Barack Obama Criticism Politics The Opinionsphere

Reacting to Obama’s Nobel Prize

[digg-reddit-me]Andrew Sullivan has the “reax.”

Two struck home for me. Mickey Kaus and Joshua Micah Marshall.


Turn it down! Politely decline. Say he’s honored but he hasn’t had the time yet to accomplish what he wants to accomplish. Result: He gets at least the same amount of glory–and helps solve his narcissism problem and his Fred Armisen (‘What’s he done?’) problem, demonstrating that he’s uncomfortable with his reputation as a man overcelebrated for his potential long before he’s started to realize it. …

I’m not sure Obama can really do this – but on principle it seems the right thing.


This is an odd award. You’d expect it to come later in Obama’s presidency and tied to some particular event or accomplishment. But the unmistakable message of the award is one of the consequences of a period in which the most powerful country in the world, the ‘hyper-power’ as the French have it, became the focus of destabilization and in real if limited ways lawlessness. A harsh judgment, yes. But a dark period. And Obama has begun, if fitfully and very imperfectly to many of his supporters, to steer the ship of state in a different direction. If that seems like a meager accomplishment to many of the usual Washington types it’s a profound reflection of their own enablement of the Bush era and how compromised they are by it, how much they perpetuated the belief that it was ‘normal history’ rather than dark aberration. [my emphasis]

Matt Drudge is claiming that Obama will “accept award on ‘behalf of Americans and America’s values’…” That seems like his best bet to me, so it’s not surprising they landed on it.

Kathryn Lopez of National Review meanwhile has been (like many other right wingers) tweeting many different bitter sentiments – but this one struck me as true:

@kathrynlopez: from a friend: “I feel as if the Onion has really overdone it today. And everyone fell for it.”

In the end, the award would have made more political sense after some accomplishment – but the reasoning behind the award is sound. As the Nobel Committee wrote:

Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play…Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future…For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman…

The Nobel Prize for Peace then is not awarded for some tangible accomplishment, but rather as an endorsement of  an approach. This isn’t how we see the other Nobel awards – which reflect either a lifetime of achievement or some great achievement in some particular field which creates the confusion.

It creates a rather high class problem for Obama as he tries to figure out how to manage these expectations. I’m not sure giving the award now was a good political decision by the committee. And my first reaction was incredulity. But if you remove the expectation that this award is about some great accomplishment, then it makes sense.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Barack Obama Financial Crisis Law Politics The Opinionsphere

Obama and the Rule of Law

[digg-reddit-me]Right-wingers and some conservatives are trying out a new approach in their attacks on Obama – as you can see from the growing meme on the right that Obama has no respect for the Rule of Law. I’ve come across this meme in a George Will column, a Wall Street Journal editorial, and in a blog post by Jim Manzi for the National Review / The American Scene all last week. All three authors have focused on one particular event – Obama’s role in the Chrysler sale/bankruptcy/bailout. I for one am glad to see the National Review and Wall Street Journal finally coming around to accepting the importance of the Rule of Law after eight years of promoting George W. Bush’s blatant disregard for the law – but I digress.

The past eight years have demonstrated to many Democrats and liberals the vital importance of the respect for the Rule of Law to a well-functioning state – as President Bush concentrated more and more power in the White House and asserted authorities both beyond and over the law – which is why an accusation that President Obama is not respecting the Rule of Law must be taken seriously.

It is hard though to take the example all three authors use seriously – Obama’s intervention in the Chrysler mess. I can understand why people might object to what Obama did – if you consider unions to be a malevolent force, you certainly don’t want them helped out – and it is unseemly that they donated so much to Obama only to be rewarded now (of course, the creditors also gave Obama a great deal of support.) But neither of these objections is based on Obama disrespecting the Rule of Law.

Certainly, even these authors are not accusing Obama of disrespecting the Rule of Law in the same manner as George W. Bush – who did not believe he was bound by law when acting to protect Americans. The unitary executive theory he accepted and Cheney, Addington, and others used, is a direct assault on the idea that the president is bound by the law. Obama does not take this position.

These authors make a big point of the fact that Obama is abrogating contracts – but this objection is a bit silly. Obama is not a party to these contracts – and thus has no obligation to honor them personally. The Contracts clause of the Constitution – the Law which it is being alleged Obama has broken – was meant to constrain the individual states rather than the President or even the Congress. Congress was in fact given the power to abrogate contracts through bankruptcy proceedings in the Constitution. Obama – in intervening in the case of Chrysler – helped to negotiate an out-of-court settlement of the matter. Out-of-court settlements happen all the time – and are welcomed by overburdened judges who see it as better to allow all sides to come to an agreement rather than having to order them to agree.

