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Obama's bold first week

President Obama succeeded in eliminating four of Bush's 'wars' in his first days in office.

January 29, 2009|ROSA BROOKS

Barack Obama ended four wars during his first week as president. With just a few words and strokes of his pen, the president ended the war on terror, the war on Islam, the war on science and the war on women.

In his first executive orders, Obama effectively dismantled the elaborate structures that supported the Bush administration's "war on terror." On Jan. 22, he ordered the closure of the Guantanamo prison and a halt to the much-criticized military commission trials. He closed secret CIA prisons, required that the Red Cross have access to detainees and mandated that interrogations of detainees -- whether by the military, the CIA or anyone else -- comply with the rules laid out in the Army Field Manual.

That means: No more torture. No waterboarding, beatings, sexual humiliations or deprivation of food or medical care. And in case anyone's confused, the order makes it clear that those seeking guidance "may not rely on any interpretation of the law governing interrogation ... issued by the Department of Justice between September 11, 2001, and January 20, 2009." (That means you, John Yoo).

The war on Islam is also over. Officially, of course, it never existed. But that's how the "war on terror" looked to many around the world, a misunderstanding fueled by the war in Iraq and the irresponsible rhetoric of many Bush administration officials.

After 9/11, the United States had widespread international support -- including within the Islamic world -- for military action in Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and oust its Taliban hosts. But when that morphed into an open-ended U.S. effort to go to war in more "target-rich" environments (read: Iraq), regardless of the lack of connection to 9/11, U.S. actions struck many Muslims as motivated by generic hostility to Islam. The fact that U.S. officials from George W. Bush on down seemed fuzzy about the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and tended to ignore the very different ideologies that motivate different militant organizations, added to the sense that the U.S. considered Islam itself the problem.

But by giving his first televised interview to Al Arabiya, a channel watched throughout the Arab world, Obama made it clear that the U.S. isn't at war with Islam itself. "The Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives," he said. "There are extremist organizations -- whether Muslim or any other faith ... that will use faith as a justification for violence. We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith's name.... Our administration [will] be very clear in distinguishing between organizations like Al Qaeda -- that ... espouse terror .... and people who may disagree with my administration" in legitimate ways.

Obama also ended the undeclared Bush administration war on science. In his inaugural speech, he promised to "restore science to its rightful place." Reversing years of Bush administration disregard of scientific evidence on global climate change, Obama ordered the Transportation Department to set new fuel-efficiency standards and ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to rethink its Bush-era refusal to allow states such as California to impose anti-pollution standards more stringent than federal ones.

The undeclared war on women? Also over. On Jan. 23, Obama reversed the "Mexico City policy," which prohibited recipients of U.S. foreign-assistance funds from providing abortions or even providing information about abortions. Family planning groups worldwide will no longer have to choose between providing honest information and receiving crucial funding.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that these assorted "wars" were only metaphors, incapable of producing real harm. The "war on terror" was practically a gift to Osama bin Laden: Our detention and interrogation policies probably fueled far more terrorism than they prevented. Ditto for the Bush administration's undeclared war against Islam.

The Bush administration's replacement of science with ideology was equally devastating: How many lives will be lost or blighted as we all pay the price for a decade of denial about the human causes of global warming? And some estimate that as many as 500,000 women worldwide have died since 2001 as a result of botched abortions, many of which might have been prevented if the Mexico City policy hadn't pushed abortions and abortion counseling underground in many countries.

Obama's job is just beginning. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be far harder to end.

Still, not bad for a week's work.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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