President Obama has been riding high the past few weeks, moving forward on his agenda from health care to nuclear arms reduction to the prospect of appointing another judge to the Supreme Court. However, there’s a dark lining to this fluffy white cloud of hope and change – his record on civil liberties. Specifically, the problem is that the Obama Administration still reserves to itself the power to indefinitely imprison – and even outright kill – and American citizen, without public trial or evidence or due process of law. Two cases in particular stand out: the first is the case of Syed Fahad Hashmi, who has been held for three years in solitary confinement in a a New York City prison, and the second is the decision to add Anwar al-Awlaki to a CIA “target list” which permits US forces to essentially kill him on sight. Neither of these men are the type I’d want to invite over to dinner, but the fact remains that as US citizens they are guaranteed – in fact, not theory – the due process of law.
The conservative movement is unsurprisingly utterly silent about this1. However, the Left is rightly pushing back hard. The best critiques of Obama on this front have consistently been from Glenn Greenwald at Salon, and his latest piece builds on his arguments over the past year:
In Barack Obama’s America, the way guilt is determined for American citizens — and a death penalty imposed — is that the President, like the King he thinks he is, secretly decrees someone’s guilt as a Terrorist. He then dispatches his aides to run to America’s newspapers — cowardly hiding behind the shield of anonymity which they’re granted — to proclaim that the Guilty One shall be killed on sight because the Leader has decreed him to be a Terrorist… nd the punishment is thus decreed: this American citizen will now be murdered by the CIA because Barack Obama has ordered that it be done. What kind of person could possibly justify this or think that this is a legitimate government power?
(read the whole thing, and click his supporting links as well).
Glenn’s question isn’t just rhetorical, but aimed directly at people like me who are generally supportive of President Obama’s agenda. While I do not “justify” these actions, nor do I think they are legitimate, I do not consider them a deal-breaker for my support of the President, which is probably enough to convict me in the eyes of the Progressive Left as an Obama fanatic, or “Obama-Bot”2 (essentially, that I am an unthinking robot, blindly following programming to love Dear Leader instead of seeing the Truth).
The key issue here of disconnect seems to be a misunderstanding of how the American government operates. Most of the critique from the Leftf takes the form of, “Obama should …” or “Obama didn’t…” – usually indicating a desire to essentially reverse every decision or process implemented by the Bush Administration, on the theory that 100% of the Bush actions were wrong because they were perfomed by Bush. The idea that Obama might have evaluated Bush policies on their merits, and that Obama might actually be constrained in adjusting even the ones he disagrees with, is an alien one to cynical observers on the Left.
No President is a dictator. The President is actually a centrally-located decision making node in a hierarchy of nodes, many of which form networks within the overall structure that serve to counteract his influence (often by design). Ultimately, everything the President does is a dance – much like the classic game of a wooden box with a marble – balancing everything to enact policy/move the ball – towards some specific goal.
Actually, two goals: re-election, and the welfare of the nation as a whole, in about equal measure of importance. President Obama and President Bush were no different from their predeccesors in this regard3.
President Bush appeared to have a lot of power solely because he had a Legislative Branch that had essentially abdicated its authority to him. The single most critical Check and Balance in the USCON is that of the Legislative Branch over the Executive, and that was essentially non-functional (with the Dem minority essentially cowed, unlike the current GOP minority).4
In addition, President Bush had the truly rare opportunity to appoint judges to SCOTUS that represented an ideological shift, unlike Obama who can only act to preserve the current ideological balance. The just-announced retirement of Justice Stevens is no exception.
Combine this with the national trauma of 9-11 and you have a Presidency that truly was unencumbered by almost all the usual constraints. The damage inflicted on the nation as a result of two terms (well, actually one and a half) would probably require an equal amount of time by an equally unencumbered President to reverse. But even then, this would return us to the status quo of circa 2000 with no major progress on any of the immensely important issues that needed addressing – health care, bank reform, Israel-Palestine, nuclear proliferation, trade, labor, education, immigration, fiscal policy, space policy, science funding, etc – by no means a complete list – but which languished under the Bush Administration’s focus on terrorism and Iraq abroad and a ideological campaign to push conservative dogma at home.
