Benjamin Wittes

Continuity and Change: Towards a Synthesis

I’m a little bit grouchy that the argument I made in this speech I keep linking to isn’t more a part of the debate over continuity and change between the Bush and Obama administrations than it is. It’s not just vanity (though I am certainly vain); it’s that I think the argument that Jack and David Cole are having is missing an important nuance on which this speech focused. As many more people will read a New Republic article–or a Lawfare post–than will watch a 25-speech, I thought I would lay out the argument in writing. With apologies for the excessively long post, here it is:

Jack is certainly correct that the left’s disillusioned insistence on continuity between the administrations is recent. Only a few months ago, when I gave the speech, the dominant meme on left was still a triumphant, if awkward, insistence that there had been great change. This was the meme against which a few outliers–like Glen Greenwald–positioned themselves as proud holdouts. And it was the meme against which Jack wrote his article positing continuity. The meme, you will recall, went something like this:  ”We’ve restored the rule of law, we’re closing Guantanamo, we’ve ended torture and secret prisons, and we’re focusing on civilian trials!” Yet then the point would get muddy and liberals would have to admit some uncomfortable caveats that have since swallowed the rule and given rise to the new conventional wisdom against which David is now reacting. After all, Guantanamo didn’t seem to be closing, and in any event, closing it didn’t seem to imply a change of detention policy–just a change of location for that policy. The administration was arguing against federal court jurisdiction over Bagram. The secret prisons program was already empty when the President shuttered it; the military had long since stopped any aggressive interrogation; and military commissions remained available for trials that did not seem to be materializing in civilian court. What’s more, the administration had actively ramped up the drones program; the President even boasted in his State of the Union address about the number of the enemy he was killing.

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