Thursday, May 21, 2009
Obama lets two issues get away from him politically
Correction 05/30/09: This photo had been previously published by Salon on 03/26/2006
It's been a painful week or two for us Democratic-base, DFH blogger types. Because Obama let the politics of the closure of the Guantánamo station of the Bush Gulag and the of the torture crimes get away from him. And it didn't have to happen that way.
At the start of his term, he seemed intent on following a law-and-order course on both. He announced he would close the Guantánamo gulag station
Both were right in terms of the law and both offered distinct political advantages. But he didn't seem to realize that there was no "bipartisan" compromise that could be used in achieving those things. In both cases, the other party was committing to violating and evading the law. For the Republicans, law-and-order for Republican officials is one thing, for African-American drug dealers or undocumented Latino immigrants it's a very different thing.
Obama and his team didn't seem to realize or to follow the logical and practical implications of those decisions. "Closing Guantánamo" meant shutting down the "military commissions" kangaroo court system. "Ending torture" meant prosecuting all those who violated anti-torture laws during the Cheney-Bush administration. Continuing the kangaroo court plan and discouraging prosecuting torture perpetrators - apart from the very real legal problems with both - was not going to make either issue go away.
The torture issue isn't going away. It's too serious a breach of the rule of law, and the US "footprint" in the world is too big for it to go away. And it happened. The crimes need to be prosecuted, the failure of our system that allowed the crimes to occur in the first place and to go on for so long has to be exposed and remedied. The two are very much connected: if the torture perpetrators aren't prosecuted, that for all practical purposes insures that if a Jeb Bush-Liz Cheney administration takes power in 2013, they will go back to torturing prisoners. The same is true with a Huckabee-Palin administration, or Palin-Romney, or any other Republican combination that is feasible at this point. Ending torture doesn't mean just that the Obama administration doesn't torture people. Ending torture means preventing a Jeb Bush administration from torturing people.
I try to put the legal issue prominently in what I write about torture, because the political establishment of both parties and our sad excuse for a press corps hardly seem to notice that there is a legal issue. It's a very central legal issue, too, with a special status in international law under the Torture Convention that bans political considerations in foregoing prosecuting torturers. If the accused can be tortured with impunity, our legal system as it exists won't work. It's predicated on a fact-finding process that excludes coercing torture from the accused or witnesses. And the notion that torture can save us from the future dangers we conjure up as phantoms of our imagination is pure magical thinking.
As Gleen Greenwald vividly describes, the Republican Party's policy on torture is based on a foundation of limitless fear: Terrorists in Prison: is there anything the Right doesn't fear? Salon 05/20/09. If the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, then The Terrorists have completely defeated the Republican Party. And, watching Give-'Em-Whine-Harry Reid leading the Senate this to cave to the absolutely ludicrous meme that we can't dare to risk putting convicted terrorists in American prisons, I'd have to say the Senate Democrats look about as badly terrorized as the Republicans this week.
It's really been a bad couple of weeks for Democratic partisans.
To close the Guantánamo prison, you have to do something with the prisoners there. That's why I wasn't concerned until this week about the time-frame of the end of 2009 for closing it that Obama had announced. We have to dispose of their cases some way. Even for those who are completely cleared, that can be a problem. Because returning people to their own countries can't always be done: in a number of places, the fact of their having been in Gitmo brands them as a "terrorist" and might subject them to further imprisonment, torture or death.
For the others, the solution was always painfully obvious. Flush the "military commissions" down the toilet, and put the accused into the civilian and military court systems as appropriate to the particular cases and try them in those established courts under the established rules that have been vetted for over two centuries under the Constitution and before that in English common law. When the Republicans and Democratic pants-wetters like Give-'Em-Whine-Harry complained that Obama was "releasing terrorists onto American soil", Obama could have told them to stop whining and say if you were worried about that you should have been saying so when Dick Cheney and George Bush were screwing the whole thing up so badly.
