Tag Archives: Obama

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.

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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.

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.

New Evidence of Torture Prison in Poland

As pressure mounts on Obama to launch an investigative commission to research who breached the Covenent Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, new details are starting to come out about other countries that will potentially be implicated as aiding and abetting the US in committing such crimes.   Der Spiegel has an article online today (here) that discusses the newly revealed evidence about the black site used in Poland by the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques against the mastermind of 9/11 Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when he was en route to Guantanamo.

The article states that – “Journalist Mariusz Kowalewski at Rzeczpospolita and two colleagues have been searching for months now for proof of the existence of a secret CIA base in Poland. The journalists have discovered flight record books from Szymany that had been declared lost, and based on refueling receipts and currency exchange rates, they have reconstructed flights and routes, and spoken with informants. Over the past few weeks, their newspaper and the television network TVP Info have revealed new details on an almost daily basis.

Kowalewski has collected a wide range of documents on his white Apple laptop. He is convinced, though, that he only knows “a fraction of what actually happened.” He is certain that there was a CIA base in the Masuria region, where high-ranking al-Qaida prisoners were brought. All that is missing is the final piece of evidence. There are rumors circulating that one of the most important interrogators of Sheikh Mohammed, an American named Deuce Martinez — the man who didn’t torture him, but rather had the task of gently coaxing information out of him — was in Poland at the time.”

With the discovery of such evidence pieces are starting to fall into place.  Now comes the more complex legal questions about who will be held accountable.  It is clear that over time the actions of CIA officials, non-US intelligence agents, contracted groups (such as Jeppesen Dataplan or Aero Contractors), and a whole raft of others.  As Chinua Achebe said in Things Fall Apart “if oil finds one finger it soils the others,” which is a very real way to think about how many individuals and country stand to be potentially tainted by the revealing of the US’s actions during the war on terror.

If Everyone Knew, Who’s to Blame?

Mark Danner had a great piece in the Sunday Washington Post (here) that discusses one of the central paradoxes of the current furor over the torture memos – that it was first reported over 5 years ago in 2004.  So if the information was public knowledge for the entire second term of the Bush Administration, why did nothing happen?

As Danner states – “Unlike Watergate or Iran-contra, today’s scandal emerges not from a shocking revelation of wrongdoing but from a long process of disclosure during which Americans have stared at blatant lawbreaking with apparent equanimity. This means Democrats as well as Republicans, including those in Congress who were willing to approve, as late as September 2006, a law, the Military Commissions Act, that purported to shield those who had applied these “enhanced interrogation techniques” from prosecution under the War Crimes Act.”

He also discusses the calculated nature of the memos and how they were written exactly for the current moment – to make persecution nearly impossible without dragging a broad spectrum of the American government into the public spotlight in a way that few high level politicians would ever want.

It is worth reading and reminds us how difficult it is going to be for Obama to successfully navigate this issue without getting his image potentially tarnished.

Reclaiming America’s Soul

Krugman hit the nail on the head today in today’s NY Times opinion page, even if I have a natural aversion to an analysis that have as an underlying basis American exceptionalism.  Krugman’s wonderfully simple breakdown of all the reasons why Obama should establish a truth commission to investigate instances of torture and human rights abuses during the Bush administration’s war on terror.  Therefore, I have decided to reprint the overwhelming majority of it below –

“In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

That said, there are a lot of people in Washington who weren’t allied with the torturers but would nonetheless rather not revisit what happened in the Bush years.

Some of them probably just don’t want an ugly scene; my guess is that the president, who clearly prefers visions of uplift to confrontation, is in that group. But the ugliness is already there, and pretending it isn’t won’t make it go away.

Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

For the fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.”

The president is having trouble straightening out his position on torture

Over the last week there have been a downpour of analysis about the potential political implications and impact of Obama releasing four memos (here) that explicitly discussed the use of torture in the fight against terrorism during the Bush administration.  Those on the left feel Obama didn’t go far enough – in that he has stated that he will not seek criminal charges against the CIA agents and their proxies – and those on the right, like Cheney, feel that he went too far – in that it exposes America’s dirty laundry for the world to judge and doesn’t discuss the (alleged) valuable intelligence that these tactics produced.  In many ways none of this need be so complicated – crimes against humanity were committed by those who engaged in terrorism and those who tortured the suspected terrorists in Guantanamo, Bagram Airbase, Abu Ghraib and any number of CIA black sites.  So why has Obama struggled so much with his handling of this?

I found John Dickerson’s piece at Slate (here) particularly useful, in that Obama has done this several times since assuming the presidency.  In particular, the problems that emerged after the AIG bonus scandal became a populist phenom overnight and sent people crawling through the Connecticut suburbs looking for vengeance.   In both instances, what becomes clear is that Obama wants to try and put the messes of the Bush administration behind him without having to fully explain himself, at least not initially.

One the one hand, I can understand why Obama doesn’t want to have his first term consumed with something like a Truth Commission, since the Republicans and Fox would turn it into a media spectacle that would make the OJ trial look like an afterschool mini-series.  But, on the other hand, these issues are not going to disappear and the truth must come out if America is to regain its moral standing – whether it deserved it in the first place is also debatable.  So here is my humble opinion on what should happen –

1) Debar the individuals from the Office of Legal Council that provided the legal cover for torture to occur, namely, Jay Bybee (who would need to be impeached from his Federal Court seat and summarily disbarred), John Yoo, and Steven Bradbury.

2) Establish a Truth Commission with subeona power and call Dick Cheney, David Addington, Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzalez, along with any other high level officials to testify about everything they knew, approved of and requested.

3) Reveal the companies that were contracted out by the CIA to conduct this work and conduct a thorough investigation about who approved these acts and make them pay damages in some form that can be used to either prevent acts of torture from happening again, compensates victims of torture in general, and strip them of their licenses for doing any future work with the US government.

Naturally, this simplifies matters, but it is what I believe needs to happen.   As impressed as I was that Obama released these memos (see Marc Ambinder article here), he really does seem to have lost the threat on being able to follow through on the implications of releasing such information.  I still in my heart of heart am convinced that Obama wants to do the right thing on this issue, but I just wish that he would do it then, rather than continually trying to hedge his bets.  As vocal as the Republicans and ex-VP Cheney have been about Obama’s betrayal of the nation and its security, he knows that they have no chance of regaining power through such antics alone.  Time will tell.