To call this a violation of the Rule of Law is disingenuous at best.

What these authors are right to be concerned about is the concentration of power that undermines the system of the Rule of Law – as the government’s role in backstopping the finance and auto industries leaves it with enormous leverage. But their fears should be allayed by the fact that most of these interventions are temporary. (Of course, George Will is on the record disbelieving this based on the old adage – as are all of Will’s beliefs – that once government has taken a power, it will not give it up.)

Liberals have continued to voice a different set of concerns about Obama’s respect for the Rule of Law – pointing to the many Bush administration positions Obama has accepted. But they key difference between Bush and Obama is that even as Obama may be putting forward positions on these issues which are controversial, Obama has given the sense he will concede if his legal means of asserting these claims are defeated. Bush in at least one instance refused to end a clearly illegal program despite the fact that his own Justice Department had declared it illegal. 

I do find a few areas of concern. The power of the executive branch has grown enormously in the financial crisis – between the Stimulus Bill and the bank bailout. While in the short-term this may be necessary, if steps are not taken, this would undermine the balance of power between the federal government and the states. While this in itself is not a violation of the Rule of Law – it does weaken the system which together helps maintain the Rule of Law. And it is this that conservatives and right-wingers seem to be ojecting to – but their rhetoric about the Rule of Law being disregarded is hyperventilationist – and for those who did not likewise say the same of our previous president, hypocritical.

But by far the most disturbing manner in which Obama is undermining the Rule of Law is in how his administration is keeping Bush’s policies on the matter of Bagram. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the rights of detainees to certain basic rights at Guantanamo was in a large part based on the idea that our government should not be able to deprive an individual of rights merely by moving them to a particular location. But this is exactly what the Obama administration is claiming with regards to the detainees brought to Bagram from around the world. Our nation’s freedoms are grounded in our traditions. This includes a respect for contracts, a balance of various powers, and an energetic chief executive – but at it’s base, our traditions are grounded in a single, fundamental restriction on the state. To quote Winston Churchill:

The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.

Barack Obama Criticism Law National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Andrew C. McCarthy’s Self-Righteous Sophistry

[digg-reddit-me]Andrew C. McCarthy was a prosecutor on a few terrorism-related cases back in the 1990s. But it wasn’t until after September 11, 2001 that he found his true calling – writing opinion pieces for the National Review and Commentary. As a prosecutor, McCarthy had to go through that exhausting process of finding evidence to back up his case – and use that evidence to convince a skeptical audience that his case was right. As an opinion writer for two right-wing publications, McCarthy is free from both constraints as he preaches to the converted. McCarthy – who previously had a career as a criminal prosecutor – now uses this background to give him added credibility when discussing the two issues he cares most about: detainee policy in the War on Terrorism and torture. This is a man who said of McCain’s Anti-Torture legislation that it was “two parts grandstanding and one part suicide” and declared that McCain by supporting it, had “no business serving in a government whose first obligation is the security of the governed.” Of course, McCarthy found it necessary to support McCain over Obama in 2008 – because Obama was “disqualified” from office because of his ties to America-hating leftists – and because his policies were even more suicidal(!) than McCain’s. Yet, even so, over McCarthy’s strongly worded objections, America elected Obama.

You’ll never guess what happened next. Obama – being the partisan, leftist, America-hating, suicidal guy that he is – invited Andrew C. McCarthy to be part of a panel that advised him on the issue which McCarthy had been most vocal – the detention and torture of suspected terrorists. McCarthy, of course, would have none of it – and declined to join the force – taking the unusual step of releasing his letter of declination to the press and writing about it in an opinion piece in the National Review

All’s fair in love and politics – you might say. But it’s clear McCarthy has gone soft from years of presenting his arguments to those already agree with him.

Let’s look at a few of the premises to McCarthy’s piece:

Obama’s Bad Faith. McCarthy knows that Obama – in instructing the Justice Department to determine if any laws had been broken in instituting the torture policy of the Bush administration is acting in bad faith.

