Andrew Sullivan, the King of Bloggers, has written a Newsweek cover story which is featuring heavily in American political discussion on tv, in newspapers and on blogs right now. From over here, it’s sometimes difficult to realize that Sullivan is not just a blogger, albeit a big one, but also a pretty prominent “public intellectual” (as they say) in the US, who from time to time -- as a very early advocate of gay marriage, as proponent of the Iraq War, as supporter of Obama -- generates a lot of public debate.
In the Newsweek article, Sullivan argues, as one of the first people to elaborately do so, passionately for Obama’s re-election. He basically says that Obama’s political strategy is a “long game”, of which we have not seen the results yet, which will only play out in eight years. In doing so, he obviously and correctly dismisses the president’s conservative ”critics” (we may just call them lunatics), but also takes on criticism of Obama from “the left”. Personally, while I certainly agree with Sullivan that Obama has by and large been a good president -- in that he has saved the US and the West from plunging into a systemic crisis largely caused by Bush, through the stimulus, the bail-outs of Wall Street and the auto industry, having healthcare reform passed, getting out of Iraq, reaching out to the Muslim world, responding carefully to the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring, and taking on Qadhafi -- he has also failed miserably to keep up to his promises to restore the rule of law. Under Obama, indefinite detention has been enshrined into law, Guantánamo Bay has seen its tenth birthday, military commissions have been kept open, a Drone War killing hundreds of innocents has been started, extrajudicial assassination has become normal, and a war on whistleblowers and transparency-seekers has been waged. Torture has merely been halted by executive order and can easily be reversed by a Republican president.
This, I think, is unforgivable; it is a core reason not to support Obama’s re-election; and Sullivan passes it too easily by. I also think he fails to engage seriously with Obama’s critics that he relents too easily in the face of opposition, as was the case with healthcare and the debt ceiling crisis. Sullivan doesn’t mention anywhere the deep interpenetration of the Obama administration and Wall Street lobbyists. And, finally, I think it’s kind of slavish and rather uncritical to say: “It’s all part of the masterplan, just wait, it will all play out in eight years, just vote now, it’s Obama!” But that is a tendency you see more often in Obama supporters.
Anyway. The only reason I wanted to write this was because I thought it was funny to see Sullivan, whom you almost only know by writing, defend his article on television. And he’s doing it pretty well actually. Enjoy this weird-in-a-sympathetic-way person’s discussion with a Republican supporter:
- Edit: In the best response to Sullivan’s article so far, here’s Conor Friedersdorf, who writes it down better than I can. First he asks if Sullivan would have supported a Republican in 2008 who would have proposed the following:
(1) Codify indefinite detention into law; (2) draw up a secret kill list of people, including American citizens, to assassinate without due process; (3) proceed with warrantless spying on American citizens; (4) prosecute Bush-era whistleblowers for violating state secrets; (5) reinterpret the War Powers Resolution such that entering a war of choice without a Congressional declaration is permissible; (6) enter and prosecute such a war; (7) institutionalize naked scanners and intrusive full body pat-downs in major American airports; (8) oversee a planned expansion of TSA so that its agents are already beginning to patrol American highways, train stations, and bus depots; (9) wage an undeclared drone war on numerous Muslim countries that delegates to the CIA the final call about some strikes that put civilians in jeopardy; (10) invoke the state-secrets privilege to dismiss lawsuits brought by civil-liberties organizations on dubious technicalities rather than litigating them on the merits; (11) preside over federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries; (12) attempt to negotiate an extension of American troops in Iraq beyond 2011 (an effort that thankfully failed); (14) reauthorize the Patriot Act; (13) and select an economic team mostly made up of former and future financial executives from Wall Street firms that played major roles in the financial crisis.
Yet President Obama has done all of the aforementioned things.
No, Obama isn’t a radical Kenyan anti-colonialist. But he is a lawbreaker and an advocate of radical executive power. What precedent could be more radical than insisting that the executive is empowered to draw up a kill list of American citizens in secret, without telling anyone what names are on it, or the legal justification for it, or even that it exists? What if Newt Gingrich inherits that power?
