Monthly Archives: May 2009

Obama Under Fire over Guantanamo Closure Plans

At least in the area of human rights, Obama’s ‘honeymoon preiod’ seems to have come to an end.  Sadly, more and more it is by his own doing, rather than the Bush administration’s actions.  All of which  is extremely unfortunate, since it didn’t need to happen this way and so many of Obama’s supporters never expected him to maintain so many different Bush policies and precedents.  Obama inherited a tremendous range of problems, which gave him more room to maneuver than most incoming presidents, but that seems to be changing.

In the last few days, there have been a range of articles calling Obama out on his current predicament.  The NY Times’ David Kirkpatrick and David Herszenhorn focused (here) on how Obama has handed the Republicans a wedge issue when they desperately needed one.   Der Speigel (here) focuses more on the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) nature of what it would mean to close Gitmo.  While Salon published a long response to Obama’s speech on Sunday and reactions to it by Glenn Greenwald (here), which in particular highlights Senator Russ Feingold’s response to the idea of preventative detention (here).  All of it points to the fact that Obama now has his own mess to clean up and that if he doesn’t do it soon he is likely to be smeared by  Bush’s legacy far more than he would have ever wanted to be.

In general, the Democrats have been terrible at taking control of public discourse that deals with national security and the threat of another 9/11.  During the campaign Obama did a masterful job of controlling his message and use his immense speaking abilities to convince middle America to vote for change from the Bush policies, but lately his team has been getting schooled.  Now that being said, I think that Obama won his mandate on his merits; a strong desire to put the Bush legacy in the dustbin of history as quickly as possible; and the fact that McCain ran a horrible, horrible campaign.  However, the time has come for him to deliver.

Obama has largely been given the benefit of the doubt for the last five months on the major topics of the day – the financial crisis; fixing America’s banks; repairing America’s standing internationally; and bringing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end.  But the issue of torture and the closure of Guantanamo has refused to go away, no matter how much he has tried to push it off the front page.  Nor should it.  The public as been more willing to buy Obama’s rhetorical approach to that fact that the other problems will require a careful measured approach that will hopefully yield long term solutions, but dealing with the crimes of the Bush administration has been a different story.

Bush’s popularity for much of his presidency rested on his ability to take oversimplified stands that reduced complex issues to black and white talking points.  Good versus evil, us versus them, etc. etc.  Now I don’t want to see the public discourse return to this, but Obama needs to understand that in order for his rhetoric to stand up regarding human rights, torture and Guantanamo, someone will need to be held accountable.  Who that is may be subject to debate, but simply appealing towards a desire to look forward or to be forgiving is not going to work.

Guantanamo must be closed.  Each of the 240 remaining detainees must be allowed to go through a legal process, which will determine their guilt or innocence, and subsequent sentencing.  If Obama goes through with his idea for ‘preventative detention’ then this issue will continue to linger and his credibility will suffer as a result.  It may not suffer so much that he won’t win re-election in 2012, but his desire to restore America’s reputation and standing in the world will largely be lost.

The Abu Ghraib We Cannot See

On Saturday, Philip Gourevitch published an editorial in the NY Times (here) that perhaps offers the most comprehensive defense of Obama’s recent decision not to release photos of prisoners being abused in Guatanamo, Bagram Air Force Base and Abu Ghraib.  In essence, his point is that there is nothing new in these pictures, but that they would serve as a virtual media packet for those looking to recruit a new wave of terrorists.   This hews fairly closely to Obama’s rationale for changing his mind, but somehow it carries a little more credibility for me, since Gourevitch isn’t being motivated by fear of political blowback.  Furthermore, Gourevitch’s work in “We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families” on the Rwandan genocide gives me a certain amount of confidence in his motives.

I have to say that before reading this, I was largely disappointed by Obama’s decision, but within the larger context of his administration seemingly being unable to untangle the mess of Guantanamo and form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of some kind to deal with the legacy of the Bush II era.   We shall see.  He still has time, though I feel that the Democrats are still far too quick to cave into Republican fear mongering about anything to do with National Security and terrorism, but it is less clear with Obama.

More than anything, I feel that Obama needs to lead his party and the country past the mentality of 9/11 and the Bush years by providing a comprehensive vision about how to make this happen.  Perhaps, Obama’s decision about the pictures would be less frustrating for the left and the human rights crowd (of which I include myself), if Obama didn’t seem so determined to maintain other aspects of the Bush approach, such as the state secrets’ privilege, the use of military commissions, and indefinite detentions.