“[Obama] has unleashed his Justice Department to criminalize political disputes after claiming for weeks that he did not want to do this. And the president is being a bully about it…Any experienced prosecutor would know there is no criminal case here.” And what nefarious purpose does Obama have for bullying such upstanding citizens? ” McCarthy explains Obama’s prime motivation: “To satisfy his antiwar base and to put paid to commitments offered by his top campaign advisers.”

Obama’s Bad Faith (II). McCarthy also knows that Obama is acting in bad faith in creating this task force to advise him.

McCarthy clearly has divined Obama’s intentions as he declares that “the exercise known as the ‘President’s Detention Policy Task Force’ is a farce. The administration has already settled on a detainee policy: It is simply going to release trained jihadists.”

Bush’s Good Faith. Because McCarthy is so good at divining the intentions of people in the news, he also knows that the legal advisors to the Bush administration – including those who issued binding legal opinions for the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department – were acting in good faith when they issued opinions in contravention of every precedent in American history.

“Former Justice Department attorneys John Yoo (now a law professor at Berkeley) and Jay Bybee (now a federal appeals-court judge in California), as well as other government attorneys, were asked during the emergency conditions that followed the 9/11 attacks to advise Bush administration policymakers on U.S. interrogation law. They did that in good faith and, despite the fact that it’s now de rigueur to castigate them, quite reasonably…Bad legal advice given in good faith is not an ethical violation.”

McCarthy doesn’t explain why he knows these men were acting within the legal definition of “good faith.” And for what it’s worth, Jack Goldsmith, a Republican who replaced Jay Bybee, one of the lawyers McCarthy is defending, as head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote of the torture memos that they were designed with the purpose of providing a “golden shield” to the interrogators, had “no foundation in prior OLC opinions, or injudicial decisions, or in any other source of law” and were deliberataly biased. That sounds like an acknowledgment of bad faith to me.

Criminalizing Advice. McCarthy – being an expert in national security law apparently – also knows that while the Office of Legal Counsel’s binding legal opinions “are controlling on questions of law within the Executive Branch” [pdf], they are also no different from any advice any lawyer gives. 

That’s why “If the Holder Justice Department decides your good-faith advice promoted what it considers illegal activity, you could face criminal prosecution or ruinous ethical charges.”

Criminalizing Policy Disputes. McCarthy also apparently believes that if an administration sets a policy that is criminal, no one should be held responsible. So, now that it is clear that war crimes were committed – and that any nation in the world can now prosecute those American officials responsible thanks to Ronald Reagan’s Convention Against Torture. The only way to prevent other nations from bringing up Americans on charges of war crimes is to have our own investigation. McCarthy sees all this – yet maintains that instituting a policy of torture is a mere policy decision. Would McCarthy continue to hold this position if the war crime were genocide instead? If the Office of Legal Counsel declared genocide legal, the president ordered it be done, and other carried it out – would it still be a policy dispute that shouldn’t be criminalized? McCarthy’s point about not prosecuting torture only holds then if you first buy his declaration that “torture” isn’t illegal – or at least it shouldn’t be.

Mitigating Circumstances. Despite the fact that these lawyers provided advice that McCarthy still considers sound and McCarthy testifies were acting on good faith, McCarthy still wishes to qualify that these men gave these opinions in “wartime service to the country” under “the emergency conditions that followed the 9/11 attacks.” These facts don’t matter if you believe as McCarthy does that we should still agree with them now – but by bringing them up, the indicate, perhaps a single humanizing glimmer of doubt.

A few odds and ends.

The Uighurs. McCarthy speaks of how Obama is preparing to unleash the Uighurs who are “trained jihadists” who, once released, will be “plotting to menace and murder us” onto American soil! For those ignorant of the plight of the Uighurs, this can sound quite alarming. The facts are a bit less so. The Uighurs have been cleared of any charges as of five years ago, and it was declared that they “pose no terrorist threat” and have “not [been] charged with fighting or plotting against the United States.” Which brings us to the question: Why haven’t we repatriated them to their home country as the Bush administration did with hundreds of detainees? Because they are Chinese seperatists who China has vowed to execute if they return. Why not to a outside state? Because China has made threats against any nation that accepts them. (Albania accepted some of the Uighurs a few years ago – and since has faced threats from China.) McCarthy though – knowing the facts – decides to obfuscate all these “technicalities” – so he can focus on the core “truth” – that Obama wants to unleash trained jihadists in your neighborhood!