He may yet.
[Sullivan's] Newsweek essay fits the pattern I’ve lamented of Obama apologists who tell a narrative of his administration that ignores some of these issues and minimizes the importance of others, as if they’re a relatively unimportant matter to be set aside in a sentence or three before proceeding to the more important business of whether the president is being critiqued fairly by obtuse partisans.
Like President Bush, [Obama] is breaking the law, transgressing against civil liberties, and championing a radical view of executive power -- and he is invoking the War on Terror to get away with it. As much as it was in 2003 or 2007, it is vital in 2012 that there be a backlash against these post-9/11 excesses, that liberty-loving citizens push back so that these are anomalies that are reined in, rather than permanent features of a bipartisan consensus that can only end in a catastrophically abusive executive operating in an office stripped by successive presidents and their minions of both constitutional and prudential checks.
That is the best case against Obama I can think of. It is, indeed, vital that there is a backlash against his policies.
Unbeknownst to many people, Barack Obama’s ascendency to the presidency has, despite his 2008 campaign promises, done almost nothing to reverse one of the most heinous policies of the Bush-Cheney era: the practice of indefinitely detaining people whom the US state deems “enemy combatants”, or terrorism suspects. Without charges and without recourse to a judge. The mere charge of being a terror suspect can still lead to uncontrollable, unaccountable detention by the American government; this is viewed by both Bush-Cheney and Obama as an inherent, presidential prerogative. No one who is not out of his right mind would not view this as in straightforward contradiction to the rule of law.
But President Obama’s record has just gotten even worse. After months of threatening to veto a bill put forward by the partly Republican-controlled Congress allowing the U.S. military to indefinitely detain anyone, including American citizens, anywhere in the world, including in the U.S., without charges, he has now said that he will sign it into law.
Thereby Obama, the 2008 darling of liberals and progressives, has become the president who has made extrajudicial indefinite detention at the charge of being an “enemy combatant” official law and policy, rather than an exception. Obama is even worse than Bush-Cheney! This should be clear to anyone who is still an Obama fanboy.
When in the 1950s, the McCarthy era, Congress presented Harry Truman with a similar bill allowing the indefinite detention of Communists and other ‘subversive elements’ without charges, Truman vetoed it. But Obama is not such a person. The right not to be detained forever by the state without a fair trial is a fundamental human right, part of the Western juridical tradition, that has just been violated possibly forever by this president.
This becoming law will also mean two things. First, that the U.S. military can now be involved in domestic policing activities (!). Second, that the battleground of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has now been extended to American soil too. Can you believe that?
At this point, I would officially hope that Obama gets defeated at the polls next year. If Ron Paul’s ideas on economic policy weren’t so nutty, I would support him – a Republican - if he was the nominee.
In one of the least surprising developments imaginable, President Obama – after spending months threatening to veto the Levin/McCain detention bill – yesterday announced that he would instead sign it into law (this is the same individual, of course, who unequivocally vowed when seeking the Democratic nomination to support a filibuster of “any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecom[s],” only to turn around – once he had the nomination secure — and not only vote against such a filibuster, but to vote in favor of the underlying bill itself, so this is perfectly consistent with his past conduct). As a result, the final version of the Levin/McCain bill will be enshrined as law this week as part of the the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I wrote about the primary provisions and implications of this bill last week, and won’t repeat those points here.
The ACLU said last night that the bill contains “harmful provisions that some legislators have said could authorize the U.S. military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world” and added: “if President Obama signs this bill, it will damage his legacy.” Human Rights Watch said that Obama’s decision “does enormous damage to the rule of law both in the US and abroad” and that “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.”
