Where did we leave off? 

I was writing about the difficulty of finding something meaningful to say in the wake of all the full-time, professional political bloggers out there. Too often I feel like I’m just offering a synthesis of what others have said, rather than any new insight.

Perhaps I’m holding myself to an arbitrarily high standard. Posting seems easier on political discussion forums, where I can just spout off some quick impressions of the issue of the day without necessarily worrying about providing proper background and context for everything, and where the ebb and flow of responses from other posters guides the structure and flow of the discussion, rather than having to organize it entirely on my own. Nonetheless, I ramble on… 

Thus:  I was also writing about the political environment in which the Obama administration operates, and the political pressures that have led the president to make some decisions that are very disappointing in the eyes of civil libertarians, and indeed of concerned citizens in general. Which, in the wake of events this past week relating to the disposition of prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere, leads us to the perplexing questions:

Why has Barack Obama backtracked so quickly from so many of the progressive policy expectations of his supporters?

and, moreover,

WHY does the mass media keep treating Dick Cheney as a credible public figure?

One of these questions may seem deeply relevant, the other facile… but the answers are connected at a deep level.

Personally, the only public appearance I want to see from Dick Cheney is a perp walk on the steps of a federal courthouse. The man and the things he stands for have been roundly rejected by the voters, the courts, and indeed the entire international community. He left office with lower approval ratings than even Richard Nixon… but at least Nixon had the decency to lie low for a few years, and the media waited the better part of a decade before trying to “rehabilitate” his reputation. 

Unfortunately, we aren’t so lucky.

His motivations for pushing his way into the public spotlight are simple enough… most notably, he has a book deal in the works, and wants to improve his market value. And on a more basic level, as the man arguably most responsible for the policies that led to so much detainee abuse, he’d like to stay out of federal court and maybe even indulge in a bit of foreign travel without fear of indictment. But why does this mean we have to be subjected to his self-serving rhetoric?

However ineffective he was at governing, Cheney has been a great success at drawing media attention. Everyone’s talking about him. The mass media loves to convince itself it’s doing its journalistic duty when it presents a story with “balance”—i.e., sets up a false equivalency between two viewpoints (excluding all nuances, factual background, and alternative views), and serves up a spokesperson for each one. It’s even happier when those spokespersons are famous and/or controversial. This happens all the time—Arianna Huffington wrote the other day about similar treatment of a dispute between Reps. Michelle Bachman and Barney Frank (who fall at opposite ends of Congress’s IQ curve)—and framing Obama vs. Cheney as a “debate” is merely the latest and largest-scale example. Thus, we get the Washington Post framing the story in terms of “dueling speeches,” and the sorry spectacle of ABC’s Chuck Todd (and he’s generally one of the better political commentators on the air!) saying,

…this seemed like this is the ultimate debate! That if you love American politics, American government, you got the most credible people you could have arguing each side. President Obama, former Vice President Cheney.

Todd must be using some new and exotic definition of the word “credible” in that statement. Online commentators are ready and willing to criticize the absurdity of all this, but the mainstream voices are doing their best to convince everyone they’re Serious. (Hell, they may be: as I’ve written, Cheney’s attitude toward the prerogatives of power wielded with impunity is widely accepted as a valid status quo in Washington, despite being rejected virtually everywhere else.)

Obama’s speech Thursday, meanwhile, and the positions it describes, are more complicated things to address on their own merits. It’s heartening to see that he’s still determined to close Guantanamo, and thus that Congress’s cowardly rejection of funding for said closure was not merely cover for a White House reversal. However, this comes in the wake of and thus in the context of his recent adoption of a Bush-style position on the “state secrets” defense for (blatantly illegal) warrantless wiretapping, his rejection of due process rights for detainees at Bagram in Afghanistan, his reversal of a campaign promise to release additional detainee photographs (citing a limp rationale about “inflaming anti-American sentiment” that has already been soundly rejected by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals), his endorsement of “limited” military tribunals, rather than actual courts, for some Guantanamo detainees… and now, in this speech, his acceptance of indefinite “preventive detention” of other detainees without any charge at all.

It’s certainly understandable why this represents a series of disappointments for anyone who cares about civil liberties. The MSM, again missing the point, delights to framing it as a division between Obama and “the left,” but that’s inaccurate to the point of deliberate misstatement. It paints acceptance of Bush administration policies as a “centrist” position, in defiance of all precedent, while simultaneously dismissing not merely civil libertarians but indeed majority public opinion as part of a fringe. (Apparently even Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Gen. Tony Taguba are part of the “hard left” now.) 

