An epitaph for Obama: “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.”

Not long after the big Republican win in the 2010 elections, the Obama administration’s best and brightest gave up on explaining that putting people to work is really good for both the economy and for people who need work. The concept was too complicated for voters, they thought, so instead the president went off to negotiate with a crew of irresolute drunks and psychotic killer termites over how best to tighten the belt of government around the necks of the poor, the sick, the old and the unemployed.

This is according to David Corn’s new book, Showdown, which is apparently meant as a generous portrait of the administration.

“Bizarre” may not be the best word to describe the perspective brought to bear by the president and those around him on events and processes historical and current, but let’s go with that for now. It’s the perspective that propelled the president to Oslo to deliver a stirring defense of aggressive war on the occasion of his Nobel Prize award, where he lauded Martin Luther King for bringing our country to the point where an African-American man could win the presidency and use it (as is his right) to undermine some of the principles King held most dear.

As Obama delivered his Nobel lecture, his ironically-named justice department was working to immunize torture lawyer John Yoo from any liability for constructing the legal foundation upon which the Bush administration’s torture spree was based. This effort to revive another discredited Nuremberg defense—the president had already embraced the “just following orders” defense—was initiated 62 years, almost to the day, after the conclusion of the trials for Yoo’s Nazi counterparts.

Meanwhile, over at the War Department, plans were well underway to dramatically escalate a war in Afghanistan that at least some of the president’s advisers must have known to be doomed, and that had never for a moment resembled the description of it he offered to the  tuxedoed and gowned Nobel crowd.

A similar, sort of moral laissez-faire perspective is reflected in Kenneth Feinberg’s performance as the administration’s point man on examining Wall Street compensation during the bailout, which even business writers found somewhat startling.

Kenneth Feinberg announced Friday that he would not try to recoup $1.6 billion in compensation given to top executives at bailed-out banks because he thought shaming them was punishment enough.

His decision to go easy on 17 banks that made “ill-advised” payments to their executives is likely to fuel concerns about how he will oversee the $20 billion oil spill compensation fund created by BP.

“I’m not suggesting we should blink or turn the other cheek,” Feinberg said later in an interview with The Associated Press. “These 17 companies were singled out for obviously bad behavior. The question is: At what point are you piling on and going beyond what is warranted?”

The concerns about Feinberg’s appointment to head the BP compensation fund were well-founded; he was chastised by a federal judge for falsely representing himself as independent of BP and for discouraging claimants from hiring lawyers, and was ultimately replaced as the fund administrator.

Feinberg came by his sympathy for the devils honestly, swimming as he was in a personnel pool stocked with big fish from the stone-blind New York Fed, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other institutions inhabited by people whose natural sympathies lie with their own ilk.

Meanwhile, two years before Feinberg visited his wrath upon the banksters, around the time the president was prepping for his Nobel appearance and letting torturers off the hook, the administration was flexing its national security state wings by interpreting the PATRIOT Act in ways that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Russ Feingold, the soon-to-be-former Senator from Wisconsin, found deeply discomfiting and in need of constraint.

They lost the fight to rein the administration’s security services in, but for some time now Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have gotten increasingly agitated about what appear to be the same things that appalled Feingold and Durbin. They can’t tell us what things specifically because the things are classified, and of course the legal opinions the administration says authorize these things are secret too, but they say they think “most Americans would be stunned” to find out how the administration are using their powers.

A salient fact here is that all four men were in Congress throughout the Bush years, and both Durbin and Wyden were there during the Reagan years as well, when the administration was running a (sort of) secret war in Central America and was selling weapons to Iran and making nicey-nicey with Saddam. (Wyden and Durbin voted for sanctions against Iraq and to designate it as a terrorist nation; the bill passed the House and was spiked in the Senate by the White House.) They aren’t virgin legislators unaccustomed to executive excesses and prone to blush and squeal at the sight of one.

Also more recently, and also relying on secret legal juju of the sort John Yoo cooked up for the torture regime, the president had a US citizen killed for crimes with which he hadn’t been charged and therefore couldn’t contest. And not long after that, the president signed into law a bill authorizing military detentions of US citizens without trial or other due process. And not long before that, the president announced that he can send his drones and his jets and his missiles wherever he likes, whenever he likes, for as long as he likes, without approval from Congress so long as his enemies can’t shoot back.

