Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Measuring him by the sentiment of his country..."

When I read those who lambast Obama for shrinking from investigation and prosecution of those who authorized torture, I essentially agree. The U.S. is bound by international and domestic law to prosecute torturers.

When I read those who take Obama and Geithner to task for coddling distressed or insolvent banks, I worry, though I'm really not qualified to judge.

Both charges, though, often bring to mind Frederick Douglass's assessment of Lincoln's gradual, calibrated, calculated move toward emancipation:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
I also think of FDR, moving the U.S. at what from Churchill's desperate perspective was glacial speed toward engagement in world war.

As a political general, Obama is meticulous about covering his flank. Put another way, in political warfare he subscribes to Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force. He has sixteen high-ranking officers stand behind him when signing the executive orders ending torture and preparing to close Guantanamo. He has Robert Gates to do the heavy lifting on deep cuts and a new approach to military procurement (Gates pretty much laid out what he wanted to do while Bush was still in office; Obama's political skill was more in choosing him that shaping his policy on this front). And while Obama to a degree exposed himself to backlash within the CIA by releasing the torture memos, the memos themselves may ultimately provide cover for the next steps in national catharsis. When prosecution of Bush Administration officials comes on Obama's watch, his stance will be more in sorrow than in anger. If major banks are nationalized, it will be (as Roubini suggested it must) when no one has any doubt that they are insolvent.

Glenn Greenwald, as fierce a critic as any Obama has on the civil liberties front, understands this dynamic in his own way and is more than willing to play his role, analogous (I would think) from his point of view to that of the abolitionists pushing Lincoln:

Criticisms directed at Obama and Holder for advocating immunity for CIA officials who relied in "good faith" on DOJ memos (a mere subset of the government criminals) is absolutely warranted. But, it is not Obama's sole responsibility -- or even his decision -- to prosecute. As a strictly legal matter, that is a decision for the Attorney General, independently, to make; it is Eric Holder who has the obligation to enforce the law, independent of anything Obama wants or says and regardless of what public opinion demands.

But more crucially, it is also the responsibility of the citizenry to demand that this happen. What Obama did yesterday -- whether by design or not -- provided the most potent tools yet to create the political pressure for prosecutions. As Kevin Drum makes clear, no decent human being reading those memos would be anything other than repelled by what was in them. Polls already found that large percentages of Americans, majorities even, favor investigations and/or prosecutions for Bush crimes. The onus is on those who believe in the rule of law to find ways to force the government to criminally investigate whether they want to or not (this petition demanding that Holder appoint a Special Prosecutor is a very good place to begin, though it will require much more than just petitions).

Andrew Sullivan, more prepared than Greenwald to invest personal faith in a leader, sees Obama playing "a long game":

I share Greenwald's deepening concern about Obama's concessions to the national security state. But I am not convinced there is no method to his meandering.

Obama understands he is the president, which means that he understands, unlike his overwhelmed predecessor, that he is the president of all Americans.

He knows that indictment and prosecution of the war criminals at the heart of the last administration would appear to those cocooned from the reality of what happened as an assault on American unity and stability. That proper concern has to be balanced against the gravity of the crimes, the profound nature of the constitutional claims that underpinned them, and the necessity to uphold the rule of law. And so a process whereby the president hangs back a little, allows the evidence to slowly filter out, releases memos that help prove to Americans that what was done was unequivocally torture and indisputably illegal ... is not to be despised.

I think Obama knows what happened; and he knows that, in the end, America will have to face it. He will not defend it, but he will not be the prosecutor either. It's the long game he knows. And it's the long game that will bring these people to justice.

Then too, those of us who believe that investigation and prosecution for torture have to happen need to exercise some imagination to recognize what we are asking for. Cheney's shameful charge that Obama is exposing the nation to terrorist attack by banning torture is just a foretaste of the rage that will be unleashed from still-powerful political forces when hearings and trials take place. Imagine that those trials go forward. And then imagine a successful major terrorist attack in the U.S. The country's mood could change in an instant. An authoritarian thug like Giuliani or a demagogic buffoon like Palin could be elected, and really end American civil liberties. Perhaps -- after, say, a nuclear terrorist attack -- there could even be a coup, though it's hard for me to imagine the intervening chaos, and any coup would have to circumvent the current military leadership.

That's why Obama is positioning himself to be pushed. That's why Democrats in Congress won't start investigations without some Republican support. It's not cowardice. It's a matter of building the overwhelming political support needed for a process that will be traumatic in itself and could be destabilizing if coupled with a major external shock.

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