Only time will tell.  For now, I at least feel like I can let the issue around the pictures go and look forward to reading Gourevitch’s book on Abu Ghraib.

Oil Industry Braces for Trial on Rights Abuses

The NY Times’ Jad Mouawad has an article (here) about the series of impending lawsuits against major oil companies, which have become possible due to a new reading of an old law – the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789.  As it stands there are pending law suits working their way through the courts the titans of the oil industry, which has already been exposed to widespread populist anger last summer when gas prices peaked at over $4.00 a gallon.  When one considers the hundreds of billions of dollars in profits that the major petroleum companies have made over the last decades, then it is hard to feel too sorry for them.

The Times piece focuses largely on the lawsuit being pushed forward by Ken Saro Wiwa Jr., the son of the prominent human rights defender Ken Saro Wiwa, who was hung by the Abacha regime in 1995 while the Shell regime stayed almost entirely silent.  Naturally, Shell has denied any wrong doing, but is clearly spooked that so much of its dirty laundry will apparently be hung out to dry as such a case moves forward.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

Almost no industry deserves its comeuppance more than the oil industry.  Sadly, they have proven extremely capable of dragging out legal cases for decades, as they have in Alaska following the Valdez spill or in Ecuador in the case of Chevron.  Once can only hope that justice will finally be served.

Advocacy Groups Seek Disbarment of Ex-Bush Administration Lawyers

It seems that the chances of John Yoo, Jay Bybee and others architects of the Bush administrations legal justification for torture are one big step closer towards getting disbarred.  The NY Times (here), the Washington Post (here) and others, reported this week about the newly formed group, Velvet Revolution, that is actively calling for 12 high ranking former officials to be disbarred and judged for their actions.

As the Velvet Revolution succinctly puts it on their website (here):

“Torture is illegal under both United States and international law. The Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and it states that treaties signed by the U.S. are the “supreme Law of the Land” under Article Six. The Geneva Convention and The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment both prohibit torture and have been signed by the United States. These laws provide no exception for torture under any circumstances. Moreover, the United States Criminal Code prohibits both torture and war crimes, the latter which includes torture. The Army Field Manual prohibits the use of degrading treatment of detainees.

Despite this well-established law, under the Bush administration, torture was authorized by George Bush and kept secret using classified designations. The White House requested legal memoranda to support its use of torture and it received those authored by a host of attorneys, including John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Stephen Bradbury. Attorneys who advised, counseled, consulted and supported those memoranda included Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft, Michael Chertoff, Alice Fisher, William Haynes II, Douglas Feith, Michael Mukasey, Timothy Flanigan, and David Addington.

Their site also has an excellent archive of documents related to the US’s use of torture during the war of terror and a petition for any and all willing to sign calling for these 12 figures debarment.   All I can say is that it seems to be a good start and that no matter how much Obama might want to avoid such a move, it is great to see more and more people from civil society pushing for it.  Impunity in whatever form will prevent the US from regaining whatever standing it once had or deserved about the importance of rule of law, human rights and the idea that no one is above the law.

While some are claiming that this move is too modest, such as the Washington Post, I think it is important to remember that this would be the start of a greater process of revealing what happened, who approved it, and who should suffer the consequences.

Changing Obama’s Military Mindset

As criticism of Obama’s recent decisions about releasing photographs and documents that pertain to torture or human rights abuses committed by US troops, there is an excellent essay by Howard Zinn in the latest issue of the Progressive (here) that puts Obama in context is a more constructive way.

First and foremost, Zinn reminds people that Obama is a politician – rather than a regular citizen – and that as such his decisions are guided far too often by politics, rather than ideal.  The caveat, however, is that as a politician, the public can pressure him in ways that others, such as corporate power brokers or unelected officials, are not.

As Zinn says “Our job is not to give him a blank check or simply be cheerleaders. It was good that we were cheerleaders while he was running for office, but it’s not good to be cheerleaders now. Because we want the country to go beyond where it has been in the past. We want to make a clean break from what it has been in the past.”  Zinn’s reference to the past goes well beyond the last 8 years under Bush II.

As Zinn states, “we have to get out of the mindset that got us into Iraq, but we’ve got to identify that mindset. And Obama has to be pulled by the people who elected him, by the people who are enthusiastic about him, to renounce that mindset. We’re the ones who have to tell him, “No, you’re on the wrong course with this militaristic idea of using force to accomplish things in the world. We won’t accomplish anything that way, and we’ll remain a hated country in the world.”

