After Inauguration Day, departed presidents usually become footnotes pretty quickly. What we are witnessing now is far more dramatic. It's closer to a liquidation, or a cauterization. George W. Bush is being turned into an unperson, like a character out of Orwell. It's been only two days, and there is scarcely a trace of not only his personal presence, but of his policies. Or at least that is the impression Barack Obama would like to convey.
The process of erasing the last eight years from American history began with President Obama's inaugural address on Tuesday. Between condemning torture and expressing a willingness to talk with enemies, the new president began eliminating Bush even as the former president sat listening behind him. Then, on his first work day, Obama signed executive orders reversing the Bush administration's emphasis on secrecy and reliance on revolving-door lobbyists, to be followed by three more orders: closing Guantanamo Bay (within a year), forbidding torture and suspending military tribunals for foreign terror suspects. Meanwhile Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner (whose nomination was finally approved by the Senate Finance Committee) said brand-new strictures would also be applied to financial bailouts.
Then, on Wednesday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of two permanent envoys to major trouble spots—George Mitchell to the Mideast and Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was perhaps the surest sign of all that Obama intends a 180-degree reversal from the ultimatum-heavy approach of the Bush administration, which saw diplomacy mainly as an exercise in stating terms for surrender, whether to Iran, Hamas or North Korea (except over the last couple of years). "Anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail," Clinton said, making it clear that Holbrooke and Mitchell would each be spending much of the next four years away from home. Both men, Holbrooke and Mitchell, gained fame by ending what seemed to be intractable conflicts, Bosnia (Holbrooke) and Northern Ireland (Mitchell). "There is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended," Mitchell said.
Obama himself, in his remarks, signaled strongly that his approach to the Mideast would immediately move from unswerving and unquestioning support of Israel, as seen in the last eight years, to more of a broker's role. While making the requisite commitment to Israel's security—and its right to respond to rocket fire from Gaza—he also said it was unacceptable to permit "a future without hope for the Palestinians." He called for an immediate opening of the Gaza border, which must have come to a surprise to those Israelis lulled to sleep by Bush's permanent endorsement of Israel's every action over the last eight years.
So grim is the reality, of course, especially in the Mideast and Afghanistan, that no amount of shuttling by envoys may make much of a difference in the end. Indeed, it may not be long before Obama finds himself compared to Bush, at least when it comes to results. Something similar happened to W, who upon taking office in 2001 tried to erase Bill Clinton's policies from the map only to gradually adopt his approach in his second term. But it's only been three days, and as far as the Obama administration is concerned, its predecessor no longer exists in policy or even memory.