The standards of justice. Finally, is a throwaway point McCarthy makes as he concludes his feat of sophistry. He blames Obama for the fact that he has “no plan for what to do about the terrorists there, many of whom cannot be tried under the standards of the civilian justice system.” Those with critical faculties might wonder – why is it that these terrorists can’t be tried in a manner consistent with American traditions of justice? McCarthy himself prosecuted terrorists – and wannabe terrorists – it’s his claim to fame. So why can’t these men who participated in a far worse crime be tried now?

And here we return to the beginning – because our justice system has accepted the long-held truth – that confessions tainted by torture are likely to be untrue – and so are ignored. Thus, these men who attacked America – who killed Americans – who McCarthy is opposed to – can never be brought to justice according to our traditions.

McCarthy does have some good advice for the man he considers unfit for public office – a leftist, America-hating, dangerous man who is aiding our enemy. McCarthy advises Obama: “We can arrive at a sound policy, or not, without demonizing our adversaries as crooks and cads.”

Perhaps – but you can’t write for the National Review with that attitude these days.

Foreign Policy History National Security Pakistan Politics Reflections The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism The Web and Technology War on Drugs

Homo Blogicus, Pup, Pakistan, Torture, Marijuana, and the Revenge of Geography

[digg-reddit-me]I’m going to start creating a list of best reads for the week every Friday – picking between 5 and 10 articles or blog posts that are well worth reading in their entirety.

  1. Christopher Buckley writes a very personal essay for the New York Times, adapted from his soon to be published memoir, about growing up as the son of the famous Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley (“Pup” and “Mum”). Truly moving, surprising, honest and earnest. An excerpt:

    I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

    Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

    It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

  2. Stephen Walt, blogging for FP, asks Three Questions About Pakistan. He quotes David Kilcullen explaining:

    We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.

    He cites a Timur Kuran and Suisanne Lohmann for providing a construct for understanding why such collapses as Pakistan’s possible one are hard to predict:

    [R]evolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry’s willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

  3. Evgeny Morozov, also blogging for FP, suggests that “promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea.”

    I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

    As much as I’d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies.

  4. Julian Sanchez blogs reflectively about “our special horror over torture” – especially as related to aerial bombing. He concludes:

    Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.

  5. Jim Manzi is equally reflective in his piece written “Against Waterboarding” for the American Scene and published at the National Review’s Corner as well:

    What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

    But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

  6. Robert Kaplan writes about the “Revenge of Geography” for Foreign Policy. The summary of the article:

    People and ideas influence events, but geography largely determines them, now more than ever. To understand the coming struggles, it’s time to dust off the Victorian thinkers who knew the physical world best. A journalist who has covered the ends of the Earth offers a guide to the relief map—and a primer on the next phase of conflict.

  7. Time magazine has a piece written by Maia Szalavitz on drug decriminalization in Portugal which is also worth checking out. Excerpt:

    “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

Barack Obama Morality National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Framing the Torture Debate

[digg-reddit-me]This isn’t a definitive timeline of the debate over torture in America. These are merely some highlights.

On September 11, 2001 we were attacked by militant islamists as they took advantage of the openness of our society and our technology and committed one of the most foul atrocities in history.

By September 12, 2001, everything had changed for those in power – and for many of us – “The sense of danger in the White House was urgent, palpable.” An associate of Condi Rice explained:

We really thought we were going to be attacked – possibly chemical, biological, even nuclear, the potential that they could blow up entire American cities…And then CIA came and said, ‘You know, this is the only way to question these people. Our experts say this is the only program that will work.’ And Justice said that the [Geneva Conventions] didn’t apply…and that the agency program did comply with the torture statute.

Others in the White House described a feeling of panic imbuing all their actions.

On September 16, 2001Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press:

I think the important thing here, Tim, is for people to understand that, you know, things have changed since last Tuesday…We…have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

On August 1, 2002, what becomes known as the Bybee torture memo, written apparently by his deputy John Yoo, re-defines torture as physical pain:

equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.

It is not known if all of the techniques justified using this legal shield have been made public – but a partial list includes:

  • Suffocation by water (waterboarding, or traditionally, the water torture);
  • Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head…
  • Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees’ neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall…
  • Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face…
  • Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement…
  • Prolonged nudity…this enforced nudity lasted for periods ranging from several weeks to several months…
  • Sleep deprivation…through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noises or music…
  • Exposure to cold temperature…especially via cold cells and interrogation rooms, and…use of cold water poured over the body or…held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of water.
  • Prolonged shackling of hands and/or feet…
  • Threats of ill-treatment, to the detainee and/or his family…
  • Forced shaving of the head and beard…
  • Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food from 3 days to 1 month after arrest…

Sometime in 2002John Ashcroft exclaims during a meeting of the cabinet-level officials going over the details of how detainees are being interrogated:

History will not judge this kindly.