But he didn't. Now the plan to keep the kangaroo courts is likely to delay indefinitely the closing of the Guantánamo gulag station. And it means Obama has now committed to entangling himself in all the legal and political problems that the kangaroo courts involved under Cheney and Bush. He dug himself deeper into that hole in his speech Thursday in which he said that some terrorists couldn't be convicted in court but were too dangerous to release. That's another way of saying he can't bring himself to shut down the extra-legal system that Cheney and Bush set up. And the same questions remain: if they can't make a case in court, how do they really know how dangerous someone is? Conversely, if they know someone is dangerous because they trained with Al Qa'ida or whatever, why can't they convict them of being a member of a terrorist organization or criminal conspiracy? This is what happens when you try to reinvent the wheel, which is what Cheney and Bush tried to do with the kangaroo court system and now Obama is continuing. The problems that have been worked out over two centuries plus in the regular civil and military courts all know have to be hashed out with the kangaroo court system.
And trying to avoid prosecuting the torturers has already meant that Obama is buying into some of claims for Executive power that Cheney and Bush made.
Despite all that, Obama presumably hoped that both things would diffuse those issues politically. Where did he go wrong on that? My thought is that he should probably sit down with Hillary Clinton for a long talk around that particular question. She could explain to him that any assumption that the Republican Party in Congress cares about doing what's right for the country is risky in the extreme.
And she could also explain to him that, while Democratic Presidents and politicians can often game the Establishment press, the Republicans are better at it because they've had more practice and because very-highly-compensated star pundits and reporters and TV anchors are very sympathetic to corporate conventional wisdom on many issues that aligns them broadly with Republican outlooks, even though that doesn't normally manifest itself as overt partisanship. But, even worse, the press corps is operating with a level of news judgment and analytical ability roughly equivalent to what you would find among the participants at a fraternity keg part at 2:00AM.
Given that combination of malfunctions - an opposition party that doesn't believe in democracy and a press of such bad quality that it will destroy democracy if alternatives don't develop fast enough - Obama was dreaming if he thought taking positions that nominally fit the High Broderist "bipartisan" script was going to put either issue to rest.
As much as the broken press wants to make both issues about Dem-vs.-Rep process, and also Reasonable Serious People vs. Crazed Law-and-Order Leftists, Obama's basic path to solution that follows the law and minimizes the additional political fallout is the same as it was on Inauguration Day: close down the Bush Gulag including Gitmo and put the prisoners into the regular civilian and military justice system, including treating those who are legally prisoners-of-war accordingly; and, prosecute everyone criminally involved in the Cheney-Bush torture program.
Also, recognize today's Republican Party and our broken-down national press corps for what they really are and act accordingly.
As I've said before, several bloggers have been following this and doing great work on it. Rather that try to cite individual posts from the last few days, I'll just link their sites: Digby and dday at Hullabaloo; Glenn Greenwald at Salon; Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel; and, Scott Horton at No Comment. And, of course, Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby keeps up his chosen role as a useful thorn in everyone's side by taking a hard look at the evidence that is being used in the discussions over the torture program and the Bush Gulag.
If you're looking to donate a few dollars to be used against torture, Marcy is a good choice. So are other organizations working on this issue, like the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
And here are a few recent items of note:
Obama's 05/21/09 speech Protecting Our Security and Our Values at the National Archives Museum, prepared text Washington Post 05/21/09
How do the Republicans do it? (cartoon) by Tom Tomorrow Salon 05/19/09
Playing the Pelosi card: What? CIA operatives concealed the truth about torture from a San Francisco liberal? No! by Gene Lyons Salon 05/21/09
What Cheney Said, What Cheney Did by Joe Conason PolitikerNY 05/19/09
Truth & Consequences Commonweal editorial 05/12/09
Bottom line: the torture issue isn't going away.
Tags: accountability for torture, barack obama, bush gulag, torture
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