So there’s a perspective, and it privileges money, guns and other expressions of power, and viewing the world through it leads one to see virtue in places from which virtue has long since fled in bloody tatters.

The president opposes torture but not to the extent of punishing anyone who practices it, and the lesson he sees is that we’ve returned to our national values; the president promises not to detain civilians indefinitely without trial but leaves the provision sitting in law for his successors to use or not as they please, and the lesson he sees is that we remain true to the national soul; the president from time to time decries the financial predators who brought down the house but gives some of them jobs and the others a pass, and the lesson he sees is that justice is served; he declares the Oval Office its own country with its own armed forces, and the lesson he sees is that the law’s still alive. (Or possibly “Fuck you;” the jury’s still out on that last one.)

“I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.” That’s what the tombstone should say.

21 thoughts on “An epitaph for Obama: “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.””

  1. When Obama interprets the Patriot Act in a troubling way, we should be aware of it, but when he interprets a law (toned down by his own efforts) Congress passes in a lax way, we should not give him any credit, since a future President could use it a different way, or simply use executive powers with out any reference to the law at all. Heads he is bad, tail he is bad.

    The citizen wasn’t killed for “crimes” but because he was held — pursuant to current law — as a lawful enemy combatant. Citizens can be killed that way and have been. You didn’t need a grand jury true bill to kill rebels in the Civil War either. Citizens have “due process” under the NDAA. He does not claim a right to send drones “anywhere.”

    The people and Congress has shown no desire to convict Yoo et. al. I find this troublesome, but it is reality, and putting this all on Obama instead of the nation as a whole as if Obama is St. Obama and we expect him to courageous go way beyond what the people wish is naive. He, lest we forget, tried to give even KSM a civilian trial and close down Gitmo. His own party helped screw him there. As with any number of other things though, if you want to selectively choose the bad stuff, go right ahead. It’s your blog.

    1. I never expected sainthood, as I made pretty clear before he took office; I’m just not going to hold him to a lower standard than I held his predecessor.

      The president says that he can do with the armed forces what he likes without deference to the War Powers Act so long as he determines that whatever he’s doing doesn’t amount to participation in a conflict.

      You’re right, I shouldn’t have said “aggressive war.” Preventive would’ve been better.

      Congress and the public may not have been clamoring for Yoo’s head, but neither were they clamoring for the administration to advocate on his behalf in legal proceedings that were already underway.

      Obama had the option of vetoing the NDAA. He didn’t, so he or the next guy can use it or not at their own discretion. A promise not to use it isn’t meaningful. I honestly don’t see the virtue there. And I guess I don’t understand what constitutes due process.

      I’m still not seeing the civil war analogy. What happened with al-Awlaki is that somebody in the executive branch said there was evidence that this guy had done stuff that allowed the administration to consider him a combatant based upon criteria established by a classified legal memo, and then they killed him. We’re required to trust the executive branch. Why on earth would anybody do that?

      adding, the next day … to clarify, you have a class of a person that the law says it’s okay to kill. Somebody we don’t know decides, based on evidence we can’t see that meets a standard we don’t know that was established by a legal memo we can’t see, that a person resides in that class. And then the CIA or whoever goes ahead and kills him unless the president objects—the killing can go ahead without his explicit approval, apparently, but not over his explicit objection. It’s a process, definitely, but I don’t see how it can be described as “due” when we don’t know any of the elements other than the outcome.

  2. As to his Nobel Peace Prize speech, the “stirring defense of aggressive war.”

    “Aggressive war” sounds like the wrong of Nuremberg. Afghanistan was not started nor continued (for good or ill) as an “aggressive” war, but one against a group that attacked us. He spoke of “borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will” — referencing places like Bosnia (humanitarian) and Korea (fought after invasion). Such conflicts might be misguided, but they are not “stirring defenses of aggressive war.” The war in Iraq, which was such, he opposed.

    He spoke of alternatives to war, reducing nuclear weapons and so forth. Again, we can skip over all that and focus on his support of force in some cases, which is allowed under the UN Charter, which bans “aggressive wars.” It just seems a bit misleading.

  3. On the al-Awlaki issue, Weldon, I really think that you are being a bit naive. Joe’s point was that during a war, people fighting for the enemy can be killed by our forces without legal due process protocol (courts). The problem here, of course, is that there aren’t any uniforms or front lines in the conflict with al Quaida. That there are enemy combatants is obvious and the possibility of American citizens being among them is not just hypothetical. al Quaida is not the Mafia. It is an actual national enemy. Denying that does not advance the debate.

