Monday, May 25, 2009

Our Warden-in-Chief

Mostly I agree with Glenn Greenwald that only a politician's actions matter, and speculation about his or her motives is pointless. But when a politician reverses himself repeatedly on core campaign promises and rhetoric immediately after taking office, as Obama has done, it's hard not to wonder what's driving him. It's not just that my day job is writing novels, meaning character motivation is a particular obsession of mine. It's also that in understanding what could cause Obama to make such a liar of himself regarding transparency, the rule of law, and civil liberties, we might learn something not just about the man, but about the system in which he operates.

The list of Obama's reversals is long, but in brief: amnesty for telecom companies that violated eavesdropping laws; abuse of the state secrets privilege; not releasing photos of torture at US-run prisons; continuing the Bush administration's plans to establish "military commissions" with lower levels of due process. Most outrageously of all, Obama now proposes that the government should be able to imprison people indefinitely without trial.

Pause for a moment and consider: the US government. In America. Imprisoning Americans. Who might or might not have committed a crime. Forever. Without trial.

Obama wants to call this "preventive detention." Pretty-sounding, isn't it? Detention is such a friendly word. It's what I used to get in high school when I didn't turn in my homework (here's more on the political abuses of "detainee" and "detention"). Rachel Maddow was being far more accurate when she used the language of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Minority Report: "Pre-Crime."

Now, some people see "Trial by Jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." But what kind of of extreme-left, tree-hugging, blame-America-first, granola-eating, America-hating, socialist, ACLU card-carrying librul retard would believe something like that?

Well, Thomas Jefferson, actually. Obama's a pretty smart guy. But does he know better than Jefferson?

So now we come to why. Why would a guy who campaigned on promises of open government, the rule of law, and the importance of civil liberties and all that, a guy who actually taught Constitutional Law, suddenly position himself to become Warden-in-Chief?

I think it comes down to fear.

Americans have become so fearful of being Attacked by the Terrorists that the fear is increasingly distorting our politics. President Bush claimed his most important responsibility was to keep the American people safe -- despite the lack of any such provision in the Constitution. Dick Cheney distorts his oath of office to invent a responsibility to protect America rather than to defend the Constitution. Obama apes Bush in claiming to wake in the morning and fall asleep at night worrying about how to keep us all safe. Wouldn't it be great if these guys would read their job descriptions, as provided for in the Constitution, and try to govern accordingly?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
American Idealogues
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

So Americans are afraid. The fear is fed by demagogues, mostly on the right, who either share the fear or cynically exploit it. As the fear worsens, the level of safety the populace expects and demands from the government increases to unreasonable levels. But because perfect safety is impossible in life, politicians know that, like other forms of crime, terrorist incidents are inevitable. Faced with the impossible demands of the citizenry, what's a politician to do?

Well, basically you do every batshit crazy, extremist thing you can think of: torture (sold for consumer comfort as "enhanced interrogation techniques"); secret prisons ("detention facilities"); preventive wars ("self-defense against mushroom-cloud smoking guns"); warrantless eavesdropping (the "Protect America Act of 2007"); secret laws ("Our Playbook"); show trials and kangaroo courts ("military commissions"); pre-crime prisons ("preventive detention"). Then, when the inevitable happens, the politician can say to the angry, frightened public, "Look what I did to protect you. No one could possibly have done more."

If Americans have become insane with fear, even otherwise responsible politicians might conceive of their job as just managing the insanity.

And that's my take on Obama. I could be wrong, of course; he could be a power-mad tyrant wannabe who -- muwahuwahuwa -- fooled everyone with all that talk of not sacrificing our values for safety, and certainly the powers he's claiming for himself would support that theory. But my essentially unsupportable sense, for what it's worth, is that he's someone with the education, experience, and temperament to know better, who's doing what he's doing merely to protect his political flanks.

What's the difference between a demogogue and a cynic, then? Or between a cynic and a coward?

In the end, perhaps not much.