Both groups pointed out that this is the first time indefinite detention has been enshrined in law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when — as the ACLU put it — “President Truman had the courage to veto” the Internal Security Act of 1950 on the ground that it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights” and then watched Congress override the veto. That Act authorized the imprisonment of Communists and other “subversives” without the necessity of full trials or due process (many of the most egregious provisions of that bill were repealed by the 1971 Non-Detention Act, and are now being rejuvenated by these War on Terror policies of indefinite detention). President Obama, needless to say, is not Harry Truman. He’s not even the Candidate Obama of 2008 who repeatedly insisted that due process and security were not mutually exclusive and who condemned indefinite detention as “black hole” injustice.
Barack Obama has abandoned a commitment to veto a new security law that allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.
Human rights groups accused the president of deserting his principles and disregarding the long-established principle that the military is not used in domestic policing. The legislation has also been strongly criticised by libertarians on the right angered at the stripping of individual rights for the duration of “a war that appears to have no end”.
The law, contained in the defence authorisation bill that funds the US military, effectively extends the battlefield in the “war on terror” to the US and applies the established principle that combatants in any war are subject to military detention.
The legislation’s supporters in Congress say it simply codifies existing practice, such as the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists at Guantánamo Bay. But the law’s critics describe it as a draconian piece of legislation that extends the reach of detention without trial to include US citizens arrested in their own country.
Senator Lindsey Graham said the extraordinary measures were necessary because terrorism suspects were wholly different to regular criminals.
“We’re facing an enemy, not a common criminal organisation, who will do anything and everything possible to destroy our way of life,” he said. “When you join al-Qaida you haven’t joined the mafia, you haven’t joined a gang. You’ve joined people who are bent on our destruction and who are a military threat.”
Graham added that it was right that Americans should be subject to the detention law as well as foreigners. “It is not unfair to make an American citizen account for the fact that they decided to help Al Qaeda to kill us all and hold them as long as it takes to find intelligence about what may be coming next,” he said. “And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them, ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer.’”
Other senators supported the new powers on the grounds that al-Qaida was fighting a war inside the US and that its followers should be treated as combatants, not civilians with constitutional protections.
“We’re talking about American citizens who can be taken from the United States and sent to a camp at Guantánamo Bay and held indefinitely. It puts every single citizen American at risk,” he said. “Really, what security does this indefinite detention of Americans give us? The first and flawed premise, both here and in the badly named Patriot Act, is that our pre-9/11 police powers were insufficient to stop terrorism. This is simply not borne out by the facts.”
Paul was backed by Senator Dianne Feinstein.
“Congress is essentially authorising the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens, without charge,” she said. “We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge.”
So let it be noted that Obama here has followed the line of the most conservative Republicans.
The Drone War is Obama’s original contribution to the “War” on Terror. In his term, by the president’s order more “terrorists” – that is, people suspected of being terrorists without any sort of judicial process involved – have been assassinated using unmanned drones than during the entire Bush administration.
While the Obama administration may make it look like there is nothing to worry about, of course there is. Drone strikes take place in foreign, sovereign countries, and are committed at the behest of the executive branch in the United States. These are extrajudicial, executive branch assassinations of people that have not been given any sort of trial.
With this practice, Obama effectively continues the “war model” approach to counterterrorism that was established by Bush-Cheney. In this paradigm, the world is a global battlefield in which anyone deemed a “terrorist” by the president of the United States can be summarily executed. This process takes place entirely outside the rule of law.
Unless you’re a neoconservative with no brain, you may appreciate what kind of precedents this creates. Imagine Russia taking out people it deems “terrorists” in foreign countries – for instance, in the US – and the response that would elicit. As a matter of fact, Russia has already expanded its definition of terrorists and embarked on its own policy of killing them internationally.
David Cole explains exactly why the Obama administration’s policy on drone strikes is so lawless and dangerous. It is to be noted, moreover, that there seems to be a rift within the administration about this policy.
On Friday, a front-page New York Times story reported that a rift has emerged within the Obama Administration over whether it has authority to kill “rank-and-file” Islamist militants in foreign countries in which there is not an internationally recognized “armed conflict.” The implications of this debate are not trivial: Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law? Not too likely.
