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Obama’s Embrace of Bush Terrorism Policies is Celebrated as “Centrism” May 19, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Torture, Uncategorized.
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by Glenn Greenwald

I wonder how many people from across the political spectrum will have to point this out before Obama defenders will finally admit that it’s true.  From Harvard Law Professor and former Bush OLC lawyer Jack Goldsmith, systematically assessing Obama’s “terrorism” policies in The New Republic:

Many people think Cheney is scare-mongering and owes President Obama his support or at least his silence.  But there is a different problem with Cheney’s criticisms: his premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. . . .

[A]t the end of the day, Obama practices will be much closer to late Bush practices than almost anyone expected in January 2009.

Most critically, Goldsmith expresses admiration for Obama’s rhetorical and symbolic changes — such as Obama’s emphasis on obtaining Congressional support for Bush’s  policies while highlighting his deep concern for “civil liberties” — because Goldsmith believes that Obama’s rhetoric vests Bush’s policies with more credibility, ensures more bipartisan and Congressional support for these policies, makes them more palatable to Democrats, and thus ensures that those policies will endure in a stronger and longer-lasting form:

The new president was a critic of Bush administration terrorism policies, a champion of civil liberties, and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq. His decision (after absorbing the classified intelligence and considering the various options) to continue core Bush terrorism policies is like Nixon going to China. . . .

If this analysis is right, then the former vice president is wrong to say that the new president is dismantling the Bush approach to terrorism. President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run. Viewed this way, President Obama is in the process of strengthening the presidency to fight terrorism.

What’s most striking about the denial of so many Obama supporters about all of this is that Obama officials haven’t really tried to hide it.  White House counsel Greg Craig told The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage back in February that Obama “is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency.”  It was in that same article where Savage — a favorite of Bush critics when Bush was president — warned that after the first week of Executive Orders, “the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda.” 

Notably, Savage’s article was written almost three months ago, well before Obama’s announcement that he was adopting many of the most extreme Bush policies.  At the time of Savage’s February article, I wrote: “while believing that Savage’s article is of great value in sounding the right alarm bells, I think that he paints a slightly more pessimistic picture on the civil liberties front than is warranted by the evidence thus far (though only slightly).”  But as it turns out, it was Savage who was clearly right.  As Politico‘s Josh Gerstein recently wrote about Obama’s Terrorism policies:  “A few, like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, have even hurled the left’s ultimate epithet — suggesting that Obama’s turning into George W. Bush.”

* * * * *

In his New Republic article today, Goldsmith reviews what he calls the “eleven essential elements” of “the Bush approach to counterterrorism policy” and documents how — with only a couple of minor exceptions — Obama has embraced all of them.  In those cases where Obama has purported to “change” these elements, those changes are almost all symbolic and ceremonial, and the few changes that have any substance to them (banning the already-empty CIA black sites and prohibiting no-longer-authorized torture techniques) are far less substantial than Obama officials purport.  None of Goldsmith’s analysis is grounded in the proposition that Obama hasn’t yet acted to change Bush policies, thus rendering a nonsequitur the response that “Obama needs more time; it’s only been 4 months.”  Goldsmith is describing affirmative steps Obama has already announced to adopt the core Bush “terrorism” policies.

Just consider some of Goldsmith’s examples:  Obama makes a melodramatic showing of ordering Guantanamo closed but then re-creates its systematic denial of detainee rights in Bagram, and “[l]ast month Secretary of Defense Gates hinted that up to 100 suspected terrorists would be detained without trial.”  Obama announces that all interrogations must comply with the Army Field Manual but then has his CIA Director announce that he will seek greater interrogation authority whenever it is needed and convenes a task force to determine which enhanced interrogation methods beyond the Field Manual should be authorized.  He railed against Bush’s Guantanamo military commissions but then preserved them with changes that are plainly cosmetic.

