Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama’s lofty pledges

An earlier version of this appeared in The National last week.

It was a “season of fear,” he said. Government trimming facts and evidence “to fit ideological predispositions”; making “decisions based on fear rather than foresight; setting aside principles “as luxuries that we could no longer afford”. “In other words,” he concluded, “we went off course”.

We “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values”, he said. Institutions will have to be updated with “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability.”

It was a fine speech: thoughtful, bold, idealistic. US president Barack Obama delivered it at the National Archives in Washington, on May 21, 2009.

Last Thursday, when President Obama again addressed the question of national security, he sounded equally high-minded. But where in his first speech he had to address the excesses of his predecessor; this time he had his own to consider. The most serious of these were born of Obama’s inability to deliver fully on promises he made in 2009.

At the National Archives speech, Obama had vowed to end torture, shut down CIA black sites, and close Guantanamo. It was the clean break he had promised his base. But faced with a Republican backlash, Obama caved. Torture and black sites were abolished, but Guantanamo remained. Torture memos were released, but torturers roamed free. And to shield himself against charges of weakness, Obama escalated the covert war.

Continue reading “Ambiguous drone policies cast doubt on Obama’s lofty pledges”

Hagel, the lobby and the limits of power

This article was published on Al Jazeera on December 28. Thanks to a strong pushback against the lobby, Obama has now nominated Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defence. 

An Israel lobby attack ad against Hagel

You have to do no more than watch this attack ad produced by the neoconservative pressure group the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) to understand the significance of Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination as US secretary of defence. The former Republican senator from Nebraska is guilty of a cardinal sin which has cut short many promising careers in Washington. He has proved himself insufficiently loyal to Israel and less than enthusiastic about confronting Iran.

Signals from Washington are mixed. Barack Obama’s myriad capitulations have earned him a well-deserved reputation for invertebracy; and some reports suggest he has caved already. But in the Byzantine world of Washington intrigue, one has to proceed with caution.

Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, some of his more sensible initiatives, such as the opening to Iran, have been sabotaged by officials within his administration speaking anonymously to the press. What better way to kill a controversial nomination than to convince everybody that it is already dead!

The ECI, a relatively new actor, has not been alone in targeting Hagel. It has been ably assisted by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the National Jewish Democratic Council, The Israel Project, and the Zionist Organisation of America. Affiliates from both within and outside the government have gone on the offensive.

Continue reading “Hagel, the lobby and the limits of power”

A Cruel and Unusual Record

Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, has scathing words for Obama’s human rights record, his indiscriminate use of drones, and his assault on civil liberties. 

Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.

While the country has made mistakes in the past, the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past. With leadership from the United States, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” This was a bold and clear commitment that power would no longer serve as a cover to oppress or injure people, and it established equal rights of all people to life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention or forced exile.

The declaration has been invoked by human rights activists and the international community to replace most of the world’s dictatorships with democracies and to promote the rule of law in domestic and global affairs. It is disturbing that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles, including the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Continue reading “A Cruel and Unusual Record”

The President ‘Must Be Defeated’, says Roberto Unger, Obama’s former law professor

Roberto Unger, a longtime professor at Harvard Law School who taught Obama, says that “President Obama must be defeated in the coming election.” Obama’s method, he says, has been to: “Give the bond markets what they want, bail out the reckless so long as they are also rich, use fiscal and monetary stimulus to make up for the absence of any consequential broadening of economic and educational opportunity, sweeten the pill of disempowerment with a touch of tax fairness, even though the effect of any such tax reform is sure to be modest.”  “This”, he says, “is less a project than it is an abdication.”

Unger acknowledges that some things might be worse under the Republicans, but “the risk of military adventurism however under the rule of his opponents will be no greater than it would be under him.”

Unger’s specific charges include:

  • “His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.”
  • “He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.”
  • “He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.”
  • “He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.”
  • “He has reduced justice to charity.”
  • “He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.”
  • “He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.”

The Emperor’s New Language

Yale’s David Bromwich once again brings his extraordinary powers of observation to bear on the man whom he had once described as ‘The Establishment President’. Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source is a thinking man’s discussion forum, and Bromwich is always intellectually stimulating.

David Bromwich is locating our 2012 distress in our language — or lack of it. It is reunion season at Yale, 50 years after President Kennedy addressed my graduating class of 1962 with his tax cut speech and the famous crack about having “the best of both worlds — a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Four months later, human civilization hung by a thread in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am trying to count the watersheds crossed in American life.

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale and for me by now an indispensable public commentator, confirms my sense that the country is starving for want of words. On the brink of post-imperial panic, we don’t know what to call this worse-than-recession, this Euro-charged breakdown of politics and finance. What we do know is that “we are the 99 percent” is the left’s most effective line since the 2008 meltdown, but that the right and the Tea Party have commandeered the public conversation with street language of salt and savor, with vehemence and conviction that the liberal-left seems to scorn.

Continue reading “The Emperor’s New Language”

Will Americans challenge Obama’s drone war?

by Medea Benjamin

Shakira, 4, was disfigured in one of Obama’s drone attacks.

On May 29, The New York Times published an extraordinarily in-depth look at the intimate role President Obama has played in authorizing US drone attacks overseas, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It is chilling to read the cold, macabre ease with which the President and his staff decide who will live or die. The fate of people living thousands of miles away is decided by a group of Americans, elected and unelected, who don’t speak their language, don’t know their culture, don’t understand their motives or values. While purporting to represent the world’s greatest democracy, US leaders are putting people on a hit list who are as young as 17, people who are given no chance to surrender, and certainly no chance to be tried in a court of law.

Who is furnishing the President and his aides with this list of terrorist suspects to choose from, like baseball cards? The kind of intelligence used to put people on drone hit lists is the same kind of intelligence that put people in Guantanamo. Remember how the American public was assured that the prisoners locked up in Guantanamo were the “worst of the worst,” only to find out that hundreds were innocent people who had been sold to the US military by bounty hunters?

Continue reading “Will Americans challenge Obama’s drone war?”

Stonewall was a Wedding?

by Kate Redburn

This post was published at the excellent Jacobin Magazine blog.

Are we done yet? Do we have to endure another full day of self-congratulation at Obama’s personal endorsement of same-sex marriage? His announcement was heralded with as much praise as last summer’s legalization of gay marriage in New York. And that was, you know, actual legislation.

This is hardly surprising given the fact that marriage equality is designed to distract liberal consciences and give Democrats political cover to gut social services. While the passage of gay marriage enjoyed the support of prominent campaign donors, it was directly preceded by cuts to homeless shelters for queer youth. It’s a campaign season bait-and-switch — winning votes without making real concessions.

Continue reading “Stonewall was a Wedding?”