Donald Rumsfeld writes on 2002 memo describing interrogation techniques:

I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?

Rumsfeld presumably stood at a desk, using it for support and moved around – a very different experience than “forced standing,” a former Communist torture technique which can result in physical effects which Red Cross reports described in detainees:

After 18 to 24 hours of continuous standing, there is an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the legs. This dependent edema is produced by the extravasation of fluid from the blood vessels. The ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice their normal circumference. The edema may rise up the legs as high as the middle of the thighs. The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop, which break and exude watery serum….

Beginning in 2004, photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal surface:

Christopher Hitchens – after publicaly calling waterboarding and the other interrogation methods used merely “extreme interrogation” and not “outright torture” – accepts a challenge to undergo it himself. He comes away a changed man:

Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions. But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict…

[I]f waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

Deroy Murdok writes in the National Review:

Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud.


Former CIA operative Barry Eisler:

[T]orture is also an excellent way to get the subject to confess to anything at all, which is why it was a wonderful tool for the Spanish Inquisition and for the secret police of assorted totalitarian regimes. But if the goal is to produce accurate, actionable intelligence, torture is madness… To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, torture is worse than immoral: it’s tactically stupid. It produces false confessions, which can be used to confirm mistaken suspicions and even outright policy fantasies; it instills an insatiable thirst for vengeance in most people who are subjected to it, and so creates new, dedicated enemies; it permanently brutalizes its practitioners; and it cuts us off from intelligence from the local populace because so many people will refuse to inform on someone if they fear he’ll be tortured.

On October 15, 2004, Justice John Stevens wrote:

For if this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

On June 14, 2005, Senator Dick Durbin gave a controversial speech in which he read from an FBI report of detainee interrogations:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners

Malcolm Nance, a former SERE interrogator explained that Senator Dick Durbin was right:

Now, at long last, six years of denials can now be swept aside, and we can say definitively: America engaged in torture and legalized it through paperwork.

Despite all the gyrations – the ducking, dodging and hiding from the facts – there is no way to say that these people were not authorizing torture. Worse yet, they seem to have not cared a wit that these techniques came from the actual manuals of communist, fascist and totalitarian torturers.

On September 28, 2005, Captain Ian Fishback wrote a letter to Senator John McCain:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession.I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.

On November 4, 2005, Senator John McCain explained his opposition to torture:

I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

On January 19, 2009Dick Cheney explained to the Weekly Standard

I think on the left wing of the Democratic party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured…

On January 14, 2009, Bob Woodward interviewed the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the Washington Post:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

On January 22, 2009, a day after taking office, Barack Obama said:

I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.

In April 2009, Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

[T]he political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling…

The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

On April 20, 2009, Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity:

I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.

In spring 2008, Eric Holder explained:

We owe the American people a reckoning.

On March 18, 2008 Dawn Johnsen, who has been appointed to head Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel which was responsible for the legal opinions cited above wrote in in Slate:

We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation’s past transgressions and reject Bush’s corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.

On April 19, 2009, Peggy Noonan on This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

Some things in life need to be mysterious … Sometimes you need to just keep walking.

(All emphases within quotations are my own.)

This is where we stand today – thanks to the courage of heroes within the Bush administration and the military who stood for American values in a time of crisis and against preemptive surrender of our way of life and thanks to the courage of journalists from Mark Danner to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to Dana Priest to Jane Mayer who exposed these secret actions.

Criticism National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

The Jack Bauer Archetype

Timothy P. Carney at the National Review:

24 is a true American drama and Jack Bauer is an American hero. When I was in Germany a few years ago, a Cabinet official said that Europe was once half-full of free-thinkers and independent spirits, but then they all got up and moved to America. The American hero is the cowboy: He is Maverick, he is Han Solo, he is Batman (though, when Batman is in trouble, he turns on the Jack Bauer signal), he is the rag-tag minuteman fighting the well-trained Lobsterbacks…

What Carney gets wrong is his identification of Jack Bauer’s character as a cowboy archetype. Bauer belongs to a different but related tradition of American heroes. 

