29 May 2009

"Some differences cannot be split. Either we are locked in an endless, self-defeating war on terror or we are not."

[from salon...]

In the shadow of Cheney

Obama could spring America from the dank culture of fear spread by Cheney and Bush. So what's holding him back?

By Gary Kamiya

May. 28, 2009 |

Last week, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama carried on a bizarre, disembodied and deeply dissatisfying debate about national security. In a major speech on May 21, Obama denounced torture, defended his plan to close Guantánamo and blasted the Bush administration's approach to fighting terrorism, saying it "failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions [and] failed to use our values as a compass." One minute later, Cheney -- who had been blasting Obama's national security for weeks -- took to the airwaves to warn that Obama's rejection of torture and his plan to shut down the military prison at Guantánamo were "unwise in the extreme." Accusing Obama of "recklessness wrapped in righteousness," the former vice-president said Obama had made the country less safe.

For the large majority of Obama's supporters who utterly reject the Bush administration's approach to fighting terrorism, the president's speech was disillusioning. Despite his soaring rhetoric about "upholding our most cherished values," Obama proposed eviscerating those values by continuing the Bush policies of military tribunals and indefinite detention. Coming on the heels of the Senate's humiliating 90-6 vote to keep Guantánamo open and forbid transferring any of its inmates to U.S. prisons, Obama's speech was a dispiriting confirmation that the country's leadership is still locked into the same fearful "war on terror" mind-set.

The sad thing is that Obama could have chosen a different path. Yet he clung to establishment positions that his supporters have long rejected. His decisive victory in November proved that America is ready to turn the page on the entire Bush era, from its economic policies to its "war on terror." For an exhausted and disillusioned country, Obama represents hope, and embracing hope means sloughing off fear. Like Cheney, who spent much of his time hiding in an underground bunker, Americans spent the Bush years cowering in a metaphorical cave, terrified that the terrorists were coming to get them. Bush's hyper-aggressive foreign policy, his trashing of civil and legal rights and U.N. conventions, were simply the other face of a craven and debilitating fear.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a dreadful trauma. But that trauma took place almost eight years ago, and a natural and salutary forgetfulness has occurred. One of the virtues of this still-green republic has always been its capacity to quickly recover from setbacks, to refuse to dwell on the past, to constantly remake itself. Of all the American virtues, elasticity is perhaps the most important. In a process as natural as the blossoming of flowers in the spring, Americans are ready to reclaim their courage. And they expect and want their young president to lead them forward.

Obama has tried to lead America out of the shadows of the Bush years. He has projected a calm optimism, a reasoned determination, that is a breath of fresh air after the puerile, bullying bravado of George W. Bush and the dark, croaking counsel of his evil courtier Cheney. And he has said inspiring things about the importance of defending our laws, rights and traditions, even in the face of terrorist threats. But because Obama has failed to directly reject the irrational boogeymen his predecessors whipped up, and because he has continued many of their policies, he has not been able to spring us from their dank culture of fear.

The Guantánamo debacle, in which Senate Democrats voted overwhelmingly to reject funds to close it, is just one painful result of Obama's unwillingness to challenge the culture of fear. The Senate was spooked by polls showing that Americans, their paranoia aroused by talk radio demagogues and Fox News hacks, were afraid that terrorists would end up in their backyards. Obama was rightfully criticized for failing to come up with a coherent plan for what to do with the Guantánamo detainees.

But that was not Obama's real problem. His real problem was his failure to forthrightly say that while terrorism remains a threat, its danger has been greatly overblown. Obama needed to tell Americans the truth, which is that no open society can ever be absolutely free from terrorist attacks, and that a society that allows its irrational fear of such attacks to cause it to jettison its laws, freedoms and most cherished traditions has already lost to the terrorists. He needed to say that while we will never forget 9/11, always honor the memory of its victims, and never let our guard down, we cannot allow one attack, no matter how horrific and spectacular, to determine the nature and future of our country. He needed to draw a line in the sand, and tell Americans that while he will do everything in his power to protect them, only fools dream of eternal, perfect safety. In short, he needed to seize the terrorism shibboleth root and branch and pull it out of the ground.

