By Dennis Loo
The Democratic and Republican Parties are able to govern mainly because most of the population take their cues from the two parties about what is going on and what to do about it. The parties (and each parties’ leaders especially) define the boundaries of what is “possible.”
The prestige press (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The National Review, etc.) also stake out their positions within the parameters set by the major parties – though at times the prestige press leads one or both of the parties on an issue, producing a shift in their position.
I leave out of this discussion, for the time being, those in the population who are politically active and aware, but who do not take their orientation from the Democrats or Republicans.
Most people do not stray from the influence of the two parties except in the following circumstances: a) when both major parties are embroiled in a legitimacy crisis and b) an alternative legitimate leadership emerges from outside the two major parties and draws adherents/support/sympathy from among the public in broad numbers.
This is what happened during the 1960s: over the course of several years, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) exerted wide influence throughout the society. Henry Kissinger in his memoirs ruefully noted that the “credibility gap” created a vacuum and SDS filled that void.
The preceding helps us understand two remarkable phenomena of today.
First, many Democrats are reluctant to recognize that Obama, who they have invested so much hope in, has not been the agent of change that they expected. This reluctance persists in the face of the evidence and takes the form of clinging onto the belief that Obama, even though he has shown every indication of the opposite, nonetheless secretly wants to hold the Bush criminals to account. According to this view, Obama is delaying prosecutions because he can’t move on these matters yet. He is biding his time and waiting for the proper moment. This persistence of hope in Obama in the face of substantial contrary evidence also takes the form of people no longer openly protesting in street demonstrations the wars that were previously so egregious when Bush was president.
Second, we see a re-creation of the same kind of ad hominem defense that existed among Bush’s followers now for Obama. Among some of these Obama fans (a small minority) we find, when you scratch the surface, a startling degree of vituperativeness and ruthless dishonesty (including attempted character assassination) directed against anyone who dares to deliver the bad news that Obama is not doing what so many hoped that he would. This subgroup of Obama fans finds itself bedfellows with GOP reactionaries who have common cause with them in trying to prevent the Bush criminals from being prosecuted (tactical unity, for now at least) and preventing or discounting exposes of the illegal war crimes being committed, the predations of the national security state, and enlarged executive powers (present under Bush and now being carried forward under Obama.)
Hope Despite the Evidence: the Secret Obama Agenda Hypothesis
If a president really wanted to prosecute past officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but couldn’t do so right away for partisan reasons (e.g., fear that the GOP would destroy that president’s other policy efforts), then that president could conceivably bide his time.
Is this what Obama is doing?
The secret Obama agenda hypothesis doesn’t conform to the facts, among other things, because Obama isn’t just refraining from prosecutions and isn’t just blocking every effort for prosecutions: he has been actively upholding and reinforcing the legal rationales that underpin what Bush and Cheney did while in office.
If you plan to take a fortress in a year or two, you don’t spend the intervening time helping those in that fortress to repair and make stronger that fortress’ walls and expand its moat.
You cannot later on down the road return to court and say to the judges: “Those legal arguments we made last year, well, um, never mind. We now have reversed our stand 180 degrees. We now believe, contrary to what he said before, that US agents should have known that it was illegal to torture prisoners before June 2008. So please reverse the decisions you made last year based on our previous briefs.”
The DOJ would be laughed out of court.
If Obama really did want to prosecute these war criminals, he wouldn’t be defending their acts so vociferously. He would not now be making the legal case against these perps almost impossible to make down the road.
Another version of the secret plan hypothesis is that Obama is hoping that international prosecutions will occur. An interesting hypothesis, but consider this: the president has declared that anyone the US holds at Bagram, Afghanistan, has no right to habeas corpus, regardless of where they were captured (many of them outside of Afghanistan and most not on battlefields but as bounty). If Obama is hoping for international courts to try Bush White House officials, then he is exposing himself to the prospect of such actions against himself someday for his maintenance and expansion of Bagram and his continuation of rendition. If you plan to try someone for crimes – or pass that responsibility to others – you’re crazy to carry on committing some of those same crimes yourself.
Obama has recently said that his DOJ came up with their legal arguments in court regarding tortured prisoners’ suits and domestic spying because of the press of time. He said this in response to the criticisms being made of his DOJ’s actions and court briefs.
This is nonsense. Obama campaigned on the promise that he would restore habeas corpus, that Bush’s “state secrets” defense was wrong, and that torture was un-American. Obama’s transition team was praised for being on the ball and preparing well ahead of time. You don’t campaign on your thorough disagreement with the previous regime and then once in office suddenly not have time to do what you said you were going to do. You don’t immediately adopt every single one of the arguments used by your predecessor, and then go even further than Bush did in the wrong direction by claiming “sovereign immunity.” You don’t do this, unless, that is, you plan on not abiding by your campaign promises.
There is also in the air an argument that torture prosecutions would take “all the air out of Washington” and destroy any chances of pushing through any other legislation. If this argument holds true in 2009, why won’t it also be true in 2010, 2011, 2012 and beyond? If the reason you can’t prosecute the torturers and war criminals is because of the “witch hunt” accusations that you’ll hear from the GOP, then will the GOP suddenly forget how to fight you in a year or two or three?
This argument amounts to saying that it is impossible to prosecute those who have committed crimes against humanity and explicitly overridden the rule of law. Moreover, if hearings and trials were actually to be held, consider the fact that what is already on the public record by these criminal perps – the memos, the photographs, the testimony by various actors, the tortured who survived, the tortured who died, the public admissions and declarations by Bush, Cheney, Rice, et al – as bad as all of that is, what is not on the public record yet is far, far worse.
