Democrats shift with Obama on foreign policy, civil liberties

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor

“Mr. Romney, here’s a little advice,” intoned Sen. John Kerry during his Democratic convention speech. “Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!”

It was intended as a zinger from one Massachusetts politician to another — the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee taking on his 2012 Republican counterpart. But given the Democratic Party’s official shift on civil liberties and foreign policy since its 2008 convention, Kerry could just as easily have intended these lines for the delegates inside the hall.

Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in large part because he distanced himself far more effectively from George W. Bush’s approach to the war on terror. While Clinton was voting to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Obama was giving anti-war speeches.

Clinton also voted for the Patriot Act while Obama was talking about the erosion of personal freedoms. “[W]e don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states,” the future president said at the National Democratic Convention in 2004.

Once in office, however, Obama reconciled himself with many Bush stances on foreign policy and civil liberties. Judging from the 2012 Democratic platform, the rest of the party has followed suit.

In 2008, Democrats opposed indefinite detention of terror suspects. “We will not ship away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, or detain without trial or charge prisoners who can and should be brought to justice for their crimes, or maintain a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law,” they declared in their platform.

Four years later, the Obama administration continues to detain some terrorism suspects indefinitely while shipping others off to foreign countries with harsher conditions under a practice known as proxy detention.

President Obama signed into law a National Defense Authorization Act containing a provision that civil libertarians in both parties fear will lead to the indefinite detention of American citizens charged with but not convicted of terrorist acts.

This year’s Democratic platform is silent on detention practices and softened the party’s unequivocal language about closing Guantanamo Bay.

“We will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, the location of so many of the worst constitutional abuses in recent years,” has turned into “we are substantially reducing the population at Guantanamo Bay without adding to it.”

Obama has also made extrajudicial killings a critical component of his counter-terrorism strategy, not confined to the successful raid against 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The word “drone” appears nowhere in the Democrats’ platform.

The 2008 platform included blanket opposition to racial profiling as a method of fighting terrorism, reading, “[W]e will ensure that law-abiding Americans of any origin, including Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, do not become the scapegoats of national security fears.”

This year’s platform omits this language, only opposing racial profiling in the context of domestic law enforcement. The New York Times reported that the Obama administration mostly kept the FBI guidelines promulgated under President George W. Bush.

Four years ago, the Democratic platform vowed to review the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program and the Patriot Act while demanding “judicial oversight on any surveillance program involving Americans.”

Amid allegations that the Bush White House was targeting political dissenters, Democrats vowed to oppose “the tracking of citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war.”

In 2012, the platform doesn’t mention any of this, and a Democrat-controlled Congress passed and Obama signed an extension of the Patriot Act with little reform.

On torture, the 2008 platform was simple and categorical: “We reject torture.”

Today, the Democratic platform allows that “[a]dvancing our interests may involve new actions and policies to confront threats like terrorism,” while also congratulating the president for banning “torture without exception in his first week in office.”

Allegations of torture have, nevertheless, persisted. The Bush administration also denied using torture and no one has been prosecuted for interrogation techniques used during that period.

The 2012 Democratic platform repeatedly praises Obama for initiating a war for regime change in Libya, despite a lack of congressional approval. Bush sought, and received, congressional authorization for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current platform gives Obama credit for “responsibly” ending the war in Iraq and simultaneously wining and withdrawing in Afghanistan, reading, “We have reversed the momentum of the Taliban and established the conditions to draw down our forces in Afghanistan.”

Kerry’s own speech displayed similar dissonance: He criticized the Republican “war of choice” in Iraq, but actually voted for that war himself; he called Afghanistan a necessary war, then criticized Romney for not having a plan to pull out; he attacked Romney for “neocon advisers,” but then cited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Democrats clearly believe that Obama has struck the right balance between hitting terrorist targets who would threaten the United States while avoiding a large commitment of “boots on the ground” in foreign countries, but not everyone is happy.

Pointing to the Democrats’ pledge this year to uphold American values “not just when it is easy, but, more importantly, when it is hard,” progressive journalist Adam Serwer of Mother Jones wrote, “The distance between the 2008 and 2012 platform shows just how hard it has been, and starkly illustrates the extent to which the Democratic Party has given up on its 2008 promises to roll back the national security state that emerged and expanded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”

Obama concluded his Charlotte, N.C. acceptance speech by observing that he had changed in the last four years, too.

“I’m no longer just a candidate,” he said. “I am president.”

That fact seems to have led to some changes in his perspective on foreign policy and civil liberties. And for now, it has at least partially changed his party too.

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