This would not have been easy. Politicians do not generally choose to ask their constituents to accept risks of any kind. Denying death may be mentally unhealthy, but it is de rigueur in politics. And even though the Republican Party is going through a meltdown so grotesque that it makes Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" look like an inspiring tale of personal growth, Democrats continue to be terrified that the right will paint them as "soft on national security."

Above all, there is the very nature of terrorism, which is, well, terrifying. Because it is random, indiscriminate, driven by hatred, and seemingly pointless, terrorism taps into primordial human fears in a way that no other form of violence does. It is a monster that inhabits our collective id. Since 9/11, the word "terrorism" has been a totem, a quasi-religious myth, a nightmarish archetype that occupies the same place in our national imagination that "hell" did for the people of the Middle Ages. "Terrorism" blurs the boundaries of political and personal fear: It represents at once a thoroughly human evil to be hated and fought against, and the impersonal, fatalistic face of death itself. Terrorism is fate with a hideous face, like the White Whale that Ahab hates and tries to kill in Melville's "Moby-Dick." (Indeed, the Bush administration's unwinnable, endless, self-defeating "war on terror" is more than a little reminiscent of Ahab's obsessive quest -- which ends, it is well to remember, with the destruction of his ship and all of its crew save the narrator Ishmael.)

Because terrorism in our national imagination is simultaneously villain and nemesis, human and inhuman, the "war" against terrorism slips into becoming a war not just against fanatical jihadis but against our own death, against the very idea of death. As we accept this, repression of reality and the infantile fantasy of perfect safety -- in other words, cowardice -- become the driving forces of our lives.

This craven position dishonors a country whose troops fought at Valley Forge and Shiloh and Belleau Wood and Guadalcanal and Hue and Fallujah. It is not worthy of the mighty nation whose diverse people came together 60 years ago to help defeat the most dangerous tyrant in the history of humankind. But it is not an easy one for a politician to oppose. Indeed, the cadaverous Cheney, who has now fully embraced his role as the horrifying shadow of our national soul, is essentially accusing Obama of leading America toward death.

Once the argument is framed in these terms, Obama cannot win. By tacitly accepting Cheney's terms -- by shamefully proposing that we detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without real trials, or by refusing to release photographs of Americans torturing people in their control -- Obama has enabled and encouraged our diffuse national cowardice. The American people will continue to cling to irrational positions, like refusing to put convicted terrorists in supermax penitentiaries from which no one has ever escaped, until Obama puts the threat of terrorism in its correct perspective, removes it from the realm of metaphysics and nightmares and returns it to earth, as the ugly but manageable tactic that it is. The only way for Obama to break out of Cheney's trap is to reject the suppositions it is based on.

Cheney's death-obsessed vision found its ultimate expression in his notorious "1 percent doctrine." As revealed in Ron Suskind's eponymous book, the doctrine held that the U.S. should treat an even 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack as if it were a certainty. This doctrine was directly responsible for America's calamitous behavior in the last eight years. It led to policies and actions -- torture, targeted assassinations, indiscriminate aerial bombing, detention without trial, denial of habeas rights -- that only enrage previously neutral people, increase the number of potential terrorists and threaten our national security.

Which is exactly what al-Qaida and their ilk want. A few fanatical jihadis hiding in caves cannot fatally damage the United States: Only the United States can fatally damage the United States. Under the fearful reign of Bush and Cheney, America went a long way toward becoming a country its own citizens would not recognize. As his May 21 speech showed, Obama clearly realizes that many of the policies pursued by his predecessors are irrational, inhumane, unjust and self-defeating. But he has not repudiated their fundamental error, their misapprehension of the actual threat posed by Islamist terrorists.

Which is why Obama's left hand has consistently undone what his right hand has done. He is by nature a difference-splitter, a position that has its virtues. But some differences cannot be split. Either we are locked in an endless, self-defeating war on terror or we are not. Either our laws, traditions and freedoms are more important than an infantile dream of perfect, eternal safety, or they are not. Either we are clear-sighted enough to realize that different kinds of enemies require different responses and that treating a handful of jihadis as if they were the second coming of Nazi Germany is foolish, or we are not. Either we live in the land of the free or we do not.