    1. I dunno, Jack–I don’t see that I’m denying either that al Qaeda poses a threat or that enemy combatants exist, although I find the term to be unpleasantly flexible. I think what requires a certain amount of naivete is trusting the executive branch to make these decisions without review, exactly because of the vagueness of the conflict. I know that Joe finds my position to be a stupid one but for the life of me, I can’t see it.

  4. Well, are you really saying that the administration had to go to court before using a weapon to kill al-Awlaki? Joe can speak for himself but I doubt he’d consider your view stupid. Wrong maybe.

    1. No, I’m saying what I said: somebody we don’t know decides, based on evidence we can’t see that meets a standard we don’t know that was established by a legal memo we can’t see, that somebody is eligible to be killed. Without knowing what the process is and on what legal reasoning it’s based, we have no way of knowing how reasonable it is. I would suggest that the legal reasoning the administration are relying upon to support their actions wouldn’t be classified if the process were as straightforward and the legality as obvious as you and Joe suggest.

  5. Well, but you’re ignoring the military analogy. Nobody reviews their conclusions that the people they are killing are the enemy unless there is a complaint after the fact as in the allegation of an atrocity. I don’t think anyone has made that claim here.

    1. (In reply to Jack …) It’s a really tenuous analogy. It isn’t a war, it wasn’t a military operation, there wasn’t a battlefield, Awlaki wasn’t shooting at anyone and the only reason to believe he had what would be the equivalent of a military role is the secret evidence evaluated by the secret committee working from guidelines created by the secret memo. There’s not the slightest doubt that people who aren’t enemy combatants have been designated and treated as if they were, and unless Congress revokes the AUMF, this can go on literally as long as there’s a United States. And it isn’t as if we haven’t had damned near continous, spectacular examples during our lifetimes of how thoroughly the executive branch is not to be trusted.

  6. I don’t think it is “stupid,” I think it is avoiding what the rules are.

    I’m all for releasing the memo. No matter what, and the POTUS generally doesn’t release discussions justifying each use of force during wars and military conflicts, there will be broad discretion — as JackD notes — to kill enemy combatants. It is not a civil matter. But, like a police using force on the street, rules have to be followed. Ditto for citizens. This is “due process.”

    Given the nature of this conflict etc., I have noted that I’m game to requiring them to go to court first, though it is likely to be a FISA like court, but this guy didn’t even try that route. And, when his dad did, the judge implied that it really wasn’t his call, if he was pressed. The D.C. courts have no desire to second guess the President at all. Congress does not either. Both in fact at times want to give him MORE power than he is even asking for.

    1. Joe, I was referring back to a month or so ago when we had a similar discussion and you described Greenwald’s take, to which mine is similar, as blind stupidity or something along those lines. I’m not incensed about it.

      I wouldn’t go to court in a country that had already announced they were trying to kill me, on the theory that if they knew where I was then they would kill me. And when the ACLU and CCR attorneys went to court on his behalf, Tim Geithner threatened to throw them in jail for providing support to al Qaeda. So even if he were game, the courts weren’t a rational option for him unless he was charged with something. Regarding due process, if you don’t know what the rules are then you don’t know 1) if they’re being followed, and 2) if they’re more rational than, say, the Calvinball regulations. I will try to be more precise in using the term from now on, though.

  7. I don’t know what the ‘blind stupidity’ was in reference to, so I’ll pass.

    He didn’t have to physically show up in court or say where he was exactly to make a constitutional claim, so I don’t know what your point is there. The father did go to court. Like I said, the judge (who has been fairly reasonable on these issues) basically said it wasn’t his call. Organizations have gone to court on behalf of detainees repeatedly, even if Geitner or someone else made noises.

    As for the rules, we do know the basic rules, including that in various cases you don’t have to go to court first to use deadly force. As with use of “assassination,” which I have gone around with a few people with, some don’t like the rules. As to wanting the memo out, fine, but even if it was out, you would be opposed, since it would — in more detail — say what me and Jack are saying. This includes that “due process” doesn’t just meaning having a judicial hearing each time force is used.

    1. Detainees have established legal rights. Among them are the right to legal representation and the right to not get killed at the whim of the executive branch while they’re in custody.