Hearings and prosecutions of Bush et al and his henchman will open a Pandora’s Box of stunning revelations. The GOP will lose all credibility for their monstrous acts and have nowhere to hide. If your desire is that the GOP be moved out of the way so that some good laws and policies can be adopted, then there is no better and no more effective strategy right now then to go after the GOP for their torture policies.
This is leaving aside the fact that they have to be prosecuted for their torture for moral reasons (a sufficient reason unto itself) and the fact that the US is obligated under international law to prosecute war criminals. If we do not, then we are complicit under international law.
The Ad Hominem Defense of Obama
This brings us to a consideration of those who defend Obama no matter what he’s doing. This doesn’t describe most Obama supporters. I am referring to a small, but significant portion of his supporters. The discourse of these ad hominem defenders (whatever Obama does is right, by definition, because it’s Obama doing it) is shockingly deceitful and sometimes outright vicious. They claim that they are against torture and the illegal wars, but they aren’t spending any of their time agitating against those atrocities. Instead, they are using the same kind of intellectually dishonest tactics against those who criticize Obama for failing to prosecute Bush war crimes that reactionaries like Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter use: distortion, falsification, deliberate misinterpretations, fabrication of facts and character assassination.
I have no problem with strenuous debate between people who disagree. Debate is a healthy thing because it can uncover issues from a number of different vantage points and can be a real learning experience. If you’re truly interested in the truth, no matter what that truth is, then you have nothing to fear from debate and discussion. But what this small group of vituperative vipers is about isn’t debate or the pursuit of truth. They are about silencing and/or discrediting anyone whose views they don’t like.
My objective here isn’t to pillory these people. I’m more interested in trying to explain this phenomenon: where is it coming from? What is the reason for some of Obama’s defenders resorting to techniques that normally we associate with the extremist Right?
The short answer to this question is that the Democrats and the Republicans have both shifted sharply to the right over the last thirty years. What was the political center over thirty years ago has now moved 20 clicks to the right. What the GOP today calls the “mainstream” is what used to be called the extremist right wing. The Democrats are the leftwing of the two major parties, but the leftwing today means endorsing and continuing to prosecute wars for empire, doing so with a greater emphasis on working for more buy-in from other nations (multilateralism), by being a little bit more “enlightened” about science (that is, seeing that science actually has some value), about global warming, and about cultural war issues. As far as the national security state and the prerogatives of the executive branch, however, Obama has proven to be at least the equal of the Bush and Cheney, if not in fact, going further than Bush and Cheney (e.g., asserting unprecedented “sovereign immunity” claims).
If you look at the 2004 Kerry/Edwards platform, what you see is a refurbished version of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. If you look at Obama’s foreign policy, what you see is someone explicitly emulating Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The Democrats of the early to late 2000’s are in most respects the GOP of the 1980’s.
When Bush and Cheney were in power, the Democratic leadership in Congress co-operated with their policies and refused to stop Bush and Cheney on any front.
This extensive collusion could not avoid also leading to the corruption of the Democratic Party as a whole and its leadership in particular. The Democrats could have and should have, but didn’t, stop the invasion of Iraq, extraordinary rendition, the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 (which was a martial law enabling act), the Telecom Amnesty Act, more than seven hundred signing statements and hundreds of executive orders, and so on and so on. Even when they got back the majority in 2006, the Democratic-led Congress continued to fund these wars, and in fact, gave Bush more money than he asked for.
US foreign policy has been openly engaged in torture and committing war crimes on a daily basis in multiple theatres for eight years. The Democrats blocked every attempt, which was backed by the majority sentiment in this country, to impeach Bush and Cheney. Even when Bush and Cheney admitted that they were torturing, after having denied it for years, Obama said nothing about it other than to say that once in office, he would look to see if any violations of the law had occurred. Look to see? The perpetrators had already admitted water boarding on the news!
Here’s what Obama said in Philadelphia three days after Bush admitted (on April 11, 2008) that he approved of the use of waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah:
“What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that’s already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued. I can’t prejudge that because we don’t have access to all the material right now. I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated. You’re also right that I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.
“So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment — I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General — having pursued, having looked at what’s out there right now — are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies. And I think it’s important– one of the things we’ve got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing between really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I’ve said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law — and I think that’s roughly how I would look at it. “
My analysis of this at the time can be found here.
The point here is that if you are a follower of the Democratic Party in the 2000’s, then you are also, knowingly or not, a supporter of torture and rendition and a supreme executive branch. Some of the Democrats’ followers are very clear on this, others aren’t. Those who are clear on this are therefore defenders of egregious practices and it shows in their behavior – they’re dishonest, deceptive and deceitful.
Those who are followers of the Democrats and Obama based on romanticized views of the man need to wake up and stand up for what’s right and just. They need to fight against these horrid practices and demand now the prosecution of the Bush war criminals.
Some are doing so. More need to and the sooner they do so, the better. They need to join the ranks of those I mentioned at the beginning of this essay: the politically aware and active who don’t take their cues from the two major parties.
These are the ranks of the future for Americans. They are the ones who can rescue us from the nightmare of the politics of the possible. As Leslie Basden wrote in a comment on my last post: “It must all come out.”
Let it all come out. It must all come out.
May 28th is a day of national protests against the torture policies. Add your voice and body to these actions.