But what's an honest politician to do? The people are so fearful, the Dick and Liz Cheney Be Very Afraid Show is playing 24/7, when the next attack happens the right will scream it was Obama's fault, he did this, he could have protected you but he didn't...

Yes, what to do. A difficult question.

Oh, wait a minute. A politician could, you know, lead.

Nah, that's crazy. What was I thinking. You're right, cash in the Constitution to protect yourself politically. What the hell, everyone's doing it, why shouldn't you.

But if Obama did actually want to lead, he could try something like this:

"My fellow Americans, there's no such thing as complete safety in this world. And that's always been okay for Americans. We're risk takers and we love liberty -- a combination perfectly summed up in Patrick Henry's 'Give me liberty or give me death.' There was a man who knew there were things in life more precious than safety.

"Actually, there is such a thing as perfect safety in the world. I've heard they have it in North Korea. Of course, the population there isn't safe from the government, but they are safe from pretty much everything else except malnutrition, and that might not be so bad. At least they're not being attacked by Terrorists.

"But is that what we want for ourselves, to cash in the freedom we cherish to make ourselves as safe as North Korea? Generations of Americans have fought and died to protect the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Are we really prepared to barter away the freedom they bequeathed us with their blood?

"No, we won't break faith with those previous generations of brave Americans. We won't allow the government to spy on us without warrants, or to govern under secret laws, or to imprison people without trial, or to torture. And if any of that puts us at some additional risk, that's fine. We're Americans. We embrace risk and we love freedom, and we'll be damned if we'll allow a bunch of medieval cave-dwellers to call our tune."

Obama could actually say all this, you know. But it wouldn't be convincing. After all, it would be awkward for the president to try to inspire us to steadfastness against terrorists while he's simultaneously caving in to fear-mongering from Liz Cheney.


Former 0311 said...

What's scarier, is your use of Madow and Comedy Central for support in your arguements. Just sayin!

Barry Eisler said...

Scary how, 311? Specifically.


Pedinska said...

311 - There's a long history of comedians addressing truth to power via humor. What's really frightening is that they seem to do a better job than the media who are actually tasked with doing so.

Good article Barry. There are a lot of us who are having a hard time with all of these dramatic about-faces.

Fear is, without a doubt, one thing that is driving this. But don't you think there is also an existing culture within the DOD and the intelligence agencies that is pushing back against any kind of examination of how things have been conducted for the past eight (or longer) years as well?

Pamela Prentiss said...

I suspect we'll be reading a lot of posts like this from the left-wing, how Obama's near-uniform acceptance of Bush anti-terror policies is all really the fault of Dick Cheney's and right-wing fear mongering.

Gee, last time I checked, the Democrats controlled DC and much of the mainstram media to boot. They're running out of conservatives to blame.

Carol A. Miller Huss said...

Pain and torture of death scares me more than pity and distrust, but you have a point. Pity and distrust is stupid shit. I believe, if no one had trust issues, there would be no wars. We do need to be protected at heart and Constitution as limited as that is. Point is there's always more to learn, even for Presidents. It's a complicated issue. Thanks for being there, Dude.

Unknown said...

Generally, I hold to Greenwald's premise of eschewing motivations. People do the damnedest of things for the damnedest of reasons. And, generally, when people rationalize their choices, they can have layers of reasons, many unknown even to their conscious selves.

That said, I'm willing, in this extraordinary instance - Who would have guessed that Obama would make himself a liar to this degree? - to follow along with your argument.

What your argument suggests is that for the simple opportunity to have 8 years as 44, Obama is willing to follow the in the footsteps of 43's Vice President? Even as those footsteps lead us ever further from the Constitution the oath of office, ostensibly, charges the President to uphold and protect?

Given the nature of the House, are their any circumstances we can imagine where Nancy Impeachment is off the table Pelosi would initiate proceedings against Obama? I argue that it's statistically close enough to zero to make it so. Ergo, the worst that would happen for Obama for following his oath of office is to have one term - to lose to a challenger in '12.

For the sake of a second term - for the sake of 4 personal years as POTUS - Obama will enshrine the worst of the Bush administration. I couldn't have imagined Obama as that shallow and selfish a human being. But, perhaps, it is so.