The Westerns – in which the cowboy is the hero – often had characters that, like Bauer, were vigilantes imposing their own justice on a chaotic world. Living in a land beyond civilization, they were only constrained by their own character. Without society and order, the characters of villians and heroes were more obvious. Without the law to protect the weak, it was up to the conscience of the strong to do so. The heroes not only refused to take advantage of the weak, but took it upon themselves to protect them against other strong men. But the story of the West – and the background to the Westerns – is the advance of civilization, law, and society to this chaotic world. The irony of this story of the West is that while the fortitude and heroism of strong men made the settlement of the West possible, it also made them obsolete. See especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but also the more recent HBO Western, Deadwood

By the 1930s, as society and the rule of law had extended to virtually every corner of America, there was no longer a place for vigilantes and strong men imposing their own rough justice. Our problems were now external as great forces abroad threatened us – and gangsters undermined society at home – and so the superhero was created. The superhero fought with the police and military to defeat the enemies of civilization. 

But the 1970s saw a change in this dynamic. People felt vulnerable and threatened within their own society – and the rules of society seemed to be protecting those attacking it. The superhero became a persecuted figure – restored again to the place the cowboy had occupied in the final days of the Wild West. Dirty Harry and Batman represent this – both violent vigilantes who break the law in order to protect it.

Jack Bauer belongs to this tradition, that of the condemned superhero – condemned by society yet needed by it.

Carney concludes his piece with this nonsense:

If we believe 24, we don’t think Bill Buchanan or President Palmer will keep us safe. We believe Jack Bauer will keep us safe (if everyone on the show listened to Jack Bauer, the show would be called 12), but we also believe we are Jack Bauer.

The Capitol Dome stands today because of a handful of regular Americans—not soldiers, not bureaucrats, and not even “first-responders,” but American guys who got on a plane on a September morning…

 The lesson of the show is not that Big Brother will keep us safe. The lesson is that we need ruthless bravery from Everyman to keep us safe.

This precisely is not the lesson of 24. Jack Bauer is not “everyman” but superman. He stops cars by standing in front of them; he dies several times in a single hour, but keeps running; he has super-human determination; he gives up his family and friends to stop attacks; he can do seemingly anything. He is considered in the show to be unique – not an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. 

The lesson of the saviors of the Capitol Dome is a very different one than that of 24. It did not involve superheroes – but ordinary people armed with information about a threat taking action. In the world of 24 – and in the Bush administration policies justified by 24 – secrecy is paramount; torture is required; breaking the law is always necessary; great latitude must be given to the executive branch, and especially the president. The lessons of Flight 93 are that local and spontaneous action by citizens armed with information is the best defense.

Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

Culture War: Overclass Edition

[digg-reddit-me]In which I realize that we are now observing a “Culture War” between the haves and the have mores, between the elites and the financial elites, between two opposing sides in the “overclass.”

I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the class warfare rhetoric coming from certain quarters recently – and I don’t mean from the populists. As Daniel Gross observed in Slate:

To hear conservatives tell it, you’d think mobs of shiftless welfare moms were marauding through the streets of Greenwich and Palm Springs, lynching bankers and hedge-fund managers…

All of this overheated rhetoric is about – as Gross points out – Obama proposing to undo some of the changes of the past eight years – the largest change resulting in the wealthiest few paying about $4.10 more per day to benefit the society which has enabled them to become so wealthy. But I suspect that what Gross has gotten wrong here is what I’ve been getting wrong as well – to identify those opponents of Obama’s “Great Wealth Destruction!” as conservatives. Many of them are – and many conservatives are jumping on this meme as it is the only one that seems to have gained any traction against Obama’s agenda. But the meme hasn’t gained traction because conservatives are big proponents of fiscal responsibility. Supporters of the Republican party ceased to be proponents of fiscal responsibility years ago – and the measures they are proposing now (which would create even larger deficits than the stimulus spending) prove that they truly are out-of-touch or are merely posturing for political purposes. At the same time, non-conservatives like Clive Crook, who supports both health care reform and a cap-and-trade system, have begun to join in much of the conservative criticism. The real source of energy behind this line of attack doesn’t come from conservatives – but from a culture war going on between the financial elites and the rest of the elite which has been supercharged by the financial crisis. Everyone is angry about the great destruction of wealth that has resulted from this crisis – and the question has become where to place the blame, where to direct the still largely inchoate anger.