Note that the focus on terrorism was justified, but carried to extremes – but we cannot for certain say that those extremes were not effective. How can we ever know if Bush had the benefit of a Patriot Act that was only half as abusive of civil rights, that we still wouldn’t have had any terror attacks on our soil after 9-11 on that scale? How can anyone test that hypothesis? Bush saw it as his responsibility to err on the side of caution. That was his choice – and thus his legacy – but I doubt he will ever lose sleep over that decision.
And Bush did not create a permanent change. Much of that anti-terrorist infrastructure that Bush put in place after 9-11 was already being moderated by his second term. In fact, he himself said he wanted to be sure that what was in place would be something that even a Democratic President would find at least partially justifiable, because Bush saw it as his responsibility to ensure that the safety of the nation was contnued. Obama has a fundamental disagreement with Bush on the means, here, but utterly dismantling the framework of 8 years would leave us vulnerable in a way that he too could not justify. As Bush wound it down between term 1 and 2, so too Obama will have to wind it down over term 1 and into 2 – and whoever succeeds him will have to continue the process.
I dont like it either. And I think that if you fail to see the gradual process of restoration going on – even during the Bush era, let alone the Obama era – then you’re overly cynical. I understand that Greenwald et al are ideologues of a sort and I think that they provide valuable pressure on ensuring the drawdown continues. Without them, the process would surely be slower. But this is why I dont read Greenwald’s essay and despair of Obama being no different than Bush, not when so much of what needs to be done is actually, finally, getting done.
Ultimately, every failure of civil liberties under Obama’s watch is Obama’s responsibility. But then again, thats true no matter what he does, because no President can succeed at everything. Obama has made the decision to prioritize the rest of the domestic and foreign policy agenda ahead of normalization of civil rights – primarily because those issues are just as if not more so urgent, affecting millions of lives directly, and because the threat of terrorism is growing, not reducing – including rightwing violence here at home. Obama will preserve what tools he has inherited from Bush, and even expand others, discarding only those like Guantanamo along the way that he sees as actively inmical to the end goal. And in doing so, Obama must navigate the network in a constrained way totally unlike what Bush faced. Its a GOOD thing Obama is constrained. But it requires patience on our part.
As a male American citizen, a bearded muslim, and a brown skinned guy who flies often to countries in the middle east, the burden of Obama’s continued (subset) of Bush policies is frankly more an immediate concern to me than the average person. And yes technically tomorrow I could be vanished, incarcerated without due process, and perhaps even killed outright, for nothing more than excercising my right of free speech. I’m not ignorant of the risk here, but to be honest the likelihood of all that is very low, and the imposition on my liberty far less than the economic difficulty I would have if my family lacked health insurance, or couldn’t find a job, or were victims of a terrorist attack like in Austin, Fort Hood, Waco, Oaklahoma City, etc.
What makes me an Obama-bot I guess is that I am willing to trust Obama not to abuse that (temporary) authority. And I trust him precisely because he is more constrained – by Dems, by Republicans, by the media, by lefties like Glenn Greenwald – unlike President Bush was. But that trust is contingent on progress leftward over time.
And I believe the Obama era will get us closer to center, so after him the progressive era can truly begin.
- This is much more important than being forced to pay a small fine. Once upon a time, “conservatives” cared about the entirety of the Constitution. Today, however, they invoke it only when their pocketbooks are threatened. There is a serious debate to be had about whether “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” but right now, the conservative movement is AWOL on that debate.
- Perhaps I am indeed an O-bot, laboring under an illusion of free will. But I will articulate my suppoort for Dear Leader nevertheless; it is up to Dear Reader to decide if it is rationale or rationalization.
- what? Did OBot Aziz just admit that Obama is a politician and not the One? revoke his card immediately!
- the reason for being cowed is because the Dems are ideologically more broad, so there is genuine disagreement about what policy is Best for the Country. The GOP is more ideologically unified, therefore it rationalizes its political opposition as Best for the Country. In equating its own political fortune with that of the national self-interest, The GOP had essentially made the calculation that any victory of Obama, however small, is a huge loss for America, and vice versa and loss for Obama, however small, a huge win. This has necessitated a almost 180 degree flip on the issues, including health care and nuclear weapon policy, from the times of such still-revered conservative icons as Nixon and Reagan.