Obama has been at least as aggressive as Bush was in asserting radical secrecy doctrines in order to prevent courts from ruling on illegal torture and spying programs and to block victims from having a day in court.  He has continued and even “ramped up” so-called “targeted killings” in Pakistan and Afghanistan which, as Goldsmith puts it, “have predictably caused more collateral damage to innocent civilians.”  He has maintained not only Bush’s rendition policy but also the standard used to determine to which countries a suspect can be rendered, and has kept Bush’s domestic surveillance policies in place and unchanged.  Most of all, he has emphatically endorsed the Bush/Cheney paradigm that we are engaged in a “war” against Terrorists — with all of the accompanying presidential “war powers” — rather than the law enforcement challenge that John Kerry, among others, advocated.

* * * * *

What is, in my view, most noteworthy about all of this is how it gives the lie to the collective national claim that we learned our lesson and are now regretful about the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism.  Republicans are right about the fact that while it was Bush officials who led the way in implementing these radical and lawless policies, most of the country’s institutions — particularly the Democratic Party leadership and the media — acquiesced to it, endorsed it, and enabled it  And they still do.  

Nothing has produced as much media praise for Obama as his embrace of what Goldsmith calls the “essential elements” of “the Bush approach to counterterrorism policy.”   That’s because — contrary to the ceremonial displays of regret and denouncements of Bush — the dominant media view is this:  the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism was right; those policies are “centrist”; Obama is acting commendably by embracing them; most of the country wants those policies; and only the Far Left opposes the Bush/Cheney approach. 

Anyone who doubts that should consider this most extraordinary paragraph from Associated Press’ Liz Sidoti:

Increasingly, President Barack Obama and Democrats who run Congress are being pulled between the competing interests of party liberals and the rest of the country on Bush-era wartime matters of torture, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.

When it comes to torture and Bush’s Terrorism policies, it’s the Far Left (which opposes those things) versus “the rest of the country” (which favors them).  And she described Obama’s embrace of Bush’s policies as “governing from the center.”  Apparently, Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies are Centrist.  Who knew?  Her AP colleague Tom Raum said virtually the same thing today:

Internationally, Obama reversed course and is seeking to block the court-ordered release of detainee-abuse photos, revived military trials for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and is markedly increasing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. . . .

Still, even though Obama may be irritating liberal purists on both national security and domestic policy, he has no real choice but to move toward the middle.

Adopting the Bush/Cheney approach to war and Terrorism is to “move toward the middle.”  That’s because only “liberal purists” oppose those policies.  The Washington Post‘s CIA spokesman David Ignatius (who I would choose if I had to identify one individual who most embodies the rot of the American political press) celebrated Obama’s recent embrace of Bush Terrorism policies as his “Sister Souljah moment” as he “polished his credentials as a centrist,” and then returned again to announce that “Obama put his responsibilities as commander in chief first — and his loyalty to fellow Democrats second.”

As Maureen Dowd pointed out in the non-plagiarized part of her column on Sunday, the reason Bush was able to do what he did is because “very few watchdogs – in the Democratic Party or the press – were pushing back against the Bush horde in 2002 and 2003, when magazines were gushing about W. and Cheney as conquering heroes.”  But all of this recent media commentary makes clear that media stars and Democratic leaders now are only pretending to find Bush/Cheney policies repugnant because Bush is now so unpopular and his policies were proven to be failures.  As a result, a new face is needed for those policies, but the belief in the rightness of those policies hasn’t changed.  They still consider Bush/Cheney policies “centrist” and responsible — only Leftist Purists oppose them — and thus heap praise on Obama for embracing them.  We’re still the same country we were in 2003.  Our media stars and political leaders from both parties still think the same way.  That’s why the more Obama embraces the Bush/Cheney approach, the more praise he gets for Centrism.

What is most damaging about all of this is exactly what Goldsmith celebrated:  that Obama’s political skills, combined with his status as a Democrat, is strengthening Bush/Cheney terrorism policies and solidifying them further.  For the last eight years, roughly half the country — Republicans, Bush followers — was trained to cheer for indefinite detention, presidential secrecy, military commissions, warrantless eavesdropping, denial of due process, a blind acceptance of any presidential assertion that these policies are necessary to Keep Us Safe, and the claim that only fringe Far Leftist Purists — civil liberties extremists — could possibly object to any of that. 

