Friday, May 24, 2013

The President tries to turn the ship of state


Headline at TPM

Yesterday President Obama called out many of the follies and crimes that have passed for national policy since 9/11. Good for him! I mean that, though I remain mad as hell that he didn't give essentially the same speech on January 21, 2009 when coming into office. I don't believe for a minute this man didn't know then what he obviously knows now: the previous administration ran the country off the rails when offered the opportunity by our post-9/11 hysteria, rage and fear. We put this guy in office to try to turn this unwieldy empire away from that course and he's been a mix of backward, slow, and recalcitrant about the task.

But this speech was progress -- though he still left out part of making the turn that requires investigation and punishment of war crimes. I guess we have to remember that when the powerful are the criminals, getting to justice is a long slog.

Given Obama's track record, it's hard to be confident that he'll actually do anything that genuinely constrains US militarism or his own executive power. I'm sure there will be a lot of parsing and half measures that allow too many abuses to continue. But at least he's on record for dialing down fear and respecting law more than has been the U.S. norm of late.

I've collected some bits from the speech that say what has too often been unspeakable in elite U.S. discourse. Lots of us have been saying this stuff for a long time, but here's Obama saying it.
  • … in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.
  • We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
  • Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.
  • … as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat [future terrorist outbreaks] closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.
  • …our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm.
  • To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it.
  • Any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas. Our laws constrain the power of the President, even during wartime, and I have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.
  • All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.
  • The original premise for opening GTMO – that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention – was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.
  • … history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?
I'm not waiting for the judgment of history; this country has long made itself a danger to the peoples of the world. It is time to change course. I've listened to this President and I'll be watching.
***
In addition to reading the President's text, it also seems right to give a shout out to all the people who created the context for it. He give props to our spooks and the military and I don't doubt there are many of them doing their honest best to serve this country and keep (at least some of) its people safe. I've got a list of some additional heroes who made a presidential pronouncement like this necessary and possible.
  • First and foremost, the 100+ Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike. They decided they would rather die -- and be tortured by force feeding on the way to death -- than accept that they would rot in a U.S. prison hellhole forever. I assume they are mostly detainees who've been "cleared" as not dangerous for years; hope raised and snatched away without reason can motivate both desperate bravery and despair.
  • Outrageous peaceniks like Medea Benjamin of Code Pink who somehow fooled security and was on hand to call out Obama's inaction during the speech. "You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today," she yelled. People who have been willing to pull stunts like this have played a large role in forcing our invisible drone war into the public eye.
  • More "respectable" peaceniks and civil libertarians who work to explain what those outrageous protesters are yelling about. I think especially of Just Foreign Policy, Peace Action, and even the little grouplet I work with, WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras. And of course the lawyers who have refused to give up on legality, including the ACLU and many others.
  • Finally, I think the majority of citizens deserve some credit for bucking up the Prez to tackle these issues. A significant Pew poll after the Boston Marathon bombing showed that we think "occasional terrorist acts are to be expected" but this perception did not cause our fear of terrorism to spike. Collectively, we're learning to live in a (somewhat) dangerous world and the President could speak to how we aspire to live rather than to our panic.
***
Unhappily, none of this ensures that any of the good things Obama proposed yesterday will happen. It's not just the President who will be judged by history; we, the citizens -- all of us -- will also be judged by what we made our rulers do. We have a lot more investigating, and explaining, and educating, and protesting to do.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Very good rundown of the speech and what all this may mean. I'm not too optimistic.
I'm in the middle of reading Jeremy Scahill's book, Dirty Wars, and I highly recommend it.

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