Matt Yglesias has been suggesting something like this type of distinction over at his blog. At one point, commenting on Jon Stewart’s takedown of CNBC, he wrote:

Comedy Central vs CNBC nicely captures the cultural battle inside the American elite between “creative class” types and the business manager types. Both sides think the other side is composed of idiots…

Then yesterday, Yglesias made a related point about how “the growing overclass revolt [is] taking the American right by storm.” Yglesias critically quotes Lisa Schriffen at National Review‘s The Corner:

The doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives, serious small-business owners, top salespeople, and other professionals and entrepreneurs who make this country run work considerably harder than pretty much anyone else (including most of the chattering class, and all politicians). They are not robber barons, or trust-fund babies, or plutocrats, or even celebrities. They are mostly the meritocrats who worked hard in high school and got into the better colleges and grad schools, where they studied while others partied

[Obama] is demonizing them… [and] is penalizing their success and giving them very clear incentives to ratchet back on productivity.

Yglesias’s response is to point out that not only is no one being demonized, and that:

Guys who move furniture are, of course, working extremely hard. And even your basic retail employee needs to be on her feet for hours and hours at a time while “executives” comfy chairs. And, again, I don’t think the Salvadoran guys who moved my bed found themselves in that line of work because they were too busy partying in college.

On one level, this is an argument about the fundamental fairness of the status quo – which conservatives tend to accept and liberals tend to reject. But on a more superficial level, we’re not talking so much about a “revolt of the overclass” as a culture war among the overclass – in which the argument is less about whether or not society and capitalism has been fair to “the Salvadoran guys” and more about whether or not society and capitalism have been fair to give the super-rich which so many riches. As this is a culture war, your side on it is not based on such petty facts as your income level or total net worth but by who you identify with. 

America has established something resembling a meritocracy among it’s upper and middle classes – as college education is accessible to most – and from there, any range of careers. This is the world Schriffen is referring to. But what Schriffen misses is the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have mores” – as the lawyers, doctors, and businessmen she lionizes realized that their college friends on Wall Street who were partying instead of studying in college were now making ten, twenty, a hundred times what they were – and still partying just as hard. This resentment has now been exacerbated as we realize that these Wall Street bankers – who have been working hard, partying hard, and making obscene amounts of money – lost all of our money but get to keep their bonuses.

In this culture war of the overclass, level of wealth doesn’t cause you necessarily to identify with either side. Warren Buffet for example would clearly be a member of the have mores, but he identifies with the haves and lives a lifestyle more suited to that group. There are those who identify as or who aspire to be “rich” and “wealthy” and who consider their good forture to be of their own making, who see the crisis as hurting them and their chances at achieving obscene wealth even if they do not have it yet. They tend to blame the crisis not on the bankers but on Obama – which is a bit odd considering the timing of his rise. But as early as September, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were talking about the Obama Recession and by January, the Wall Street Journal was opinining about it as a fact. Jim Cramer, along with some others at CNBC, decided to take on on the White House with “empirical facts”:

When I somewhat obviously and empirically judged that the populist Obama administration is exacerbating the crisis with its budget and policies, as evidenced by the incredible decline in the averages since his inauguration, I was met immediately with condescension and ridicule rather than constructive debate or even just benign dismissal. I said to myself, “What the heck? Are they really that blind to the Great Wealth Destruction they are causing with their decisions to demonize the bankers, raise taxes for the wealthy, advocate draconian cap-and-trade policies and upend the health care system? [my emphasis]

I think we can all understand why Jim Cramer is angry – he’s been telling people the system is fine and cheerleading the market – and now, he looks like a fool. You can see how people who listen to Cramer might be angry – as anyone listening to Cramer’s advice would be rather screwed. On the other hand, Cramer was merely a part of the system of the financial elites – and he wasn’t saying anything that different from what everyone else believe. The question for the financial elities is whether or not they are responsible for their woes as well as the world’s – or if they can lay the blame somewhere else.