And yet that is precisely the argument that the Obama Administration is now using in regard to American’s own actions in places like Yemen and Somalia—and by extension anywhere else it deems militant anti-US groups may be taking refuge. On the same day the Times article appeared, John Brennan, President Obama’s senior advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, gave a speech at Harvard Law School in which he defended the United States’ use of drones to kill terrorists who are far from any “hot battlefield.” Brennan argued that the United States is justified in killing members of violent Islamist groups far from Afghanistan if they pose a threat to the United States, even if the threat is not “imminent” as that term has traditionally been understood. (As if to underscore the point, The Washington Post reports that the US has “significantly increased” its drone attacks in Yemen in recent months, out of fears that the government may collapse.)
In international law, where reciprocity governs, what is lawful for the goose is lawful for the gander. And when the goose is the United States, it sets a precedent that other countries may well feel warranted in following. Indeed, exploiting the international mandate to fight terrorism that has emerged since the September 11 attacks, Russia has already expanded its definition of terrorists to include those who promote “terrorist ideas”—for example, by distributing information that might encourage terrorist activity— and to authorize the Russian government to target “international terrorists” in other countries. It may seem fanciful that Russia would have the nerve to use such an authority within the United States—though in the case of Alexsander Litvinenko it appears to have had few qualms about taking extreme measures to kill an individual who had taken refuge in the United Kingdom. But it is not at all fanciful that once the US proclaims such tactics legitimate, other nations might seek to use them against their less powerful neighbors.
Yet as the New York Times report makes clear, when it comes to targeted killings, there is serious dispute, even within the administration, about what the law permits. Some, like State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, take the position that beyond the battlefield, we can attack only those “high-value individuals” who are actually engaged in plotting attacks on the United States, and only where their threats are specific enough to allow the US to claim the right to self-defense granted to all states under the UN Charter. The Charter permits nations to use unilateral military force only in self-defense against an armed attack, and has been interpreted to permit self-defense against threatened attacks only when they are imminent. Defense Department lawyers maintain, by contrast, that the ongoing war against al-Qaeda authorizes us to kill any of the thousands of rank and file members not only of al-Qaeda itself, but also of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a Yemen-based group founded in 2009—and of al-Shabab, a Somalia-based militant group. Although both of the latter organizations were founded well after the September 11 attacks, the Defense Department considers them fair game because it deems them to be associated with al Qaeda.
Brennan further argued that the UN Charter requirement that a threat be imminent before a nation can exercise its right of self-defense makes less sense when a country faces a threat from a clandestine terrorist group, whose threats may be harder to spot in advance. But the purpose of that requirement was to ensure that military force is truly a last resort. Too many wars have been launched on the basis of ill-defined future threats. The watered-down imminence that Brennan seemed to advocate, especially when coupled with his suggestion that even a temporary disruption of “capabilities” is sufficient reason to strike, would seem to permit targeting even where no attack is in fact imminent. Such reasoning could also be used to justify lethal force in cases where it might well be possible to foil a possible attack through arrest, criminal prosecution, interdiction, or other means. As many countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and, Italy have shown, the fact that organized groups seek to engage in politically motivated violence does not necessitate a military response.
The legal parameters defining the use of military force against terrorists are unquestionably difficult to draw. On the one hand, no one disputes that it is permissible to kill an enemy soldier on the battlefield in an ongoing armed conflict. On the other hand, absent extreme circumstances, constitutional and international law bar a state from killing a human being in peacetime without a trial (and even then, many authorities hold that capital punishment violates international human rights law). Al-Qaeda has not limited its fight to the battlefield in Afghanistan, and most agree that, as long as sovereignty concerns are met, the use of military force can follow this enemy beyond the battlefield at least in some situations. Killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan—whose tribal areas are for all practical purposes part of the theater of war—was the justified targeting of the enemy’s leader. But are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Shabab the same “enemy,” or merely sympathetic adherents of a terrorist philosophy? They certainly did not attack us on September 11, nor are they harboring those who did. Can we summarily execute all terrorists who we fear might someday commit a terrorist act against us? Brennan’s speech offered no answers.