In 1933, when the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address. That towering president said, "This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

FDR's words gave heart to Americans facing a crisis and a threat far worse than any posed by terrorists today. The country has a new president, and it wants a new direction. It is waiting for him to sound his trumpet.


21 May 2009

greenwald does it again...

[from salon...]

Hailing the leader as a War President and the powers that go with it

(updated below)

In a February, 2004 interview with Tim Russert, George Bush provoked much derision by proudly declaring himself to be what he called a "war president." This week, Newsweek's Editor Jon Meacham interviewed Barack Obama, adopted Bush's label and applied it to Obama, asking him:

Can anything get you ready to be a war president?

Nothing excites our media stars more than saluting and fetishizing the President as a "War President" and "Commander-in-Chief" (David Broder today, in his column entitled "Obama in Command": Obama is "continuing, with minor modifications, the policies and practices of his Republican predecessor . . . . Obama's liberal critics are right. He is a different man now. He has learned what it means to be commander in chief"). But isn't the phrase "war president" a complete redundancy when it comes to the U.S.? Which American presidents were not "war presidents"?

Bill Clinton presided over his war in the Balkans and various bombing campaigns in Iraq ("Operation Desert Fox"), Afghanistan and the Sudan; Bush 41 had his war -- the glorious Desert Storm -- against Iraq, which followed his intrepid invasion of Panama; Reagan conducted his various secret wars in Central America and got his direct war glory by invading Grenada and by bombing Libya (heroically taking out the infant of that country's leader); Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were all "war presidents" in Southeast Asia; Truman and Eisenhower both presided over the Korean War and the Cold War. I suppose Jimmy Carter may be one of the very few Presidents to whom the label may not apply, since our military involvement during his four post-Vietnam years was of the indirect kind, though even Carter presided over the attempted military rescue of American hostages in Iran and the peak of the Cold War. And I've omitted far more American military actions from this list than I included.

In any event, the U.S. is, more or less, a nation permanently at war. One can debate whether all or some of our wars are good or not, but what can't be debated is that we fight wars far, far more than any other country -- basically, continuously. That's just a fact. After Bush 41's invasion of Panama, R.W. Apple wrote on the front page of The New York Times that the invasion "constituted a Presidential initiation rite" whereby:

For better or for worse, most American leaders since World War II have felt a need to demonstrate their willingness to shed blood to protect or advance what they construe as the national interest.

In other words, there's no such thing as an American President who is not a "war President." We never go more than a few years without some kind of a direct war, and are always waging covert and indirect ones. American presidents are inherently "war presidents." We don't really have any other kind. To vest a specific power in a President on the ground that he's a "War President" is to vest that power in presidents generally and permanently.

That's why this media construct that things are different for "war presidents" -- we have to give "war presidents" greater power and leeway; demand less transparency and accept more secrecy; acquiesce to abridgments of civil liberties when "America is at war"; and, coming soon under the Change banner, allow them the right to imprison people indefinitely with no trials even beyond "war zones" -- is so manipulative and misleading. It implies that "America at war" is some sort of unusual and temporary circumstance rather than what it is: our permanent state of affairs. In perfect Orwellian fashion, our allies can easily become our enemies (Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Mujahideen precursors to Al Qaeda) and our enemies can just as easily become our allies (Iraqi Sunnis, Gadaffi), but what never changes is our status as a war-fighting nation.

* * * * *

The decree that a President is a special kind of leader -- a "War President" -- is so pernicious because that becomes the rationale for justifying whatever he wants to do. During the Bush years, one of the most widely held beliefs among progressives and Bush critics -- and, prior to that, among Americans generally -- was the principle that people should be treated and punished by the government as "guilty" only once they have actually been proven to be so in a fair judicial proceeding, not assumed to be guilty based on unproven accusations by political leaders. Yet our entire debate over presidential powers and Guantanamo is now -- still -- premised on the opposite assumption: that the people who Obama wants to keep imprisoned in Guantanamo and elsewhere are Evil and Dangerous Terrorists -- the Worst of the Worst. There's no need for that to be proven in a court for it to be assumed. He's asserted it to be so, and therefore it is, and because we're a country "at war," that's all that is needed.

