At the end of War and Peace, in the sometimes abridged epilogue on historical determinism, Tolstoy describes peasants attributing the locomotion of a train engine to the work of the devil:
“A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: “What moves it?” A peasant says the devil moves it…. The peasant is irrefutable. He has devised a complete explanation.”
I thought of this recently when I heard yet another Democratic talking head blaming one of a litany of woes on George W. Bush. I think it was the gaffe-prone Gibbs, but, in fact, it remains a widespread tactic to blame Bush. To paraphrase Tolstoy: the Democratic electoral machine is irrefutable. It has devised a complete explanation. Whatever ails America is Bush’s fault and will remain so as long as rhetorically convenient. Indeed, it’s not unusual for the more hyperbolic Bush critics to compare him to the devil himself. The de facto Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez famously did just this when he announced that he could smell sulphur at the podium of the UN general assembly.
And yet perhaps Democratic critics have a point. Obama did inherit a slew of problems when he assumed office: a precipitous financial crisis and incipient recession, a war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) that is tragically and inconveniently difficult to prosecute, not to mention a re-flaring of the culture wars on issues like gay marriage.
There is also another war that chose Bush and that Obama inherited: the War on Terror, whose name offers a clue that an armistice can never be signed. It rolls on indefinitely protecting the citizenry to an extent they can never know, getting ever larger and dirtier like the Mississippi, creating vast new intelligence and security bureaucracies while swallowing ever increasing swathes of GDP and a few civil liberties along the way.
The legacy of a predecessor does shine through an incoming president’s efforts. If he is opposed to his predecessor’s legacy he must endeavour to block it out it with the penumbral shadow of his own agenda before finally he is able to eclipse it entirely.
In an interesting leftwing adoption of Naomi Klein’s shockingly lame shock doctrine thesis, Bush’s legacy, particularly the financial crisis, presented an opportunity to reinvent America that Rahm Emmanuel vowed would not be allowed to go to waste.
And yet, if Obama despises the Bush legacy so much, why, on so many fronts, has he perpetuated it?
On Iraq, Obama’s approach has been similar to Bush’s. There are deadlines set for ending combat and withdrawing troops but many observers expect them to be missed. On Afghanistan, Obama had a long period of dangerous dithering before announcing a troop policy that was basically what Bush appointee Robert Gates had pushed for. On Guantanamo we had a lot of early puff and bluster about shutting down the controversial prison camp on the only part of the Cuban island in which many human rights are enjoyed. That deadline was loudly announced and quietly forgotten. Obama has even got his Bush Hurricane Katrina PR debacle in early with the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. On the subject of the California court’s recent gay marriage ruling, Obama declined to make remarks in support of a cause dear to the hearts of his metrosexual base.