On the other hand, there is the rest of the overclass – and much of the rest of America – who, so far, place the blame for this crisis squarely on the bankers, on the financial industry (whose purpose was to protect and make money), and on lax regulation often promoted by Limbaugh and Hannity and Cramer. The many for whom Wall Street is some half-mythical place to which they entrust their savings are certainly angry today – though the rage is still largely unformed and undirected. In spurts and starts, it is directed at lavish expenses indirectly subsidized by taxpayers – but largely, these people are just hoping things get better. The financial elites themselves see the anger – and know they are the logical target, and so seek to deflect it. For the non-financial members of the overclass who know many people on Wall Street – who are the haves to the Wall Street have mores – they know where to direct their anger – at those whose outsized success has made them look foolish for choosing anything other than a Wall Street career. It is part resentment and part righteous indignation.

Either way, this Culture War of the Overclass is more entertaining than that whole abortion/gay marriage culture war.

[Image licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of shyb.]

Economics Financial Crisis Politics

What Are Republican Principles Again? (cont.)

Jonah Goldberg acknowledges how the political motives of the congressional Republicans may well backfire (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

Despite their successes in the newscycle, I think congressional Republicans made significant mistakes in how they attacked the stimulus bill. First, their recently discovered hatred for deficit spending is long overdue, but hardly persuasive given the previous eight years. The disconnect between their past actions and the requirements of the present crisis lend credibility to the charge that Republicans are just being petulant and partisan.

Previous post on this subject here.

Election 2012 Jindal

Jindal 2012 (cont.)

Compare the reactions of Ramnesh Ponnuru and Mark Krikorian to the Washington Post‘s apparently positive profile of Bobby Jindal.

Neither can quite take the article at face value. Ponnuru wonders “if this sort of swooning is really going to be helpful to Gov. Jindal in the long run.”

Krikorian, on the other hand, takes offense at the suggestion that Jindal could be an Obama-like figure. Under the headline “Clueless” which he apparently means to refer to either the Washington Post or the American people, he explains that Obama was merely “a post-American political radical who’s never held a real job and was catapulted to political success because of his race.” So much resentment packed into a single sentence – and so much misinformation. Would a “post-American political radical” choose anything like the pragmatic foreign policy team that Obama has chosen? What exactly does Krikorian consider, “a real job”? Does Krikorian really consider race to be the primary factor in Obama’s rise – or was it one factor among many that had both negative and positive consequences? And how ridicilous is it for a guy whose career is based on whipping up xenophobia to declare race to be some kind of definate asset?

Krikorian makes clear that he doesn’t have a clue.

Ponnuru may find it hard to accept media praise for one of his guys – but Krikorian manages to turn praise into an insult. There’s something so counterproductive about it – these constantly stoked resentments.

Unfortunately, the National Review and the conservative movement at large has far too many Krikorian and far too few Ponnuru’s.

Conservativism Politics The Opinionsphere

Honoring William F. Buckley Jr.

When one declares oneself to be a conservative, one is not, unfortunately, thereupon visited by tongues of fire that leave one omniscient. The acceptance of a series of premises is just the beginning. After that, we need constantly to inform ourselves, to analyze and to think through our premises and their ramifications. We need to ponder, in the light of the evidence, the strengths and the weaknesses, the consistencies and the inconsistencies, the glory and the frailty of our position, week in and week out. Otherwise we will not hold our own in a world where informed dedication, not just dedication, is necessary for survival and growth.

William F. Buckley Jr., Feb 8, 1956, National Review, as cited by Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner yesterday without a hint of irony.

On this day after what would have been William F. Buckley Jr.’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting on the man’s legacy. I am not the proper individual to evaluate Buckley’s legacy completely – but I think it’s accurate to say that Buckley is one of the dozen intellectuals who has most influenced my life. I take from him lessons both positive and negative – from his wonderful, timeless, definition of conservatism as standing athwart history shouting, “Stop!” to his determined resistance to Brown v. Board of Education.

There are a number of things that struck me about Buckley – his confidence, even arrogance; his style, almost delicate; his incredible life – from spy to magazine publisher; his magazine – brash, often wrong, generally provocative; his intellectual force, especially in that book which introduced me to him, Up From Liberalism. But what struck me most of all was that he was sensible. I mean that as the highest compliment.

He opposed Brown v. Board of Education, as poor of a decision as that might have been, for sensible reasons – in an attempt to preserve a system of federalism and social harmony. He opposed liberalism for sensible reasons – preferring the status quo to attempts to remake humanity. When liberalism became overripe and overreached – he was there condemning it. When conservatism became corrupted and overly ambitious, he was a voice of warning.

Buckley was not always right – but he was generally sensible – and it’s hard to expect more in a public intellectual.