Anonymous said...

These are only my opinions, based on living in DC for the vast majority of my life and watching may a POTUS walk through the doors of the White House.

No politician has ever been able to keep all of the promises they make when running for office. None. Everything changes when they're sitting in that chair. It's like what Mike Tyson said years ago about a plan his opponents have to defeat him, "Everybody has a plan until I hit him." If a politician can deliver on a quarter of their promises, they're doing very well. If a POTUS can deliver on a tenth of their promises, they're considered great. That's the way of Politics. Everyone who has voted long enough knows that, yet a lot of the people who know that still complain about broken promises. I have yet to understand why they do.

As far as I'm concerned, being POTUS is the toughest job in the world. The hours suck. The pay sucks in a Big-assed MoFo way. You're a target for every terrorist in the world and not a few loonies in the US. Half the country despises you because you beat their man. The other half that voted for you are disappointed that you didn't completely hold up your side of the bargain when they voted for you. The press loves to keep you and your family under their version of an electron microscope from the moment you win the election until the moment you fly home on Air Force One for the final time. And you become everyone's whipping boy and/or scapegoat for all the ills of the world. That's before Congress gets their grubby little hands on your sorry ass.

So what do you get out of it? You age 20 years during your first term. And if you're crazy enough to run again, and win, you can tack on another 50 years. Did I mention how much the pay sucks?

Here's another thing to add to the kitty. In the history of the world, there have been only 44 people who really know what it's like to be POTUS. That's it. No one else. The rest of us are no more than Monday morning quarterbacks, at best.

So I've learned to give a POTUS a lot of leeway as he tries to do the best he can, especially during the first year of his administration. Because the learning curve of doing that job well is so steep, it makes Mt. Everest look like a tiny ant hill. I do that even for a POTUS I dislike. Especially one I dislike. Cause I'm not the one sitting in that chair, and as crazy as I am, I'm not crazy enough to *want* to sit in that chair.

That doesn't mean I don't disagree with some of the things a POTUS does, even in the beginning of his administration. I do, and have, with all of the ones I've seen since I was old enough to understand politics. I just refuse to berate them while they're in office. Whether I like them or not. Especially the ones I don't like.

Your mileage may vary.

Sue T. said...

Why are we more afraid of what a terrorist *might* do than, say, the 12,000 Americans killed each year by a gun in a homicide, or the 40,000 Americans who die each year in vehicular accidents? I don't get it. Those indisputable statistics don't seem to bother us a bit.

Spy Scribbler said...

I have a friend who claims that, in her lifetime, her sense of safety has been "completely violated." I don't want to belittle the deaths or the the tragedy of 9/11, but realistically, we have it pretty good. The majority of kids are not tortured in the effort to get to school; the majority of us are plump with plenty of food; the biggest danger most of us face, aside from unhealthy eating, is the highway. This woman has healthcare, beautiful kids, plenty of food, a house, a car, suburban neighborhood... really everything, and nothing to explain her sense of safety being "completely violated."

We need some perspective. We're certainly not getting it from politicians or the media, who are really the ones responsible for our sense of safety being violated. Why is safety more prized than freedom? What happened to "give me liberty or give me death?"

I guess I'm afraid, too: I'm afraid that we won't wake up and stop this trend until it's too late.

Anonymous said...

That was really interesting, and I have to say that your brief speech at the end was exactly what I've been hoping to hear from Obama since he took office. He's really leaning rather heavily on the wrong pillars at this point, and it freaks me out that he seemingly fooled us all.
Thanks for your interesting take on this.

GM said...

Excellent post, Barry.
I think 311 is afraid of gays, women and smart people. Not necessarily in that order.

Unknown said...


Very nice piece.


What's TRULY scary is that we the people have to turn to comedians and talk show hosts to get any truth.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks Pedinska, and agreed, there are forces besides fear at work here. A lot of establishment people, not just in the DOD etc but throughout the government and media, have a lot to lose if the last eight years is ever closely examined. Obama is cognizant of those forces of opposition, I'm sure. Plus my sense is that he really doesn't think what matters before matters anymore. An illogical and mistaken view, as Glen has persuasively argued many times, but I think Obama subscribes to it.