Obama has talked about a vision for this country. You have to have a vision, and now I want to tell Obama what his vision should be.

The vision should be of a nation that becomes liked all over the world. I won’t even say loved—it’ll take a while to build up to that. A nation that is not feared, not disliked, not hated, as too often we are, but a nation that is looked upon as peaceful, because we’ve withdrawn our military bases from all these countries.”

Whether progressives want to accept it or not, Obama at this point represents power, pure and simple, and as Frederick Douglass famously said  – power concedes nothing without a demand.  It doesn’t mean that we can’t still have hopes and aspirations for what the Obama administration might accomplish in the areas of health care, financial reform, etc, etc… but it does mean that if the left wants to see more radical change its going to have to fight for it, just as it against any other presidential administration in US history.

Colombia’s “False Positives” Scandal, Declassified

There has been a few news articles in the MSM discussing the growing “False Positives” Scandal in Columbia, which concerns instances where the Colombian armed forces killed innocent civilians that then claimed were FARC rebels in order to collect rewards.  This story has been gaining momentum since last summer, but it seems that now that it might jeopardize US funds, aka Plan Columbia, the press has caught on.

Global Post has a story today (here), which talks about the number of cases where 11 young people from the town of Soacha – a suburb of Bogata – went missing only to be found soon after assassinated by the Colombian military.  For a more complete break down of the story, I recommend reading Michael Evan’s piece from January (here) entitled “Body Count Mentalities.

It seems that the cycle of violence is still far from ending in Columbia, regardless of how successful Uribe claims that his tactics have been in bring peace back to much of the country.

A U.S. Hog Giant Transforms Eastern Europe

Today’s NY Times (here) has a revealing article about how the US and the European Union continue to subsidize and to corporatize their respective farming industries to the detriment of small farmers at home and in the developing world.  In many ways, the story should be read along side another NY Times article from a little over a year ago (here) “Old Ways, New Pain for Farms in Poland.”  Both paint a bleak picture for the small farmers across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

In many ways, the farming culture of the Czech Republic and other CEE countries was effectively destroyed by the Soviet Union’s drive to collectivize small farmers in the 1950s and 1960s.  Much like the Soviet system as a whole it was epically inefficient, corrupt and designed to suppress individuality, but what it did do well was keep a small number of basic foodstuff affordable for the masses, even if there wasn’t always enough to go around.  Much of this has not changed in CEE since the Soviet system collapsed between 1989 and 1991, but over the last 20 years neoliberal capitalism and EU bureaucracy have made it even harder for small farmers to stay viable.

Today’s Times article points out the mentality that has driven Smithfield Food’s to industrialize its farming methods and expand so aggressively is based on the fact that “in the United States…pork prices dropped by about one-fifth between 1970 and 2004 [which has  resulted in an] annual savings of about $29 per consumer.”  So an entire live style has been eradicated for a saving of less than $30 a year.  I know that pork is popular in Central and Eastern Europe, but I highly doubt that this would be enough to justify the rest of the figures mentioned in the article –

In Romania, the number of hog farmers has declined 90 percent — to 52,100 in 2007 from 477,030 in 2003… [and]in Poland, there were 1.1 million hog farmers in 1996 [but that] number fell 56 percent by 2008.  So a loss of almost 1 million pig farmers in 5 years is worth a savings of $30 dollars a year.  Really?

Where today’s article and the older one from 2008 get even more insane in my opinion are the ways in which the European Union are subsidizing this process by paying companies like Smithfield Foods millions of Euros for doing so.  I can understand that bureaucrats want to be able to make sure that things are sanitary and regulated, but when such steps are putting small farmers out of business and/or in a bind.  They can either move towards growing single monoculture crops, like wheat, rape seed (the main ingredient for canola oil – the name wouldn’t sell nearly as well without the rebranding as canola), and various grains largely meant for animal feed; sell their property to land developers; or watch their margins shrink to the point where it is almost certain that none of their children will follow in their footsteps.

Hopefully, the EU and the US will realize before its too late that small farmers are one of the solutions to the environmental crises looming on the horizon and that losing them will weaken their societies as a whole.  Not to mention the diseases, like the current swine flu or MRSA (see article here), that are directly linked to such practices.