“Inheritance” is a neutral word–it can be bad and good depending on the circumstance. You don’t get to pick what you get any more than you can pick your parents. On the one hand, you have things like photo albums and trusts funds. On the other you have the lasting repercussions of bad behavior, the sins of the father if you will, that can reach down across generations. Most of us inherit a combination of the two from our predecessors, hopefully with more of the former than the
This construct applies to presidents as well. You begin the job basically beholden to your predecessor, who has created the circumstances under which you have to try to do your job. Indeed, your first year is in many ways the political equivalent of adolescence, as you try to break away from the existing model and establish your own identity. This process can be particularly dramatic when you have successive presidents of opposing political parties.
So we have seen President Obama rebel against the Bush administration legacy throughout both his campaign and his first twenty-seven months in office. Calling attention to his inherited burdens, particularly at home but also abroad, has been a constant refrain in Obama’s rhetoric, an inevitable codicil to any policy announcement. To date, these references have been exclusively negative and pejorative, and to be honest many Americans suffering from an extended economic downturn and weary of the lengthy foreign wars have tended to accept these statements at face value.
The events of the last five days strongly suggest that there was something else in that heritage, something of great and lasting value even if it was shrouded and reviled like some ugly and unwanted family object foisted on a new generation with no taste for such things. In this case, rather than a breakfront or silver service we are talking about detention operations in the global war on terror, that impossibly difficult but unavoidable challenge President Bush and his administration confronted in the years after 9/11.
Those who grappled with this issue have been the most reviled of the previous administration. While Treasury Secretaries and budget directors go largely unreviled, anyone who had to deal with detainees, their capture, incarceration and interrogation, have been roundly attacked as at best ignorant and parochial, and at worst eager to torment innocents in a dark campaign to subvert our most precious values, our true jewels of civil liberties. Compared to the worst monsters in history–i.e. Pol Pot, the Nazis–they have had few defenders as it has seemed a losing battle to try to argue for what has been widely accepted as “torture”, a corrupt and defunct practice. It has been so easy to disavow these activities, perhaps with the caveat that such things might have seemed necessary in the early days after 9/11 when we feared another attack, but that attack didn’t come and even if we dont utterly condemn, we know better.
Now that our most deadly enemy rests with the fishes thanks to the intelligence gathered from those detainees, a welcome development removing both a real and present security threat and a painful shared psychological burden, these policies emerge in a different light. Rather than a shameful inheritance, they have been a gift, painstakingly crafted behind layers of classification and legal necessity. As time and events peel those layers away like so many layers of tarnish, we might want to be prepared for more unexpected revelations that make the easy poses of moral superiority that have been so fashionable over the past seven years increasingly uncomfortable and difficult to defend.
While it is naive to expect President Obama will overtly acknowledge this heritage either today at Ground Zero or at anytime in the coming election season, we can hope that his actions will speak more loudly than his words. As he has recognized the necessity of the DoD detention facility at Guantanamo he may now understand the necessity of those CIA interrogators who are still under investigation for the very practices that ultimately got Osama bin Laden. Perhaps today when he stands where his predecessor stood in those terrible days after the 9/11 attacks he will understand what he has truly inherited.