Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama’s A la Carte Address

President Obama spoke at the National Archives in Washington on Thursday, attempting to offer a grand strategy for dealing with the terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay, and more generally, a defense of his administration’s policies against terrorism. His backdrop — the federal facility where the country’s lifeblood documents are housed — was tellingly symbolic.

But Obama’s words themselves, stirring and impassioned, reflected a disconnect that can’t be papered over by the choice of the hall. Obama’s address finally gave people a chance to compare and contrast the distinctions between himself and his predecessor, George Bush. The gulf between the two hasn’t been as wide as we’d once been led to believe.

Obama has adopted an a la carte approach to implementing the U.S. national-security apparatus: an idea from the column A of his own administration, added to something from the column B of the Bush years. The result, which Obama essentially decided to defend in the Thursday speech, points to a president ironically communicating a message that’s out of sync with, if not out of touch with, the ideals of its messenger.

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“I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values,” Obama said. “The documents that we hold in this very hall — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.”

Strong, tonic words, and more of the soaring oratory we’ve come to expect from this most rhetorically gifted American president of our time. But here begins the disconnect that’s apparent when you try to square the words with the actions of his administration in defense of those “fundamental values.”

Obama stressed the importance of maintaining “fidelity to our values,” and expressed “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.” But he insists on rejecting any possibility of an independent panel to investigate possible violations of the law in relation to any of the panoramically criminal actions of the Bush administration and its enablers.

Obama rightly takes credit for acting to shut Guantánamo down, and for ordering a review of all pending cases there. Yet he refuses to consider any congressional or nonpartisan inquiry into the abuse of prisoners held there — the same abuse that made Gitmo such an emotional flashpoint for anti-American sentiment in the first place.

Peter Baker picked up on the changes, in a May 21 analysis piece in The New York Times: “Mr. Obama is picking seemingly disparate elements from across the policy continuum — banning torture and other harsh interrogation techniques but embracing the endless detention of certain terror suspects without trial, closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but retaining the military commissions held there.”

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Then there’s his plan to “construct a legitimate legal framework” to justify holding indefinitely those prisoners who fall through the cracks of current laws, those most dangerous terrorism suspects who can’t be tried or released. Obama’s proposal, gauzily described on Thursday as “prolonged detention,” has already inflamed human rights advocates.

“It is very troubling that he is intent on codifying in legislation the Bush policies of indefinite detention without charge,” Anthony D. Romero, American Civil Liberties Union executive director, told The New York Times after the speech. “That simply flies in the face of established American legal principle.”

President Obama equated “politicization” of the issue of torture under American auspices with pursuit of its penalties under the rule of law.

“I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years,” the president said, tidily overlooking the fact that we never really litigated those policies to start with. The clock doesn’t run backwards, of course, but now that those policies and their accompanying damage are known, adherence to those “fundamental values” demands the same accountability Obama calls for.

This doesn’t respond to the reflexes of partisan politics; this isn’t a matter of left or right. This is about doing what needs doing to make sure those values mean something real, something bedrock in the national life.

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Speaking of the Bush administration, the president said Thursday that during the Bush years, “too often, our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight …”

“[I]f we continue to make decisions from within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.”

But there’s more than one kind of fear. There’s also the climate of fear — or certainly of reluctance — that exists when an administration is so preoccupied with pursuit of a largely corrective agenda that it loses sight of how some of that agenda means upholding the rule of law among its elected and appointed officials, and punishing those who don’t. If we refuse to deal with these issues, they’ll hobble our efforts to communicate what the rule of law is in America, what it means to its people and to people around the world.

“I will never hide the truth because it is uncomfortable,” the president said on Thursday. But will he pursue the truth if it’s uncomfortable? This is the unanswered question that’s gotten people so concerned; this is what aroused representatives of human rights groups when they met with Obama earlier in the week to discuss a sense of drifting toward benign acceptance of the Bush administration’s policies —the most recent of which was the Obama White House’s decision to oppose a request to petition the Supreme Court to reconsider dismissal of the lawsuit brought by former CIA operative Valerie Plame against top Bush administration officials for leaking her identity.

The truth behind the ultimate source of the torture memos and other grim Bush-era initiatives may be uncomfortable; it would take the Obama juggernaut off its planned agenda, slow its impressive strides. Saying it plain, an inquiry into the prevarications of the Bush administration would be one absolute pain in the ass. But it’s wrong to look at such an inquiry as a sideshow, a distraction from doing the people’s business. When a president and his administration pledge to follow the rule of law to its full and proper conclusion, that is the people’s business.

“I have opposed the creation of such a commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.”

If Obama truly means this, Attorney General Eric Holder is free to pursue the truth of the matter of the official use of torture, and to do so “in the interest of justice.” Ideally, an independent investigation is what’s called for — one directed by an outside, nonpartisan investigator and assisted by the Justice Department no doubt eager to prove its bona fides.

But no matter what the source, as a trier of fact, such a commission would join the significant ranks of the Watergate hearings and Church committee hearings in the ‘70s, the Iran-Contra hearings in the ‘80s, and the 9/11 commission in the wake of the nation’s worst terrorist incursion.

The president artfully dismissed the concerns of critics of his plan to have terrorist suspects placed in the high-security “supermax” prisons, and championed the abilities of U.S. prison personnel to keep such suspects locked down while awaiting trials in the United States.

He rightly expresses his confidence in those law enforcement officials. It’s baffling, then, how Obama can fail to follow through on another part of that confidence: a confidence in letting the judicial and legislative machinery of the government pursue the truth where it leads in a search for the roots of policies and practices that have deeply compromised America’s sense of itself.

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There’s more than one way to interpret the phrase “national security.” It’s usually thought of in terms of the interplay of intelligence, diplomatic outreach and military capability. As President Obama’s speech suggested in fleeting moments, it’s important to understand how those “fundamental values” are another component of national security, and in some ways, the strongest one.

Chief among those values is the rule of law — and the intent to enforce that law by any legal means necessary, and every legal means available.

The Obama administration is attempting a dance move, a tightrope walk or a straddle, attempting to find a middle ground between the old order it replaces and the new order it symbolizes. But it risks becoming an administration so enamored of the road ahead that it loses sight of the value of a rear-view mirror, and it does so at its peril.
Image credit: Obama top: Still from pool image. Valerie Plame: © 2008 Hunter Kahn, released to public domain. Eric Holder: Justice Dept. (public domain)

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