global War Against Terror." Indeed, rarely do we hear a president publicly think through a major military policy and its toll on him and us ("these deaths [civilians from drones] will haunt us as long as we live" sounds very different from "bin Laden -- dead or alive.")

Why this address now, ask some critics? There's a consensus that this was an opportune time coming after the Boston Marathon attack, the Brennan nomination spurring talk of Drones, the Gitmo hunger strike and a scandal meme that could be diminished by hard news. And since the issue of terrorism went from some 3000 killed on Bush's watch to 33 killed on Obama's, a shift in strategy was reasonable if not compelling. There's no crime in a president asking at any time if we're creating more terrorists than we're killing.

On Drones and Gitmo. There's a consensus in favor of the president's defense of predator drones -- as both more effective and humane than sending in American troops. Mary is not troubled by the moral aspect "because if you're harboring terrorists, you're as bad as terrorists."

Ron applauds the tighter restrictions on their future use but worries about a precedent that makes it easier to get into future wars. Remember our nuclear monopoly under Truman-Ike? What happens when China, Russia, Iran etc. consider using them against military/civilian targets? A conversation ensues that some later president will have to go to an international body to hammer out a global agreement that limits flying killer robots.

Then: should Obama push for the politically risky step of shutting down Guantanamo prison?

Ron strongly agrees that "it should be closed because it should never have been opened" and is less expensive to keep those few remaining in supermax facilities and better "reflects our values." Mary complains that a) Gitmo is expensive because it's "palatial," b) that neither Democratic nor Republican politicians want them in their states, c) that 70 percent of those sent home come back to the battlefield (a number that's hotly disputed) and d) jihadists proselytize in American prisons. Noting that there are probably no more than a half-dozen such hardened combatants who can't be tried precisely because they were tortured, Ron drily adds, "I doubt they'll be allowed to blend in with the general prison population."

On Investigating the Media. We listen to journalists of varying stripes agree that two admitted DOJ investigations for national security leaks "criminalize reporting." Ron believes that, of the three pending "scandals", this is the only one potentially with legs and that Obama's discussion of it in his counter-terrorism talk -- a Shield Law and an AG report on best guidelines -- will not alone douse the media firestorm.

Mary explains that the Bush43 Administration would "be careful to go after the leaker not the leakee" and would have shunned such wrongheaded tactics as saying in one subpoena that James Rosen, the head of Fox's Washington bureau, might be a "criminal co-defendant." The Host interrupts: didn't the Bush White House threaten the New York Times with prosecution under the 1917 Espionage Act when it ran a front page piece about the NSA warrantless eavesdropping on thousands of Americans, contrary to the law first requiring FISA approval?

On the IRS Mess. We listen to a) Jay Leno joke that Obama was too oblivious about what happened at the IRS and Benghazi, b) Charles Krauthammer argue that singling out Tea Party groups is something "that could go on and on and could be fatal", and c) Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) wonders whether the House Oversight Committee is "in search of answers or scandals."

Mary chides the president's "hear-and-see-no-evil" approach and thinks that he should have both been informed and acted decisively earlier. But Ron counters that "as soon as he'd been told he then becomes part of the problem - imagine how Republicans would be screaming then! Issa himself was briefed about the [in-progress] IG's report in August, 2012."

Ron adds, Lawrence O'Donnell-like, that "the real scandal was not that the IRS was targeting small Tea Party groups but not scrutinizing the big political SuperPACs" passing off as exclusively 501c4 social welfare organizations. He hopes but doubts that this controversy could lead Congress to clarify that neither Rove nor Obama SuperPACs should get c4 status. Mary says that while she's for transparency and disclosure of big donors, this might be an exception since Democrats unfairly attack big GOP donors.

Despite repeated attacks that "we are in the midst of the worst scandal since Watergate" (Noonan in WSJ), Obama's poll numbers have held steady. Mr. Reagan is asked whether President Obama is more like President Reagan than President Nixon when it comes to surviving scandals. Yes, he answers, "because the public likes Obama as a person and he's not been implicated in any of the scandals -- in fact he's as irked as anyone. But if other shoes drop, that could change."

Mary points out that although Obama is not going to be on the ballot, congressional Democrats will be in 2014. And "although only 25 percent of the pubic is closely following Benghazi or the IRS, those are the ones who vote in a mid-term election and who are most worried about government overreach."

"Scandal" implies deception, malevolence and illegality, not just incompetence or policy disagreements. So why isn't the trifecta of scandals paying off for GOP bettors (beyond the offsetting appeals of Obama's personal popularity and a brightening economy)?

First, "Benghazi" as an epithet will all but disappear other than on right-wing blogs since the White House email dump shows that it was the CIA and Director Petraeus that drafted the controversial Talking Points. Second, according to the IG Report that kicked off the IRS 'scandal", there's no evidence yet of White House involvement or criminality... no Nixon ordering his IRS to audit McGovern, as revealed by the Nixon Tapes; Reince Priebus et. al. may prima facie assume some abuse or coverup like that, but wishing doesn't make it so. Third, the Holder-approved investigation of James Rosen deserves condemnation... but is light-years away from the true "culture of intimidation" of a White House "enemies list" including efforts to pull the FCC licenses of hostile stations. And what again is FOX's view of Julian Assange releasing lots of classified materials?

Question: which of three movie titles being released this month best describes Obama after his counter-terrorism speech and the IRS & media frenzies -- "Superman," "White House Down" or "Much Ado About Nothing"?

Mark Green is the creator and host of Both Sides Now.

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