And that makes it especially disturbing that the contours of US policy and practice in this area remain largely secret. Presumably the administration has developed criteria for who can be killed and why, and a process for assessing who fits those criteria and when their targeting is justified. But if so, it hasn’t told us. Instead, it exercises the authority to kill, not only in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but in Yemen,Somalia, and presumably elsewhere, based on a secret policy. We learn more about its outlines from leaks to The New York Times than from the cryptic comments of US officials in speeches like Brennan’s. If we are engaging the enemy within the rule of law, as Brennan insisted we must, we should have the courage to make our policies transparent, so that the people, both in the United States and beyond, can judge for themselves. And if, by contrast, we continue to justify such practices in only the vaguest of terms, we should expect other countries to take them up—and almost certainly in ways we will not find to our liking.
An activist who believes in “extreme sarcasm” carried an “I LOVE OPD” sign to a rally protesting the arrest of Food Not Bombs members who fed homeless people without a license. When a TV crew came to ask him why he, alone, was standing up for the Orlando police, he deployed the “extreme sarcasm” to very good effect.
To be honest, I pretty much have my fill about the whole Bin Laden affair. This includes the revolting jingoism displayed by American politicians and establishment media such as the New York Times, as well as the ‘funny’ comics and internet memes. I wish we could turn to something else now.
Nevertheless, criticism must continue to be voiced, so here’s an op-ed by no one less than Noam Chomsky.
It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”
Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.
There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor is already very high in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it. The decision to dump the body at sea is already, predictably, provoking both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.
There’s more to say about [Cuban airline bomber Orlando] Bosch, who just died peacefully in Florida, including reference to the “Bush doctrine” that societies that harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves and should be treated accordingly. No one seemed to notice that Bush was calling for invasion and destruction of the U.S. and murder of its criminal president.
Same with the name, Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound, throughout western society, that no one can perceive that they are glorifying bin Laden by identifying him with courageous resistance against genocidal invaders. It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk… It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”
There is much more to say, but even the most obvious and elementary facts should provide us with a good deal to think about.
In the gargantuan media frenzy surrounding an event like this, there’s only so much a tiny blog can add.
First off, I must say I’m against the death panelty and against this kind of ‘rogue justice’. Like the Dutch Minister of Defence said, I’d been better if Bin Laden had been captured and tried in a fair trial. So, I can’t really engage in the kind of gung-ho victoriousness that I’m seeing now in the news and on my Facebook feed. But congratulations, I guess, to all those who lost friends and family on 9/11; and of course Bin Laden had it coming.
Having said that, I wonder what the impact of this event is, and to what extent it changes anything. It might have some impact on Obama’s 2012 re-election chances, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the current glow dissipates pretty soon, and politics goes back to business as usual. Whether the death of Bin Laden has any effect on global terrorism as a phenomenon, other than a symbolic one, I very much doubt.
What I would hope is that now America as a constitutional democracy with the rule of law could return to its pre-9/11 state of being. As Joan Walsh on Salon.com says:
I also wish this achievement could mean we get our country back, the one before the Patriot Act, before FISA, before rendition and torture and Guantanamo; before we began giving up the freedom and belief in due process that makes us Americans, out of our fear of totalitarians like bin Laden. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m going to choose to think this could be a first step.
Because that would be the real victory in the struggle against terrorism: closing Guantánamo Bay!
- Edit: This observation from the NYT, by the way, is also very true. The political uprisings of the Arab Spring had already delegitimized Al Qaeda, and this is a (symbolic) double blow.
Analysts said Bin Laden’s death amounted to a double blow for Al Qaeda, after its sermons of anti-Western violence seemed to be rendered irrelevant by the wave of political upheaval rolling through the Arab world.
“It comes at a time when Al Qaeda’s narrative is already very much in doubt in the Arab world,” said Martin S. Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “Its narrative was that violence was the way to redeem Arab honor and dignity. But Osama bin Laden and his violence didn’t succeed in unseating anybody.