Now, much of the other half of the country, the one that once opposed those policies — Democrats, Obama supporters — are now reciting the same lines, adopting the same mentality, because doing so is necessary to justify what Obama is doing.   It’s hard to dispute the Right’s claim that Bush’s Terrorism approach is being vindicated by Obama’s embrace of its “essential elements.”  That’s what Goldsmith means when he says that Obama is making these policies stronger and more palatable, and it’s what media stars mean when they describe Bush/Cheney policies as Centrist:  now that it’s not just an unpopular Republican President but also a highly charismatic and popular Democratic President advocating and defending these core Bush/Cheney policies, they do become the political consensus of the United States.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy

Barack Obama’s South of the Border Adventure April 25, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Latin America.
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CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

 

By Roger Hollander, www.rogerhollander.com, April 22, 2009

 

It’s amazing what you can learn about a Gringo when you put him together with a bunch of Latinos.

 

Barack Obama, as the adored new president of the giant republic to the North, likely arrived at last weeks Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago expecting to strut his stuff.

 

The President would have been briefed on the question of the Cuban Blockade; the latest shenanigans of his putative hemispheric nemesis, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez; free trade issues, and the like.  But it is not likely that any of his advisors would have thought to advise him about the romantic and spontaneous nature of the Latino soul.

 

You have to have lived amongst Latin Americans (as I have for the past fifteen years) to understand how natural it was for Chávez to greet Obama with open arms (“Chávez Hates America” Republicans and the lapdog North American mainstream media equate disagreement with a government’s policy with dislike of its people; Latin Americans are generally astute enough to be aware there is a difference).  But what was really not only a stroke of genius but also totally in character was Chávez’s presenting Obama with a signed copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic masterpiece on U.S/Latin American relations, “The Open Veins of Latin America.” 

 

And how did Obama react?  According to his spokesperson, the president would probably not read the book because it was in Spanish.  Talk about a dud of a response.  And can you imagine Obama presenting Chávez with the North American counterpart to Galeano’s work, I’m referring to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States?”   I apologize if I’m wrong, but I would bet that President Obama is not even aware of the Zinn’s best seller alternative version of U.S. history, much less read it.  On the other hand, it would be hard to convince me that there is a president of a Latin American republic that is not familiar with Galeano.

 

Next up steps Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega whose speech includes a criticism of US imperialism throughout the 20th century.   In it he mentions the failed U.S. sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.  Obama’s response?  “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”  Ha, ha.  Very funny but quite beside the point.

 

But if there was ever a contrast between Latin American and North American leadership, it is exemplified in the person of Bolivia’s young, charismatic and dynamic President Evo Morales (But Obama is also young, charismatic and dynamic, you say?  True, but wait and see).  Morales, the first native president of a nation that is 60% Indigenous, would have arrived at the Summit a bit under the weather, having just come off a five day hunger strike, which he conducted on a mattress on the floor of the Presidential Palace.  Morales is a former coca farmer and labor leader, who in the tradition of Gandhi and California’s great farm worker leader, Cesar Chavez, is a strong believer in the efficacy of the hunger strike as a political strategy.  His longest previous hunger strike lasted 18 days (can you picture Bill Clinton going more than 48 hours without a Big Mac?).  The current fast was to protest tactics used by obstructionist Congressman that were preventing a vote on a measure that would increase Indigenous representation in Congress, and enable elections to go ahead in December in which Morales would be eligible to run for re-election (and where because of his immense popularity he is virtually a shoo-in).

 

Many if not most North Americans can understand direct action or civil disobedience on the part of a Martin Luther King, but from the President of the United States?  How undignified.  And to what end?  Well, here’s what Morales achieved: the obstructionists backed down, and the Congress approved the election law.  Why would they have done that?  Because Morales enjoys enormous popularity among the Bolivian electorate.  He went over the heads of the right wing congressmen and appealed directly to his people, and his adversaries saw that they had no choice but to back down.  Now can you imagine Barack Obama taking advantage of his enormous popularity to engage in such a heart-felt demonstration of his convictions in order to stand up say to the private health insurance industry and its bought-lock-stock-and-barrel representatives in Congress in order to achieve a single-payer universal healthcare plan (which he once supported but now is “off the table”)?  Can you imagine him conducting a sit-in in the Oval Office in order to face down the Pentagon and the merchants of death military contractors in order to rally the kind of popular pressure that would force approval for a substantial reduction in the gargantuan defense budget?  (Try channeling your inner John Lennon, and Imagine!)