(Glenn Greenwald has, inevitably, addressed all of these developments in impressive detail as they happened, as have others including Andrew Sullivan, TPM, Digby, and in a break from the broadcast media consensus, Keith Olbermann. As Greenwald summed things up,

We’re currently occupying two Muslim countries.  We’re killing civilians regularly (as usual) — with airplanes and unmanned sky robots.  We’re imprisoning tens of thousands of Muslims with no trial, for years.  Our government continues to insist that it has the power to abduct people — virtually all Muslim — ship them to Bagram, put them in cages, and keep them there indefinitely with no charges of any kind.  We’re denying our torture victims any ability to obtain justice for what was done to them by insisting that the way we tortured them is a “state secret” and that we need to “look to the future.” …

And now, the very same people who are doing all of that are claiming that they must suppress evidence of our government’s abuse of detainees because to allow the evidence to be seen would “inflame anti-American sentiment.”

You can’t put it much more succinctly than that.)

I went to a panel discussion last week on the wide-ranging subject of “Pushing a Progressive Agenda in the Obama Administration.” Among the panelists was journalist Greg Palast, who offered the forceful opinion that the worst disappointment from Obama has been economic—following Summers’ and Geithner’s lead on the banking crisis—and that this should be the focus of any organized efforts to “hold the administration’s feet to the fire,” since economic justice issues are the best way of uniting the grass roots. I have great respect for Palast’s work—he’s an old school investigative journalist who’s not afraid to follow the facts no matter whose ox gets gored—but I think he was oversimplifying things far too much. Local ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka made some very valid points about the significance of Obama’s positions on civil liberties matters, and the danger of the precedents being set.

Historian Rick Perlstein, however, took a step back and tried to look at the big picture:  Obama, he reminded everyone, has to be accountable to 300 million people. One of the worst things about the Bush administration was the way they clearly cared about no one but their “base,” but part of the change Obama promised was to try to take a wide range of interests into account, and he’s following through on that. Moreover, he’s naturally cautious by disposition, and he’s a talented politician, so he’s trying to conserve his political capital for where he thinks it can best be spent. He offered all this not as an excuse, unlike some online, but as an explanation. 

Perlstein was largely correct. Anyone who voted for Obama in the belief that he would radically reform Washington (or for that matter voted against him out of fear that he would) was setting themselves up for disappointment. He holds many sincere progressive beliefs, I have no doubt of that… but he is not and has never been a radical. As a matter of personal disposition, of intellect, and of his training as a lawyer, he is instinctively cautious. Moreover, he is capable of seeing both sides of an argument. Unlike his predecessor, he does not rush into decisions nor base them on faith that he’s right. He approaches them with careful deliberation and seeks to balance the interests at stake. 

The problem here, then, has largely to do with the environment in which Obama has to operate, the environment that determines those stakes and defines the available alternatives. To some extent this is an environment of his own making (e.g., Summers and Geithner)… but on the civil liberties and “national security” issues, it’s largely not. He doesn’t really see or hear the interests of 300 million people. What he sees and hears, and feels pressure from, is the Beltway establishment.

And on the Hill, that establishment is also taking its cues not so much from actual voters as from the mass media (as discussed), and from the precedents of the last eight years. That’s why on the House side, only Russ Feingold has emerged as an outspoken advocate of investigating Bush administration wrongdoing. That’s why in the Senate, only six Senators (Durbin, Harkin, Leahy, Levin, Reed, and Whitehouse; Byrd, Kennedy, and Rockefeller were absent) voted last week to provide funds for relocating Guantanamo prisoners. The others (Jim Webb and Harry Reid are particularly culpable) are buying into Dick Cheney’s arguments….. or at least, they’re afraid that their voters will. 

Those arguments actually have no basis in fact nor logic. Calling them part of a “debate” is granting them a dignity they don’t deserve. What they’re based in is raw fear—paranoia that Someone’s Out To Get Us—and the paralogical conclusion that the only way to be safe is to set aside all the hard-won structures of the justice system that were actually designed to keep us safe. Corollary to this is the belief that questioning those in power who did “what was necessary” is somehow dangerous. And in this twisted worldview, those who take that justice system seriously, who believe that laws and civil liberties mater and those who violate them should be prosecuted, can only be motivated by the desire for partisan score-settling.

The facts:  there was and is no strategic advantage to be gained by torture, nor any principled defense of it. That’s clear, and thankfully the Obama administration has recognized at least that much… although holding responsible those who enabled it seems to be more than they’re ready for. We need independent investigations and full accountability; only those with something to hide should have a problem with that.

Moreover, there is no danger whatsoever in trying terror suspects in American courts nor holding them (until trial, or after conviction) in American prison facilities. The courts have tried terror cases before, both foreign and domestic, not to mention cases involving racketeering and organized crime and sensitive official information. They are capable of dealing with complicated evidence and delicate secrets. They do it well. And as for prisons… hell, that’s one of America’s major industries these days. We lock people up more effectively (and in higher numbers) than almost any place on earth. 

Other people have already parsed Obama’s speech in considerable detail, and done a good job of it. The long and the short is this, though:  it has lots of lofty rhetoric, but the underlying policies don’t all live up to it. Of particular concern, and IMHO genuinely shocking, is Obama’s willingness to move the goalposts on due process of law. There is a line the government simply should not cross, ever:  if you can’t convict someone of a crime, you can’t hold them. (The only exceptions are for prisoners of war, under specific terms which are defined by law and treaty and do not apply here.)