Obama’s remarks, though, were very decent and modest. Read them in full here. I’m very happy that he didn’t talk about “war” too much other than in the contexts of Iraq and Afghanistan (imagine how Bush or a fool like John McCain would’ve been standing there), and this I thought was very good:
As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.
Despite all the rightful criticism against Obama concerning the rule of law, I think we can be very happy that this guy is the president of the United States.
I also kinda like, as a political thing, that Obama already announced in 2008 that he would re-direct American efforts from full-scale wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to taking out Osama bin Laden - like in this presidential debate with John McCain, who actually protested that notion. And that’s what he did. Of course, the US is still in both countries and in a third one, but still.
Well that’s pretty much it. Check the NYT here, and the 7-page obituary of Bin Laden here. HuffPost here. Andrew Sullivan here (although you may not want to read him if you’re not into dramatic wallowing). Here’s some cool stuff:
Alex Knapp at Outside the Beltway captures my feelings exactly when he writes about the depressed feeling he gets from the ‘mainstreaming of brutality’ that is going on in the US. Now I’m not surprised about that stuff coming from Republicans; what upsets me is how Obama – Obama, of all people – has made bipartisan and acceptable that people can be held indefinitely in prisons without a trial; that American citizens can get shot abroad without a trial if they are suspected of terrorism; and that whistleblowers get treated like the worst criminals. It runs against everything that America once stood for. And what was that thing about the audacity of hope again?
I’ve been trying for the past couple weeks to write about Bradley Manning, but I can’t. It makes me sick to my stomach. The whole trend of brutality and betrayal of American ideals over the past decade makes me sick to my stomach.
We have gone from being the first country that established the principle that prisoners of war should be treated respectfully to a country that operates black sites and sends prisoners to other countries to be tortured–when we don’t torture them ourselves.
In the American Revolution, the number one cause of death for American soldiers was maltreatment and disease in British POW camps. In the Civil War, Andersonville was a cause of national outrage. In the early 20th century, the United States emphatically supported the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. In World War II, German soldiers happily surrendered to Americans in the West, knowing they’d be well treated. But in the East, they fought the Russians to the last man because they knew they wouldn’t be.
Now, in the 21st century, we send robot planes to bomb civilians in a country that’s ostensibly an ally. We have prisons where people are routinely denied basic essentials, denied due process, are maltreated and tortured. We reverse decades of tradition and not only have legalized assassination, but have legalized assassination of United States citizens.
And there’s no outrage on Main Street. There’s no outrage in Washington. There’s only outrage on the internet. And half the internet rage is coming not from the acts themselves but rather partisan bullshit surrounding them. (“You only hate torture when Bush does it!” “You only hate it when we do it to white people!” “Nuh-uh!” “Uh-huh!”)
The first time I voted in a Presidential election, in 2000 (for Harry Browne), no part of my consideration of any of the candidates had to do with whether they wished to torture people or assassinate American citizens. It didn’t have to be, because it wouldn’t cross anybody’s mind to have a position on it. Americans don’t torture. That was our position. We were a shining city on a hill. You can’t torture people in the basement if you’re trying to set an example of decency to the world.
In 2004, this became a partial voting issue, as John Kerry oh so politely pointed out that maybe throwing people into a prison might be a little wrong? Maybe? But since at the time Kerry seemed to be supporting whichever way the wind was blowing, it didn’t seem to matter as much. (In the end, I voted for “None of the Above.”)
Then in 2008, one major reason why I voted for Barack Obama was because he forcefully claimed to be opposed to such policies. And I was mad that that was actually a voting issue for me, because you’d think that not torturing people is a moral no-brainer.
But, as it turned out, Obama lied.
Now, as I look to vote in 2012, I realize that just like in 2000, no part of my consideration for any of the candidates will involve their positions on torture, war crimes, secret prisons, renditions, etc.
Because both candidates will be in favor. Without apology.
The policy of indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects – brought together under the made-up ‘legal’ category of ‘illegal enemy combatants’ – in a satellite area of the United States, the prison camp at Guántanamo Bay, was a hallmark of the Bush-Cheney administration’s ‘war’ on terrorism. It has been kept in place by President Obama.