Since early 2002, the American government has repeated over and over and over that the only people at Guantanamo are Terrorists, the Worst of the Worst, both superhuman and sub-human animals. One U.S. military official famously said that Guantanamo detainees are "people who would chew through a hydraulic cable to bring a C-17 down." This was all assumed to be true without any need for it to be proven -- the War President, the Commander-in-Chief, decreed it to be so, and thus it was so.

Yet over the years, we've released hundreds of them -- the Worst of the Worst -- because it turned out they were guilty of absolutely nothing. After the Supreme Court, in June of 2008, ruled unconstitutional the U.S. Congress' denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees, federal courts that finally reviewed their cases began ruling that there is no credible to support the accusations against many of them. Yet still, most political and media elites -- in both political parties and across the political spectrum -- continue simply to assume that they are Terrorists. Think about what it says about someone who, even in the face of all the evidence of these continuous, false accusations, wants to vest the President with the power to keep people in cages indefinitely without having to prove their guilt, or is willing to simply assume that people we lock up are, by definition, Terrorists.

It doesn't matter how often the Government's accusations about detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere are proven to be lies. It's just mindlessly accepted that whoever the President calls a "Terrorist" is one, and that anyone we are imprisoning with no trial must be deeply guilty of being both Evil and Dangerous. Here's how Brian Williams began his NBC News broadcast last night:

The American people have been told for years that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba--Gitmo--is where they house the worst of the worst of those rounded up on the battlefields of this nation's dual wars. Most Americans don't walk around every day, every moment thinking of what conditions are like inside there, but President Obama has decided it must be shut down and those inside must be moved.

In fact, many of them were detained nowhere near "battlefields" -- but rather in their homes or off the street -- but since we're a Nation at War, the Battlefield is everywhere.

Chris Matthews yesterday said that "we [are] gonna have to face the fact that these guys are terrorists, they're going to have to be somewhere, it might as well be Gitmo," and then suggested that we just execute them to get rid of the problem (he wanted to know "why are we being so dainty about it" -- meaning worrying about whether we first prove their guilt before killing them). That was after Saxby Chambliss told Matthews: "We know that the ones left at Guantanamo are the meanest, nastiest killers in the world. They get up everyday thinking about ways to harm Americans." No need for a trial -- we should just take their word for it.

This is what being a "nation at war" and viewing the President as a "War President" --- first and foremost the "Commander-in-Chief" -- does to a country. Fear predominates everything. No government power needs to be limited. Blind faith is placed in presidential judgments, the assessments of the War President go unquestioned. Being in the military means following orders, so when all citizens start viewing the President in military terms -- he's "our" Commander-in-Chief -- that mentality of obedience is the natural by-product.

Most of the people at Guantanamo have now been kept in cages for seven years by the U.S. without any charges or trials of any kind -- based solely on the President's say-so -- and very few people seem particularly bothered by that. It's not really hard to understand why political establishments prefer this state of affairs to be permanent, and why Presidents are so eager to claim the mantle of "War President." What political leaders wouldn't be eager to receive the blind faith and virtually unlimited powers that the title entails?

* * * * *

Obama is speaking today at 10:10 a.m. EST on these matters. If there's something worthwhile to say, I"ll create a separate post as he's speaking.

UPDATE: James Madison, Political Observations, 1795:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded,because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.... No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

At least based on what they said, they considered "war Presidents" and "Commander-in-Chief" to be a lamentable, temporary and rare necessity, not an exciting and permanent state of affairs.


12 May 2009

interesting little thing...

normally my take is that rush limbaugh, hannity, etc. are the price we pay for living in a free society. nothing you can do about it. but this i found interesting.

[from salon...]

Radio rage

The assassination jokes and "liberal" conspiracy theories on talk radio could be an ominous sign of things to come.

