Obama and Bush

The announcement that military show trials are to recommence at Guantanamo Bay, combined with the brutal and vindictive treatment of Bradley Manning, make it clear that, as regards willing to suppress basic human and civil rights in the name of security, there is no fundamental difference between the Obama and Bush Administrations. The first obvious question is, why? The second is, how to respond?

A natural starting hypothesis would be that Americans, or the American ruling class, benefit from the abandonment of the rule of law. It’s certainly true that the suppression of basic rights has gone hand in hand with the development of a culture of impunity for the ruling class, particularly in relation to crimes committed in the name of security. But there’s very little evidence to suggest that Gitmo, military commissions and so on have done anything to promote security. Most obviously, after nearly a decade, they have yet to secure any genuine convictions, just a couple of squalid (on the government side) plea bargains, and one case where the defendant boycotted proceedings. Prosecutions of accused terrorists in criminal courts in the US and elsewhere have produced far more convictions and prison sentences, although of course they have also produced some acquittals and releases, outcomes that seem unthinkable in the US context.

A second hypothesis, which seems more plausible, is that Americans generally support these measures, and that Obama either shares their views or is acting out of political expediency. There’s plenty of opinion poll evidence to support this hypothesis. On the other hand, Obama easily beat Bush running on a platform based on the traditional rule of law. Moreover, you could probably get similar opinion poll responses in other countries, but restrictions on civil liberties have faced far more resistance nearly everywhere outside the US, even in countries that have historically been less interested in individual rights than the US.

A third possibility is that Obama has been captured by the national security apparatus within the US state, either through access to secret information (reliable or not) about the magnitude of the terrorist menace, or through the hidden exercise of political power. Certainly, the military-industrial complex seems only to have gained in power, despite its manifest incapacity to deliver on its promises in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc, and despite the absence of any apparent capacity on the part of the CIA and similar bodies to predict the course of international events.

As regards a response, this depends on where you stand. In the short run, and within US politics, there is little choice but to support Obama and the Dems as the lesser evil, at least as regards domestic policy. Presumably there must be a political path back towards the rule of law, but it’s hard to see it at present.

Internationally, the gap between Obama’s rhetoric and his actions has not yet attracted a lot of attention. For the moment, the public image of the US is still improving as a lagged response to Obama’s early actions. But it’s hard to see this being sustained indefinitely. In particular, the Wikileaks case has the potential for grave damage, especially given the recognition that Wikileaks (and, more generally, the capacity of the Internet to undermine censorship and secrecy) has done more to promote the cause of freedom than the rhetoric and actions of successive US Administrations.

Overall, though, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of fatalism when we contrast the hopes aroused by Obama’s inauguration with the reality of his administration.

31 thoughts on “Obama and Bush

  1. Pr Q said:

    A natural starting hypothesis would be that Americans, or the American ruling class, benefit from the abandonment of the rule of law.

    There is no great mystery about Obama’s national security policy and therefore no need to spin hypotheses about his supposed deviation from the right-and-true path. Unless one assumes the null hypothesis that all terrorist suspects/perps deserve the full suite of civil rights. But this presumption does not hold in the post-911 world.

    In the US the political elites are far more legalistically liberal than the general populus. So scratch the crypto-marxist hypothesis.

    It is not axiomatic the “Rule of Law” is identical to post-cultural revolution ultra-liberal notions of civil rights. Once one moves out of the hermetically sealed liberal media-academia complex one tends to get a much more hard-headed approach to those who would set off bombs in public places. The “bleeding heart” liberal elites tend to bend over backwards to mollycoddle terrorist suspects whilst the more draconian “law & order” general public are more inclined to an unsympathetic view.

    More generally, the political movement away from what I call post-modern liberalism in the legal sphere tracks the political movement away from post-modern liberalism in the financial and cultural spheres. In all cases the public is fed up with individuals thumbing their noses at legitimate authority and acceptable norms of civic behaviour.

    BTW, if only there were such a thing as an “American ruling class” we would all be alot better off. The long-vanished WASPs were a ruling class alright and tended to manage civic problems pretty much to the satisfaction of all parties. Nowadays there is just a top-dog stratum continually flushed with rapidly circulating elites. The endless churn is part of the problem, a properly established ruling class would be more like a solution.

    Pr Q said:

    A second hypothesis, which seems more plausible, is that Americans generally support these measures, and that Obama either shares their views or is acting out of political expediency. There’s plenty of opinion poll evidence to support this hypothesis. On the other hand, Obama easily beat Bush running on a platform based on the traditional rule of law…
    A third possibility is that Obama has been captured by the national security apparatus within the US state, either through access to secret information (reliable or not) about the magnitude of the terrorist menace, or through the hidden exercise of political power.

    Occam’s razor suggest that Obama is tacking a tricky course between the contingencies of politics and the exigencies of policy. He cannot risk appearing too liberal lest he alienate the substantial proportion of the US public that has lost patience with those who constantly bang the civil rights drum whilst terrorist nut-jobs occasionally go on the rampage. And he cannot risk being to liberal lest he expose himself to the charge of being “soft on terrorism” if, or when, another mass-casualty terrorist attack does eventuate.

    The Gallup poll reports that US citizens support sending terrorist prisoners and suspects to Gitmo by massive margin and that they feel strongly about this:

    By a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans are opposed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison that houses terror suspects and moving some of those prisoners to the United States. Americans express even more widespread opposition to the idea of moving the prisoners to prisons in their own states if Guantanamo is closed.

