Obama the Dictator

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If Obama had stated that preventive detention would not apply to anyone apprehended going forward, he would have offered a decisive – not to mention, for people like me, more acceptable – policy directive. The fact that he did not make this distinction cannot help but make one wonder whether the remedies created to address the unfortunate and unacceptable baggage of the Bush years may carry over into his own era. If that is the case, we might well ask ourselves, what other good intentions might choose to hide behind a legacy that begs for closure?

~ via The major missing piece in Obama’s new Gitmo policy.

I had an interesting discussion with a close friend of mine yesterday, a former journalist who quit the business years ago to get a real job. We were talking about our early impressions of Obama, and while I kept harping on the bailouts and Obama’s bizarre decision to hand the Treasury over to Goldman, Sachs, my friend kept coming back to Gitmo. He said he could understand how Obama, a young president with no background in economics continually blasted for his lack of experience, could be bullied into handing over his economic policy to worn-out Wall Street gorgons like Larry Summers and Bob Rubin. Politically, you can see how that could happen. It’s not as if, my friend pointed out, Obama could just hand over the Treasury to Paul Krugman and Simon Johnson and expect the Democratic Party honchos to go for it without complaint. The Rubin/Summers axis was always going to be the default policy setting for a Democratic president, and it would require spending a lot of political capital to switch to a new paradigm.

Of course there’s the other notion, which is that these pro-Evremonde economic policies are actually an accurate reflection of who Obama is. Everywhere I go I keep hearing people say, “How come Obama is letting X happen or Y happen, how come he’s letting his underlings do Z? It seems so unlike him!” It reminds me of the way people view leaders in Russia. Going back centuries, Russian peasants wrote impassioned letters to the Tsar, sure he was completely unaware that his Grand Dukes were all thieves and his okhranka agents were rapists and torturers. Now that Obama’s on the scene a lot of Americans are demonstrating a similar public desire to believe in the good king. Obama seems so decent and intelligent, it’s hard to imagine that his act is just a big sales job, that he’s really just a smooth-talking shill for a bunch of Wall Street bankers and Pentagon generals. So people tend to scramble for the exculpatory explanation: he’s being tricked, he’s unaware, his hands are tied, and so on.

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You can sort of see that, maybe, with the economic policies. If you were bent on clinging to the good-king fantasy, you could hold your nose and imagine that Summers/Rubin cast a spell on poor Barack. But this Gitmo thing is different. It’s not like Barack Obama doesn’t know what habeas corpus is. The guy was a freaking constitutional law professor (or “senior lecturer,” if that controversy over his academic title still rankles you). And yet Obama seems to be determined to preserve the whole concept of preventive detention, which is every bit as jarring and upsetting as the preemptive invasion concept Bush introduced. In fact this whole Gitmo episode should serve as a reminder that the upper crust of the current Democratic leadership has not, for the most part, even publicly renounced preemption.

While John Edwards a couple of years ago said that preemption was “wrong on the merits, wrong on the morals, wrong for America,” both Hillary and Obama have carefully avoided taking any public stance against it. True, back during the original war vote, Hillary did say that her “yea” vote should not be taken as a “vote for any new doctrine of preemption” – except that that’s exactly what that vote was, an endorsement of the preemption policy outlined in Bush’s notorious “National Security Strategy of the United States” paper. Moreover Hillary’s top foreign policy staffer at the time, Lee Feinstein, wrote soon after that “the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.” When Kerry ran for president he specifically endorsed pre-emption, only parsing it with one of his classic waffle jobs, saying that any decision for a pre-emptive strike would have to pass some kind of unspecified “global test.” And Obama has never really gone near the topic: he did talk about the U.S. having the right to respond to “imminent” threats, but he’d always seemed to mean a genuinely imminent threat, not the “They might have some kind of unnamed weapon with or without a delivery system in thirteen or fourteen years, we better invade now” standard that Bush went by.

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June 4, 2009