 

So what was the interaction between Morales and Obama at the Summit?  First you must realize that for the past year or so, Morales has been the target of right wing terrorists, who have attempted to destabilize his government by brutally attacking his supporters and who have recently failed in an attempt on his life.  So Morales approached President Obama directly at the Summit – man-to-man, no bureaucratic intermediaries, no diplomatic niceties – and (according to Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana, who attended the session) presented him with specific information about U.S. mercenaries who he said were operating in his country.  The President again came up with a non-response response that was as rote and as lame as his others. He stated that his administration ‘does not promote the overthrow of any democratically elected head of state nor support assassination of leaders of any country’ (which, if true, would be quite a radical departure from past U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America!).  Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, confirmed the account.  End of discussion.

 

 

So what is my point?  What I am trying to show is that there is a refreshing authenticity about some Latin American heads of state, who can be candid and direct on a person to person basis in a way that we seldom if ever see in North America.  U.S. presidents go in for photo-ops and prepared statements that more often than not occult hidden agendas.

 

The tragic irony here is that Obama’s speedy and dramatic rise to the presidency was largely due to his ability to convince the American people of his own authenticity.  He convinced us that we could believe in him.  It is said that a person who can dissemble while at the same time projecting unimpeachable sincerity has the recipe for wielding immense power.  And Barack has shown himself to be a first class dissembler.  He convinced the American people that his administration would be a “genuine change” from that of previous administrations while in a few short weeks in office he has forged ahead both with President Bush’s major domestic and foreign policies (continued giveaways to Wall Street and the corrupt banking and finance industries on the home front; military escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a disingenuous promise to leave Iraq which he knows the generals will not stand for, and blind uncritical support for Israeli militarism and apartheid in the area of foreign policy).

 

Barack Obama did not get to where he is today by taking principled stands on issues.  He cut his teeth in the corruption riddled cradle of Chicago ward politics, where winning and holding power is the only principle that matters.  His cynical choice of anti-gay bigot Rick Warren to give the Inauguration prayer and his support of the so-called Jewish Lobby and Israel’s war crimes in Gaza are only two of many examples of his going for the votes and principles be damned.

 

It is interesting to note that early on in his career Obama evidenced his ability to project an image as an agent of change while at the same time remaining snuggly in bed with the status quo.  This is what a colleague said of him when interviewed by the Toronto Star in 1990 in a story about Obama as the Harvard Law Review’s first Black editor:

 

“He’s willing to talk to them (the conservatives) and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have,” said Christine Lee, a second-year law student who is black. “His election was significant at the time, but now it’s meaningless because he’s becoming just like all the others (in the Establishment).”

 

 

But I would add a caveat.  Few if any of the Latin American presidents at the Summit, (with the possible exception of Daniel Ortega, when he was the Sandinista guerrilla leader) have sent men and women into battle to kill and be killed.  They are not the heads of state of the world’s largest military power and self-appointed imperial policeman.  While on the other hand, from the moment that Obama’s hand slipped off the Bible on Inauguration Day, it was awash in blood (he is already responsible, for example, for more civilian deaths in Pakistan that result from U.S. unmanned drone missiles than was President Bush).

 

We should therefore not expect Barack Obama to be anything more than a slightly kinder, gentler enforcer of United States imperial mandates.  That is what he has spent his entire life preparing to do.  We need to realize that it is not “change we can believe in” that we should expect from him, but rather “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

 

Genuine winds of “change you can believe in” are in fact blowing throughout most of Latin America, especially in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to a lesser degree in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Paraguay, Chile and Nicaragua.  It is a refreshing breeze, one that North Americans also hunger for but will soon realize that they have been duped once again.

 

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