To say “we’ll allow due process of law as long as we think we can win, but if that’s in doubt we’ll toss the cases to special tribunals instead, or maybe just hold people without any trial at all” is to make a mockery of time-tested rules of procedure and evidence, of hard-won human rights, indeed of our most basic concepts of justice. It is inexcusable. No detainee can possibly be so “dangerous” as to justify it.

I don’t think Obama set out intending to make a mockery of justice. Nevertheless, that’s the direction he’s heading. Make no mistake, on its worst days the Obama administration (taken as a whole) is orders of magnitude better than the “abusive relationship” (to borrow a metaphor from Palast) we were stuck in for eight years. Even on these issues, Obama’s expressed concerns about boundaries and oversight make that clear. But the interests he’s trying to balance include far too many people who criticize him for repudiating too many Bush/Cheney policies, who imagine terrorists under every bed, and who have no understanding of nor respect for the American justice system.

And even if he disagrees with them, he has to be weighing the rest of his agenda. Energy policy is on the table. Health care reform is on the table. The fact is, sadly, civil liberties issues do not animate great numbers of American voters, nor their representatives. The view within the White House is surely that going out on a limb now to defend “the rights of terrorists” would sacrifice political capital he might never regain.

There are two flaws in this reasoning, however. One is quite simply that due process of law should never be used as a political football. It’s too important. Economic problems come and go, and new bargains can always be struck… but basic rights, once bargained away, can be almost impossible to regain. Preserving a policy agenda, no matter how ambitious, cannot be allowed to trump the law, the Constitution, and a fundamental sense of justice.

The other flaw is one he should have seen past by now given the response to his economic stimulus package, and that’s the notion that any concessions made to right-wing rhetoric, made to paranoid and paralogical thinking, will be reciprocated with any cooperation on other issues down the line. These are people to whom truth and justice mean nothing. To them Cheney, Addington, Yoo et al. are “people who tried to protect our country in time of war.” They’ll cheerfully trot out long-discredited myths about Guantanamo prisoners “returning to the battlefield”; they’ll use “CIA briefings” as a battering ram against Nancy Pelosi (and anyone else who may have been present) regardless of whether she had any power to do or say anything about the policies revealed. To them everything is partisan, and cooperation is nothing more than a sign of weakness. And if they don’t have Obama’s handling of these issues as a pretext to obstruct his agenda, they’ll certainly find another one.

There is a difference between pressure from the right and the GOP, and pressure from the left and from civil libertarians. The former are out to destroy Obama in any way possible, regardless of the consequences for the country. The latter are trying to get him to do better.

Marc Ambinder has quoted inside sources to the effect that Obama “finds this outside pressure healthy and useful.” Others are less sanguine about the White House’s receptiveness, however, and thus far the jury still seems to be out.

We should certainly all hope that the former take is accurate, and that Obama has is not completely trapped within the bubble of Beltway thinking. In the meantime, however, we should certainly stop thinking that Obama or any president will single-handedly change the culture of Washington, and indeed arguably stop wondering how to pressure him (as an individual) toward a more progressive agenda. Instead we need to work to change that culture ourselves, starting by putting more pressure on the 534 folks at other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and then by replacing those who can’t or won’t listen to reason.

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2 Responses to “The politics of paranoia and paralogia”
  1. Generous? Here I thought I was being critical. It’s neither excuse nor rationalization to say that he’s being overcautious with his political capital… much less disingenuous with his reasoning, as with the photos or the tribunals.

    The larger point, though, is that it’s misguided from the start to expect the president alone to do everything. The presidency doesn’t have the power to “remake the environment.” (And trying to expand executive power to that level isn’t the solution, it’s the problem—as many of the specific criticisms above of Bush-era policies illustrate.) Bush (and Cheney) certainly didn’t do it on their own. Most of the worst things the Bush/Cheney administration did relied on the active collaboration (or sometimes the studious neglect) of Congress, not to mention the media.

    As for Sotomayor… she’s actually a perfectly decent choice for the USSC, but no, she’s not a game-changer. Again: he’s being cautious. Whether it’s overcautious in this case is another question, though… I think you overestimate who and what he can “get approved” on the Hill. If it were as easy as you claim, then (e.g.) Dawn Johnsen would already be heading up the OLC (where she would be a game-changer), rather than languishing in committee.

    Electing a decent president is only the start of the public’s job, not the end of it.

  2. michael says:

    Chris, I think you are being too generous towards Obama’s tragic quest for a post-political politics. The observation that he must seek the endorsement of 300 million people and is working in a difficult political environment is a rationalization. The Bush administration had the correct perspective: those in power (re)make the environment; that is what power is and is for.

    This week’s big news is the nomination of Sotomayor, a dull and politically suspect selection from a president who could probably get anyone he wants approved in this “environment.” What can possibly rationalize this choice? Not a sense of political responsibility but an instinct toward upholding the status quo. Obama just doesn’t want to piss anyone off, and this can only backfire—and already is.

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