Now, after 9 years of detention in a cage, a prisoner, Awal Gul, has died of heart malfunction at age 48. He was one of 173 still in detention at Gitmo, and of 50 not considered for a trial or release. The Supreme Court in the 2008 Boumediene v. Bush case confirmed the right of detainees to a habeas corpus hearing in a federal court. Gul filed his habeas petition in March 2010, 11 months ago, but the judge, for some reason, never got to reviewing it. Now the guy’s dead.
While the U.S. claims he was a Taliban commander, Gul has long insisted that he quit the Taliban a year before the 9/11 attack because, as his lawyer put it, “he was disgusted by the Taliban’s growing penchant for corruption and abuse.”
This episode illustrates that the U.S. Government’s detention policy — still — amounts to imposing life sentences on people without bothering to prove they did anything wrong.
This episode also demonstrates the absurdity of those who claim that President Obama has been oh-so-eagerly trying to close Guantanamo only to be thwarted by a recalcitrant Congress. The Obama administration has sought to “close” the camp only in the most meaningless sense of that word: by moving its defining injustice — indefinite, due-process-free detention — a few thousand miles north onto U.S. soil. But the crux of the Guantanamo travesty — indefinite detention — is something the Obama administration has long planned to preserve, and that has nothing to do with what Congress has or has not done. Indeed, Gul was one of the 50 detainees designated by Obama for that repressive measure. Thus, had Gul survived, the Obama administration would have sought to keep him imprisoned indefinitely without any pretense of charging him with a crime – neither in a military commission nor a real court. Instead, they would have simply continued the Bush/Cheney policy of imprisoning him indefinitely without any charges.
Gul had filed a habeas petition and it was fully argued before a federal court back in March — 11 months ago. The federal judge never got around to issuing a ruling.
Gul’s death — and what turned out to be his due-process-free life sentence — is an important reminder of the heinous detention policies of the U.S.: not as a matter of the Bush/Cheney past, but very much the current U.S. posture as well. The only difference is that there is no more partisan gain to be squeezed from the controversy, so it has blissfully disappeared into the harmonious dead zone of bipartisan consensus.
Looking back at the 2008 Obama campaign, one might distinguish, among others, two narratives that formed the core appeal of his candicacy: one, that he promoted himself as a “post-partisan” and a “pragmatist”, rather than the type of ideology-fueled politician that at that time was residing in the White House; second, that he promoted himself as someone with a very clear point of view on issues of the rule of law and civil rights. Obama, more so than other candidates such as Hillary Clinton, was very clear about his opposition to Guantánamo Bay, torture, and infringements on civil rights that had become the hallmark of the Bush-Cheney presidency.
Yet, today, Obama has clearly failed to live up to his campaign promises in the latter regard. Guantánamo is still open, a terror suspects’ assassination program for American citizens has been set up, civilian trials for terror suspects are cancelled, habeas corpus rights are not restored, the state secrets doctrine is being invoked, etc. The Obama administration in this area is Bush-lite, in every respect. And all the more frustrating is that the President doesn’t seem to care.
So this might be interpreted as the “pragmatist” narrative having won from the “moral” narrative… As the authors below do. Although I’d say that “pragmatism”, just like “centrism”, is a quasi-neutral term meant to hide very concrete positions, just like Obama is taking. Positions of which “liberals” and “progressives” (or, people who care about the rule of law) have every right to be disappointed about.
Andy Bacevich at The New Republic, first, voices a very to the point criticism of Obama’s presidency so far:
Obama’s supporters were counting on him to bring to the White House an enlightened moral sensibility: He would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different—and truer—inner compass. Events have demolished such expectations. Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core.
The case for pragmatism, especially after the ideology-drenched years of Bush and Cheney, is a powerful one. On issues like the bank bailout (wildly successful) or health insurance reform (a messy but important advance) or balancing short term demand with long term austerity, we need pragmatism. But there are some areas where that instinct can come to seem unwise.
