Our National Security President
It has been a disappointing two years so far for many of us who hoped the President (probably from desperation) would have the ability to combine the policy wisdom of FDR and the judgment of Abraham Lincoln and the political skills of LBJ. What makes this disappointment all the more bitter is that it looks like the President has fallen considerably short, not so much because of his inability but rather because of his disinclination.
We have seen how the President’s inability or lack of stomach for either taking on political opponents or even making a case for a different approach has had the effect of producing watered-down and as a result unpopular legislative initiatives. As for the “stimulus” bill (what Democrats would traditionally call “job creation,” but the New Democratic Party is wholly run by Technocrats) and Health Insurance Reform, the Administration diluted popular measures in order to placate Republicans (none of which voted with him in any event) and the Washington “pundits,” at the expense of losing vast amounts of popular support. His political instincts in placating Lieberman and Specter and Lincoln did him no good, lowered his base’s opinion of him and didn’t even save their careers. The Great Compromise (or Cave-In) in extending the Bush Tax Cuts now has boxed in his Administration. Not only is there no money to do good, the Republicans have nothing to lose by doing evil.
All of this, of course, could be excused on the ground that the President and his badly selected advisers just aren’t that good at legislative politics. The President did not have much experience at it and didn’t even seem that interested in it when he was a legislator. But how to explain his conduct in the area where he has unfettered discretion? His conduct of the Executive Branch seems at least as disappointing, perhaps more.
Let’s take the camps at Guantanamo. What more clearly defined the Change we could Believe In? Wasn’t closing it one of the first things he did–with a flourish–after his inauguration? And where are we now? The President has determined that the camps will remain open, military, not judicial, trials will take place, and worst of all, some will be left to languish without trial, evidently forever, because there is not enough evidence to try them. When we voted for Change we could Believe In, I for one didn’t expect the change would be that the President would adopt George Orwell’s Newspeak to describe the continuation of policies that violate our national values. How soon will it be necessary to “rectify” the “malquoted” statements of “bb” before we will all entertain “goodthink” about the “joycamps” at Gitmo?
Well that day may be here sooner than you think. This Administration has already endorsed the plainly tyrannic notion that someone the Administration intends to liquidate must apply for a license to employ an attorney to challenge the government. (I pass over the fact that the Administration believes that it can target an American citizen for assassination because it believes that he is an “enemy combatant.” I don’t want to appear too old-fashioned.)
The Administration’s policy in Afghanistan is plainly fraying as a policy and political matter. But the President seems disinclined to do anything but placate the corrupt lord who presides over that country.
But it is the Wikileaks case that has now put this administration on the knife-edge. It’s over the top reaction to the disclosure of diplomatic cables gives us great concern over the moral center (if any) of this Administration. First, the overreaction. Even Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the consequences of disclosure would be “fairly modest.” Second, the disproportion. Wikileaks had disclosed previously a video of combat which the Defense Department not only considered classified but also said that disclosure would harm our troops and that in fact Assange had “blood” on his hands for the disclosure. The Administration did nothing at that point. But when its own political operatives were embarrassed by giving the Administration intelligence that it hid from the people or engaged in gossip about our “friends,” then our Civilian Leader took action and the Justice Department–which has refused to prosecute war criminals in the previous Administration–started working 24/7 to drum up charges against Assange.
But possibly the most distressing instance where the reality of this Administration belies its rhetoric is the treatment of Bradley Manning. The supposed source of the Wikileaks document cache, Manning has been subject to unbelievably harsh prison treatment. He has been placed in maximum security confinement and placed under “suicide watch” requiring him to be stripped naked every night for all night. He is forced in solitary confinement, for no reason than the kind of brutality that a military regime can impose when its supposed civilian minders take no interest. The same military that was able to learn how to degrade a prisoner at Abu Ghraib (and other places) and also learn there is no consequence for doing so in this new Republic of Revenge. And it’s not just the President has taken no interest. It is now clear that it is his very own decision.
Lest anyone consider that policy is not the affirmative decision of the former constitutional law professor who is now the President of what was once a republic of laws, let the story of P.J. Crowley disabuse you of your continued naiveté. Crowley was the spokesman of the State Department until today. Last week at MIT in answer to a question about the treatment of Manning in solitary confinement at Quantico, Virginia, Crowley said that his treatment by the Defense Department “is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” That, of course, is a mild description of what the military–which has been out-of-control since at least Abu Ghraib–has undertaken. If this were 2008 and the actions were performed during the Bush Administration, can’t you just hear the Democratic nominee for President of the United States saying the same thing? Well, that was then, and Mr. Obama is no longer attempting to secure the votes of people who feel strongly in the rule of law and against arbitrary treatment of prisoners by the military. Mr. Obama now is the military, and we should therefore have no worry about its abuse.
Crowley issued the following statement today:
“The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a serious crime under U.S. law. My recent comments regarding the conditions of the pre-trial detention of Private First Class Bradley Manning were intended to highlight the broader, even strategic impact of discreet actions undertaken by national security agencies every day and their impact on our global standing and leadership.
“The exercise of power in today’s challenging times and relentless media environment must be prudent and consistent with our laws and values. Given the impact of my remarks, for which I take full responsibility, I have submitted my resignation.”
“Resignation” is Newspeak for being fired for telling the truth. We won’t be seeing much more of that sort of thing, because those left in this Administration are not fond of truth-telling. So when it is time for explaining why troops won’t be withdrawn from Afghanistan, don’t expect anyone inside to candidly explain the rationale. And if Bradley Manning is given a trial–rather than simply sent off to the joycamps, don’t expect a lot of due process. Due process and consideration and prosecutorial discretion are accorded only to war criminals, not whistleblowers. And when there is the next choice to be made by this Administration whether to make a moral compromise for political expediency or follow a principled course based on our national moral values … well, you know how that will go.
Update [3/14/11]: For those who have defended the firing on the ground that an Administration has to act in a unified disciplined manner, I invite you to explain how Robert Gibbs was able to leave his job as spokesman for this President–without duress, under his own terms, and long after the controversies he stirred up–including insulting comments about the supporters of the President that made it appear that he had gone off the reservation. And in any event it is not like this President has been very good about disciplining those close to him who have repeatedly shot off their mouth to upstage the President and pre-empt his own policy initiatives. Of course, those cases involved offending the “left”–those people who had contributed money in vast (but individually small) amounts and more importantly manned phones endlessly to get out the vote across the country. Or they involved contradicting a “liberal” campaign promise so that the “insiders” could appear more grown up than the people who voted for this President.
But perhaps these things are not contradictory at all. Maybe the President really has no interest in advancing a progressive agenda. (That would explain his conduct for the past two years.) Maybe the Rahms and the Gibbses really do express his inner demons–the ones he keeps under wraps when he wants support. Or maybe it’s simply what David Frum said: “Republicans fear their base and the Democrats hate theirs.”