As President Obama begins to bomb Syria (with no UN authorization and with a coalition of the willing), he is still bombing Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan; he has U.S. forces spread out across Africa; some are heading back into Iraq; and Guantanamo is still open. It’s hard not to wonder whether in a quiet moment President Obama sometimes thinks he was too smug and too callow back when he poured contempt on President Bush. (After all, even the New York Times is slowly coming to grips with the similarities between how certain events have unfolded. Surely President Obama has noticed them in passing as well.)Neither President got everything right; both made costly mistakes. But both struggled to come to grips with a serious and growing problem: the spread of a religious movement based on hatred and violence and its organization to fight a war against civilization. This new kind of struggle is forcing the United States and its allies to grapple with a whole series of extremely complicated and difficult practical, strategic, moral, and legal problems. When Obama was running for President, he showed very little understanding of or sympathy for the difficult and in some cases impossible choices that President Bush had to make.
We hope President Obama’s critics will be less snarky and self righteous than Obama’s supporters were when it was time to criticize Bush; we would, for example, be sorry to hear the entire right wing of the country start calling the President and his top advisors “chicken hawks” and mocking them for sending Americans into harm’s way without having done military service themselves. We’d also like to see the President demonstrate some class—perhaps by inviting President Bush to the White House to offer some advice from the only other person on earth who really understands what Obama is going through. It’s not unlikely that President Bush has continued to think about the unique and difficult challenges of our current situation; it would demonstrate some maturity on President Obama’s part to invite him in for consultations, and he just might have something useful to say. This will probably not happen, if only because so many Democrats would erupt in irrational rage; Bush Derangement Syndrome is still with us. But surely there must be times in the Oval Office when President Obama, sitting in the ashes of his own hopes and plans, wonders whether the world isn’t a much more complicated place than he thought it was in 2008.