By Camille Paglia

May 13, 2009 | In John Frankenheimer's taut 1964 film, "Seven Days in May," the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appalled at a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, plot a coup d'état to remove the president whom they regard as too soft and naive about the evil of America's enemies. The screenplay by Rod Serling (based on a 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) is filled with passionate lines that seem right out of today's talk radio -- "intellectual dilettantes" versus patriotism; America's loss of "greatness"; the superiority of military experience to civilian judgment and governance.

Troubled by the increasing rancor of political debate in the U.S., I watched a rented copy of "Seven Days in May" last week. Its paranoid mood, partly created by Jerry Goldsmith's eerie, minimalist score, captured exactly what I have been sensing lately. There is something dangerous afoot -- an alienation that can easily morph into extremism. With the national Republican party in disarray, an argument is solidifying among grass-roots conservatives: Liberals, who are now in power in Washington, hate America and want to dismantle its foundational institutions and liberties, including capitalism and private property. Liberals are rootless internationalists who cravenly appease those who want to kill us. The primary principle of conservatives, on the other hand, is love of country, for which they are willing to sacrifice and die. America's identity was forged by Christian faith and our Founding Fathers, to whose prudent and unerring 18th-century worldview we must return.

In a harried, fragmented, media-addled time, there is an invigorating simplicity to this political fundamentalism. It is comforting to hold fast to hallowed values, to defend tradition against the slackness of relativism and hedonism. But when the tone darkens toward a rhetoric of purgation and annihilation, there is reason for alarm. Two days after watching "Seven Days in May," I was utterly horrified to hear Dallas-based talk show host Mark Davis, subbing for Rush Limbaugh, laughingly and approvingly read a passage from a Dallas magazine article by CBS sportscaster David Feherty claiming that "any U.S. soldier," given a gun with two bullets and stuck in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden, would use both bullets on Pelosi and strangle the other two.

[Listen to Davis below]

How have we come to this pass in America where the assassination of top government officials is fodder for snide jokes on national radio? Davis (who is obviously a glib horse's ass) did this stunt very emphatically at a news break at the top of the first hour. It was from there that the Dallas magazine story was evidently picked up by liberal Web sites and disseminated, pressuring CBS to denounce Feherty, who made a public apology. The gravity of this case was unfortunately overshadowed by feisty comedian Wanda Sykes' clumsy jibes at Rush Limbaugh the next night at the Washington Correspondents Dinner. Sykes (who is usually hilarious) was rushed and inept, embarrassing herself and her hosts. But what Mark Davis did, in irresponsibly broadcasting Feherty's vile fantasy, was an inflammatory political act that could goad susceptible minds down the dark road toward "Seven Days in May."

Talk radio has been seething with such intensity since Barack Obama's first week in office that I am finding it very hard to listen to it. How many times do we have to be told the sky is falling? The major talk show hosts, in my opinion, made a strategic error in failing to reset at lower volume after Obama's election. When the default mode is feverish crisis pitch, there's nowhere to go, and monotony sets in. Lately, I've been doing a lot of tuning in and impatiently tuning out. As a longtime fan of talk radio, I don't think this bodes well for the long-term broad appeal of the medium. I want stimulation and expansion of my thinking -- not shrill, numbing hectoring and partisan undermining of the authority and dignity of the presidency. Rabidly Bush-bashing Democrats shouldn't have done it to the last president either, but that's no excuse for conservatives, who claim to revere our institutions, to play schoolyard tit for tat.

Not that Obama's policies and conduct shouldn't receive sharp scrutiny. Despite my disgust at the grotesquely bloated stimulus package which did severe early damage to this administration, I am generally happy with Obama's eagerness to tackle long-entrenched social problems, although there is sometimes a curious disconnect between what he says and what he does. The degree to which Obama is or is not a stealth socialist remains to be seen. But it's about time an ambitious young leader shook up the stale status quo. The sepulchral, doom-obsessed and megalomaniacal Dick Cheney's self-intrusion into the news last weekend was a nice demonstration of just what a fresh new breeze Obama represents in Washington.