Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Obama White House, Bradley Manning and the rule of law

Joan McCarter in Messenger shooting: State Dept.'s P.J. Crowley resigns after criticizing Manning treatment Daily Kos 03/14/2011 captures what I imagine to be the feeling of frustration and disappointment many Democrats are feeling who hoped that President Obama would end the Bush Administration's departures from the rule of law, especially torture. Referring to the White House firing State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley for stating on the record his objection to the brutal treatment of Bradley Manning, she writes:

President Obama told the nation in his press conference last week that he accepted the Pentagon's assurances that "the procedures that have been taken in terms of [Manning's] confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards." With those words, President Obama took ownership of Manning's abuse, took ownership of actions that the UN could very well conclude are torture.

Forcing Crowley out for shining a light on the issue only compounds the problem this administration has with transparency. Its relentless war on whistleblowers and leakers—particularly in national security and civil liberties cases—is in direct contradiction to his campaign promises that whistleblowers would be protected because "such acts of courage and patriotism should be encouraged rather than stifled." It's also the last inheritance from the Bush administration Obama should have sought to uphold. [my emphasis]
Pvt. Bradley Manning is under arrest, accused of the felong crime of unauthorized leaking of classified information, has been held for months in what is starting to look like indefinite detention.

Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton, Marcy Wheeler and others have been following the Manning case closely. Their coverage leaves no doubt in my mind that his treatment constitutes torture. And very little doubt that it is being used on him both to terrorize other soldiers - torture by governments is always an instrument of state terror - and to illegally coerce him to give false testimony against Wikileaks.

If I actually believed the blather we hear from traditional veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, blowhard politicians, and warmongers both professional and amateur about "honoring our soldiers" and "supporting the troops," I would be surprised that they are not screaming about Manning's treatment. Soldiers accused of crimes are entitled to fair trials, even if it is in a court-martial. They are also entitled to have their legal rights respected, including the right not to be tortured.

Torture to me was only a partisan issue in the years since 2001, when people paying close attention to the news out of Afghanistan could see that it was being practiced by Americans there, and especially since the Abu Ghuraib and subsequent disclosures made clear it had become a standard practice under the Bush Administration, because it was being defended and practiced by the Republican Party and generally criticized by the Democratic Party. To me it was always a religious issue, a human rights issue, and a vital problem for the rule of law before it was a partisan issue.

As much as I hate to say so, it's now no longer a partisan issue in US politics. Obama's press conference last Friday made that clear because, as Joan puts it, the Democratic President "took ownership of Manning's abuse."

This doesn't mean that I'm no longer a Democratic partisan or that I put any hope in a third-party movement in the foreseeable future. If the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression along with two nasty, unpopular wars didn't shatter the two-party system in the US, it's hard to see what in any immediate future would do so. (Then again, a week ago no one would have predicted that the Fukushima power plant who most of the world had never heard of then would today be a leading news item worldwide. Stuff happens.)

So, especially given the increasingly authoritarian, reactionary and even nihilistic behavior of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is still the vehicle for hopes for constructive economic and foreign policies. The core voting constituency for democracy, workers rights, peace and the rule of law is largely the same right now as the Democratic Party's base.

In the wake of Crowley's firing, Republican commentator David Frum tweeted, in slightly garbled form, thata the firing reinforced an earlier formulation of his, that the Republican Party is afraid of their base, but the Democratic Party hates theirs. That's not exactly true, on either side. But it does catch some of the feeling, certainly among Democrats, on seeing the Republicans both use and follow their Tea Party zealots in an increasingly radical direction, while the Democratic leadership including Obama's White House seem almost eager to through the concerns of their base voters under the bus.

Progressive Democrats, certainly including organized labor, have gotten more aggressive in mounting primary challenges against Democrats who behave that way. It's a healthy trend, and one we saw the Republicans use in 2010 to enforce greater political conformity in what was already a highly conformist Party. It needs to continue. Democrats like Virginia's Mark Warner who support fazing out the Social Security program would seem to be especially promising targets.

I would love to see a primary challenge to President Obama next year from a progressive Democrat who would be a hardliner on Social Security and clearly opposed to torture - as Obama was on the campaign trail. The Obama White House has clearly become smug and arrogant enough to think that the Democratic voters have to support them no matter what in 2012. A serious primary challenge that would shake them out of that attitude would serve the Democratic Party well in 2012. Because the "professional left" the White House loves to verbally bash isn't going to be pushing for a third party candidacy in the Presidential election. But with the economy on the course it is and the Democratic President still apparently pursuing and absurd fantasy of being a "post-partisan" leader, the Obama campaign will find it a serious challenge to get their voters out to the polls in sufficient numbers to win a second term. Some of them that do go to the polls will be tempted to cast a protest vote for some chronic third party. And, as we saw so dramatically with the Nader campaign in 2000, that can make a critical difference.

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