Almost crimes

May 14, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

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There’s an episode of The West Wing where an Air Force One filled with figures from a fictitious past flies to the funeral of a former President. In the background is a Middle East which is once more a powder keg of political turmoil, and in the lulls between each earnest, highly-charged debate, Jed Bartlett’s staff glance at the Kissingeresque ex-statesmen around them and rue the role they played in shaping the ruinous, explosive politics of the region.

Meanwhile, Bartlett has a difficult decision to make: he can either opt for a radical, risky change in foreign policy which carries countless unknown consequences, or he can stick to convention and opt for a safe, formulaic retread of the Presidents who preceded him. He opts for the latter, and in a moment tinged with as much resignation as honesty, tells Toby Ziegler: “when we were elected, I really thought we were going to own the place — do it differently, better. Now I realize the men on this plane are the only others who have been there before — who really know.”

The present-day relevance of that scene shouldn’t be lost on Democrats who, throughout the powerlessness of the Bush era, saw in The West Wing a dream of how they could do things differently; how they might do things better. Like his fictional counterpart, Barack Obama embodied the highest hopes of his liberal supporters, distilled their idealism into bumper sticker slogans and sold a rhetoric of change which promised a clean break with the failures of the past. But barely 100 days in to his term in office, a growing number of his supporters are seeing a President so straightjacketed by the actions of his predecessor that he’s even continuing those policies he once renounced.

On its own, the decision to reverse a promise to release photographic evidence of detainee abuse could’ve been seen as just a mild mis-step on America’s road to accounting for the crimes of the Bush era. But when taken in the context of his administration’s mimicry of Bush’s line on secrecy, the revival of military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the promise of immunity for torturers and the flagrant bullying of the British state over Binyam Mohamed, we see not a few isolated incidents, but a concerted effort by the White House to control and restrict what the public is permitted to know about the torture committed in their name.

There are, of course, rational explanations for all of these decisions: the wish to avoid seeing the CIA descend into acrimony & recriminations; the desire to avoid inflaming anti-Americanism when the country is trying to rebuild its image; the need to protect the troops from having the same torture inflicted upon them that we know was inflicted on America’s detainees; the desire to insulate Obama’s Presidency from the warfare which would erupt if it was to investigate and prosecute figures from the Bush administration.

However reasonable these excuses may sound when they’re made by Democrats, and however much we might understand that pragmatism is often necessary, it remains true that each of these excuses could’ve been (and were) made during the eight inglorious years of Republican rule. Put another way; had it been a President McCain making these decisions, Democratic activists would already be demanding impeachment.

None of this is to detract from the good progress being made in his adminstration’s domestic policy, nor the promising – if patchy – beginnings of his general foreign policy. We also should refrain from seeing these incidents as proof that Obama will spend his term obstructing the pursuit of justice; given the scale of the furore and the fact that his administration has allowed some openness, it’s still quite possible that proper public investigations will be carried out during the next 3 1/2 years.

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But what these obstructions do show is that opponents of torture – especially among those who supported him – can no longer afford to give his administration the benefit of the doubt. They must decry every attempt at secrecy, denounce every delay and immerse the White House in such a sustained wall of sound that full accountability becomes the only politically sensible course of action.

For a demonstration of why it’s so important to hound the administration, one only need glance at the snarling figure of Dick Cheney. The former Vice President – whose office is strongly implicated in allowing the abuses we know about – has granted a startling number of interviews since his supposed retirement, and all have been in staunch support of his administration’s actions. At the simplest, most superficial level, Cheney is trying to save himself from prosecution by mounting an early and public defense, but he is also up to something with far greater long-term consequences. By continuing to proclaim the advantages of ‘harsh interrogation’, Cheney is trying to frame torture not as a matter of Right & Wrong, but as a policy argument where the choice isn’t between what is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, but what what works to secure America’s safety.

If President Obama’s term ends without a full public inquiry, without a single investigation of war crimes or prosecution for acts of torture, Cheney will have won the argument & given his successors a precedent to allow future abuses. For if he leaves office without successfully pursuing justice, Obama will have helped relegate torture to an ‘almost crime’; a breach of decorum which is too ugly to be admitted to, but not serious enough to prevent. And something which won’t ever be prosecuted again.

And if any of that ever came to pass, Cheney’s last act in public life would’ve been one final, lasting victory over the President who promised change and the public who voted for it. For the sake of America’s values, its future and its traditions, he cannot be allowed to win.

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