Pamela, I didn't mean to imply that fear is the only thing at work here, though certainly I think it's one of the primary factors. Also I don't blame the Cheney's et al, exactly; they're just doing what is natural to their character. I do blame politicians who don't have the cajones to stand up to them.

Democrats control DC and the media? Can't agree on that one, though even if they did, they would still be afraid. They're Democrats, after all.

Michael, yes, my mileage definitely does vary. I think citizens are wise to try to hold the politicians to their promises. They are our representatives, after all, accountable to the people. Unless you subscribe to the GWB theory of accountability being expressed only every four years through an election, I don't know why you would argue that we shouldn't press them to govern as they promised to govern.

And I have to say, I don't understand how living in DC would provide a reasonable foundation for an opinion on this topic. Isn't that like residency in LA providing a foundation for an opinion on movie-making, or playing a doctor on TV qualifying someone for surgery? Apologies if I'm misunderstanding, but it sounds like that was what you meant.


Anonymous said...

GM - why do you think Former 0311 is *afraid* of gays, women and smart people. Specifically?


Anonymous said...

No matter how healthy a man's morals may be when he enters the White House, he comes out again with a pot-marked soul.

--Mark Twain

Rene said...

While the government was protecting us from terrorists and trying to find one guy in a cave somewhere in Pakistan, they:

1) neglected their responsibilities in protecting the economy through their 'nudge nudge wink wink' enforcement of securities laws and not having any for the shadow banking system (e.g. credit default swaps, etc.).

2) letting car companies dictate energy policy by relying exclusively on one kind of fuel. The Ford Model T could run on ethanol, gasoline or a mixture of both.

3) did nothing to increase energy independence even though they know oil money is being used to finance terrorism. Four 2MW (mega-watt) sodium-sulfur (NaS) batteries are used by Hitachi, Ltd.’s Automotive Systems Group to store electricity at night when rates are lower for use during the day. Ford Motor pioneered the battery in the 1960s to power early-model electric cars. Is Ford using them to save money on electricity costs for their auto plants? Nope. GM? Chrysler? Nope. The excuse they used that wind farms were not being built because there was no way to store the energy produced was a lie. The NaS batteries have been commercially available since 2000.


Ignorant and neglectful would be more accurate terms to describe politicians than Democrat or Republican.

Ideologues make lousy leaders.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Some interesting arguments. I'm from the UK (originally) and so am finding the British news on 'accountable' politicians very interesting these days.

While I agree that it would be impossible for a world leader to do all they would like to do; indeed, do all they say they would do, nonetheless we have to hold them to task for their promises when they fail to deliver. If we, the people, don't keep them keen, who will (other than the comedians)?

I have great respect for Obama - indeed, I think he offers America its greatest hope in many, many years. But like Tony Blair, I think he has made some mistakes that will come back to haunt him.

Terrorism and how we deal with it is a difficult subject. Not quite the episodes of 24 that we might wish it to be.


Diesen said...

First off, please give Obama some more time in which to express himself. So what if people want to feel 100% safe from terrorists and expect the government to make it so? They also want to feel 100% safe from illness, homelessness, unemployment, inability to afford college, unwanted pregnancy, hate speech, dangerous gewgaws,--any number of things, and they expect the government to make it so, no matter how many generations of future Americans (if there are such things) are chained to the debt we created to keep ourselves 100% safe from every frigging threat known to man. At this time the government x-ray machine is pointed at possible terrorists, but it will be pointed in a more palatable direction soon. And don't think GWB is home free. The moment Obama's approval ratings start to slide, he'll save himself by referring back to the "remember how awful Bush was" play book. Don't worry; be happy.

Barry Eisler said...

Salome, could you identify the topic sentence in your comment (or the one you intended to put in the comment, but didn't), and then rewrite the comment accordingly?