    The poll indicates that Americans tend to be emotionally invested in the outcome of the policy — 7 in 10 say they would be “upset” if Obama does not follow their preferred course of action on the issue. However, most of the highly charged sentiment comes from those who oppose closing the prison.

    Obama’s moderately tough line on homeland security is fair and reasonable. As I stated on this blog back in NOV 2008, Obama is a “canny centrist politician, Clinton without the sleaze”. He never was the champion of ultra-liberal civil rights that his more misty eyed supporter based dreamed him to be. OTOH nor is he Bush. So the politically equivalent premise of this blog post is silly.

    And I doubt that Obama can attribute the size of his 2006 victory to his opposition to the excesses of the Bush Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defence. In fact Bush campaigned in 2000 on a platform that was more liberal (in these matters) than Gore. In both cases the experience of governing forced both politicians to become more authoritarian than their campaign rhetoric suggested. If you are looking for some general explanation this is an instance of Conquests First Law of Politics – “everyone is conservative about what they know best”.

  2. daggett @ #25 said:

    Can you name any Guantanamo Bay detainees who are “reasonably suspected” of perpetrating the most infamous terrorist atrocity of all, that is, 9/11?

    No. But since the 911 mission was formally defined as a “martyrdom operation”, with all the perps dying at the war-crime scene, I do not see this as a critical flaw in my argument.

    In any case there is plenty of room at Gitmo for the rapidly expanding members of the terrorist gang who couldn’t shoot straight, even at themselves.

  3. “Your placement of military tribunals & Gitmo on a par with Moscow show trials & Gulag”

    Interesting, can’t remember any talk of Moscow or Gulag (except, of course, that gitmo is a gulag). Show trials are show trials regardless of location. Of course, some show trials are a greater travesty than others. For travesty, how about the House Un American Activities Committee? An appearance there, always a good precursor to a ‘fair’ trial. Surely a crime that they never held their hearings on Broadway, or charged exorbitant prices for tickets?

  4. Jack Strocchi wrote:

    No. But since the 911 mission was formally defined as a “martyrdom operation”, with all the perps dying at the war-crime scene, I do not see this as a critical flaw in my argument.

    At least two perps are still alive today, according to the US Government, Osama bin Laden and the abovementioned Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. I am not aware of where anyone has claimed until now that all the perpetrators of 9/11, even except for those two, died on 11 September 2001. My understanding was that it was supposed to have been organised from Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan.

    I find it incnceivable that such a massive terrorist operation, requiring such tight co-ordination could have been organised entirely by the 19 suicide hijackers, even if we in add the still living OBL and KSM. Can you tell me where such a claim was made?

  5. Strocchi says:

    ‘There is no witch hunt here, all those charged are reasonably suspected of terrorist war crimes in one way or another’

    You might ‘reasonably suspect’ them Jack, because people in American military uniforms and they’re pinstriped media flacks tell you they’re dead-enders or something equally damning, but some of the rest of us will take leave to reasonably doubt it. Everything else they have told us is bullshit, why not that? If one of the closer Strocchis happened to be collected in that no doubt scientifically precise sweep thru the relevant districts after 911 I reckon we might be hearing a different song, but as per usual if there’s no skin off your nose you’ll get with the strength. You’re so predictable.

    ‘IMHO those non-citizens reasonably suspected of terrorist war-crimes should not be given the status of civilians entitled to full civil rights… we could do with fewer lawyered-up perps playing the civil rights violin’

    Whatever happened until innocent until proven guilty Jack? A bit too bleedin’ art for you?

    ‘the terrorist-traitor Hicks’

    You really should have been born in the USSR circa 1890. You’d have fitted right in, as a vicious pamphleteer of great vigour but precious little originality.

    ‘Obama knows this because his job depends on it and he has more important fish to fry (health care, financial regulation, cap-and-trade) than pandering to the tired refrains of clapped-out liberals’

    It doesn’t matter what the issue, Obama NEVER sides with liberals, clapped out or otherwise. He has obediently hewed to the agenda of the American ruling class in all matters, big and small. He’s either a coward or a dreadful knave, and it is depressingly instructive that you Jack are supportive of him. It is an awful index of just how bad he is.

    ‘BTW, if only there were such a thing as an “American ruling class” we would all be alot better off… The endless churn is part of the problem, a properly established ruling class would be more like a solution.’

    That’s the problem in the US is it? Too much democracy? !! Why not go the whole hog and bring back kings?

    ‘whilst terrorist nut-jobs occasionally go on the rampage’

    Very occasionally and most often aided and abetted, if not set-up outright by the FBI or one of the other alphabet soup agencies who employ well over a million individuals to accomplish this sort of thing. It’s meant to fool the rubes so that the police state can keep turning the US into 30s Germany, but hey you like being one of the rubes don’t you? One of ‘the general populus’.

    ‘No. But since the 911 mission was formally defined as a “martyrdom operation”, with all the perps dying at the war-crime scene, I do not see this as a critical flaw in my argument’

    If all the ‘perps’ died at the scene, then just what did those perps you’re happy to abandon to US military justice perpetrate, apart from being in the wrong place at the wrong time? If that is not a flaw in your argument, whatever could be?

    Like Obama the needle in your compass Jack always points to power and diagonally away from truth. Many of us suffer the reverse of that syndrome. You will accept any argument from authority, and have a breathless, pants-wetting love of power. Truth, not so much.

    You will recall having to accede a few years ago to my demand that you admit you were catastrophically wrong on Iraq, because your power-goggles precluded you from observing the truth. You haven’t changed a bit.

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