Sending young men to risk their lives is one of them; refusing to live up to core Geneva Conventions requirements – like investigating and, if appropriate, prosecuting those guilty of war crimes is another; dittocivilrights, where pragmatic politics is never enough.
This sounds harsh, but it’s simply the way it is. Two months ago, we blogged about the secret hit list program, enacted by President Bush in the days after 9/11 and continued by President Obama, that gives the American president the “authority” to kill American citizens abroad if they are suspected of involvement in carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States. Then, radical Muslim cleric Anwar Aulaqi, U.S. citizen and Yemen resident, suspected of involvement in the Fort Hood shootings and the Detroit underpants bomber incident, was considered to be one of the targets. Now he’s been officially approved for elimination.
Of course, you might think that terrorists are mindless people bent on killing others as much as they can themselves, and that their elimination as war combatants is simply the normal thing to do. But you have to realize that first of all, whether strong evidence against them exists or not, they are still suspects. They have not been brought to court, been given a trial, and through due process been convicted of criminal activities. They are suspected of terrorist activity. Second, these are American citizens. That means they are an inherent part of the American polity; they have political, economical and social rights. They are entitled to the protection of the state against violence, and if they commit crimes, to be prosecuted and convicted by the state within the boundaries of the rule of law. That is what the state is for. They are not to be subjects of targeted killing, of the most fundamental form of violence imaginable: death, brought on to them by an almost omnipresent entity, without any protection against this whatsoever.
Barack Obama, however, thinks otherwise.
This is the president of hope and change. And he goes further than George Bush and Dick Cheney ever went.
The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.
Mr. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and spent years in the United States as an imam, is in hiding in Yemen. He has been the focus of intense scrutiny since he was linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, and then to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25.
American counterterrorism officials say Mr. Awlaki is an operative of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terror network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They say they believe that he has become a recruiter for the terrorist network, feeding prospects into plots aimed at the United States and at Americans abroad, the officials said.
It is extremely rare, if notunprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said. A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.
The possibility that Mr. Awlaki might be added to the target list was reported by The Los Angeles Times in January, and Reuters reported on Tuesday that he was approved for capture or killing.
“The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,” said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity. “He’s gotten involved in plots.”
The official added: “The United States works, exactly as the American people expect, to overcome threats to their security, and this individual — through his own actions — has become one. Awlaki knows what he’s done, and he knows he won’t be met with handshakes and flowers. None of this should surprise anyone.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think terrorists are very evil and I actually think Obama is the best president, both in terms of governing and personally, since, I don’t know, Johnson or FDR. But people have to realize what these moves represent. They represent a shift from a situation in which the rule of law reigns, in which individuals are protected by rights against the powers of the state, to a situation of lawlessness, to an executive power that deems it within its discretion to target and kill anyone (yes, anyone on the planet) who they deem a threat. And Obama is presiding over this shift.
Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.” They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?
Even if you’re someone who does want the President to have the power to order American citizens killed without a trial by decreeing that they are Terrorists (and it’s worth remembering that if you advocate that power, it’s going to be vested in all Presidents, not just the ones who are as Nice, Good, Kind-Hearted and Trustworthy as Barack Obama), shouldn’t there at least be some judicial approval required? Do we really want the President to be able to make this decision unilaterally and without outside checks? Remember when many Democrats were horrified (or at least when they purported to be) at the idea that Bush was merely eavesdropping on American citizens without judicial approval? Shouldn’t we be at least as concerned about the President’s being able to assassinate Americans without judicial oversight?
And Greenwald’s recent post on this matter should make any Obama supporter think. Just compare his statements as a candidate with his extreme actions today.
5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?
[Obama]: No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.
So back then, Obama said the President lacks the power merely to detain U.S. citizens without charges. Now, as President, he claims the power to assassinate them without charges. Could even his hardest-core loyalists try to reconcile that with a straight face? As Spencer Ackerman documents today, not even John Yoo claimed that the President possessed the power Obama is claiming here.