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POLITICS: PennAve

On airstrikes, Obama channels the words of George W. Bush

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Iraq,National Security,Syria,PennAve,George W. Bush,ISIS

President Obama was sent to the White House on promises of being different from his predecessor. But of late, he's sounding a lot like George W. Bush.

“America does not forget. Our reach is long. We are patient. Justice will be done,” Obama said this week when discussing the threat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses to U.S. citizens.

The phrasing was reminiscent of Bush's remarks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when he said “whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."

White House officials were quick to point out that rhetorical flourishes aside, Obama and Bush have fundamentally different visions about the use of American forces in the Middle East. Obama, who was first elected by arguing that Bush's war in Iraq was a mistake, has called for avoiding messy foreign entanglements.

But the success of ISIS militants scrambled those arguments, pushing Obama into a more offensive posture in Iraq and considering expanding into airstrikes in Syria.

Once Obama's range of options changed, so did his rhetoric. For some, the echoes were unmistakeable.

“George W. Obama?” quipped a former senior administration official in the Bush administration. “I certainly had a bit of deja vu there.”

Liberals, in particular, are wary of mission creep in the Middle East and say that such rallying cries must be accompanied by the messy details often left out of presidential addresses.

“The key question, obviously, is what does ‘justice will be done’ mean?” one Democratic House aide told the Washington Examiner. “That’s a great applause line, but we have to see the fine print, too.”

Obama’s “justice” remarks were also reminiscent of the late-night speech he gave at the White House earlier this month when announcing the new campaign of airstrikes in Iraq.

“When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” he said then.

It was a rhetorical device also commonly deployed by Bush, trumpeting military options in moral terms rather than merely arguing for their strategic necessity.

In reality, all presidents make the case for military intervention by portraying the decision as a matter of good versus evil, analysts said.

“The U.S., unlike other countries, is supposed to act on ideas and values rather than just interests,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University. "The idea that the U.S. should do X, Y or Z militarily – presidents have to couch it in a sense of noble ideas to gain the support of the public.”

Former President Bill Clinton, for example, defended bombings in Kosovo by comparing atrocities there to Nazi Germany, calling violence in that region “vicious, premeditated, systematic oppression fueled by religious and ethnic hatred.”

And former President Ronald Reagan often pledged to bring justice to those overseas harming Americans.

"They say the men who murdered these sons of America escaped, disappeared into the city streets, but I pledge to you today they will not evade justice on earth any more than they can escape the judgment of God," Reagan said in June 1985 of those who killed four American marines in San Salvador. "We and the Salvadoran leaders will move any mountain and ford any river to find the jackals and bring them and their colleagues in terror to justice."

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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