      But the Treasury department added Awlaki to their “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list after the ACLU announced their intention to file the lawsuit challenging the government’s right to kill him, at which point providing legal services on his behalf became a crime. The ACLU requested a waiver to represent him from the department, and then sued Geithner when the department didn’t respond. Rather than test the constitutionality of the regulation, the department issued the waiver, which is revocable at the department’s pleasure. So it’s not something they could have simply shrugged off.

      The conflict with al Qaeda isn’t a war. (In significant part it isn’t even a conflict with al Qaeda any more.) The war in Afghanistan isn’t a war with al Qaeda and it never was. It was a war to oust and punish the people who had harbored al Qaeda. The reason the administration had to draw up a special legal opinion authorizing them to kill US citizens under certain circumstances is precisely because this isn’t business as usual.

      The only rule we know for sure is that the executive branch can kill American citizens without any oversight. (See? I’m learning.) That’s it. We know the administration decided that Awlaki was an enemy combatant—actually not, because they’ve officially retired that term—but we don’t know that that’s a precondition for killing somebody. Publication of the memo would presumably provide some detail about the criteria that inform the decision to kill somebody, at which point legislators, lawyers and the public could decide whether or not they want to challenge the process. I would bet five dollars that that’s high on the list of reasons the administration don’t want to release it.

      Probably you’re right and if I did know what the process was then I would still find it appalling. But at least it would be out there in the political realm and subject to scrutiny. Given what we know about all the truly crazy and horrible things people in the executive branch have believed themselves entitled to do across the years, I’m not the least bit willing to give the current inhabitants the benefit of the doubt and I don’t see any reason why I should.

  8. Weldon,
    In war the enemy gets shot, bombed, killed and maimed regardless of whether it was in the process of shooting, preparing to shoot, resupplying, or trying to take R&R at the beach or a nightclub in Paris or Hanoi. The real issue is whether or not they (the targeted people) are participants in armed combat with the United States. If they are, attacking them with drones may be a bad idea from the perspective of how the world at large reacts to it but it is not aberrational in the context of “legal” warfare. What makes all of this opaque, for lack of a better word, is the lack of uniforms, front lines, and clearly discernible troop movements. What proponents of military action see is a worldwide guerrilla war. I find it difficult to dispute the reality of that perception.

    1. If it were that cut and dried, Jack, then the administration wouldn’t have felt compelled to first keep secret the fact that they sought additional legal advice, and then keep secret the advice itself. There’s a bunch of ancillary stuff happening that suggests the government and entities they fund are behaving less than scrupulously—the operations DHS and NYPD are running that sound ever so much like Hoover’s COINTELPRO among them—and the historical record supports, I think, that the unreasonable default position is the one that assumes they’re not doing anything something scurrilous. Because they’re never not doing anything something scurrilous.

      There is a war, and it’s in Afghanistan and environs (and it’s fucked and doomed, but never mind that). The rest of it is counter-terrorism, which is not war, and there’s considerable evidence that the US government has once again been roped into killing people who aren’t actually involved in attacks against the US, planned or executed, but who are inconvenient to people and governments who are cooperating with us, and there’s no reason not to think that the US government is killing people who are hostile to the US but not necessarily conducting hostilities against us. We have a history of doing that, too, which sometimes accounts for why people do end up conducting hostilities against us.


  9. Not to drag this out any longer than necessary, but can you link me to something substantiating the charge that the US government has once again been roped into killing, etc.?

    1. Here’s the one I remember best from early days in the war, but there have been numerous reports over the years from both Iraq and Afghanistan of local informers identifying people as insurgents or terrorists when they turned out afterward to be simply people with whom the informers had scores to settle.

      adding … I’m surprised that you would be surprised by this. We go big-footing into some very complicated local situations, it’s not much a shock that our new buddies the Hatfields would tell us all about those terrorist McCoys.

      adding … more recently, on the situation in Yemen.

  10. OK, and how is this different from the air strike on a column of vehicles believed to be Viet Cong, or the similar column of refugees in Korea believed to be Communist infiltrators, or the perceived al Quaida meeting in a rural house in Afghanistan? The warrant requirement of the 4th Amendment just doesn’t apply in those circumstances. War is a truly nasty business. As I tried to suggest earlier, the real issue is whether or not there is a war involved not whether or not typical war actions are appropriate. You seem to think that counter insurgency is somehow different than war. For the life of me, I don’t understand why you make that distinction. Do you think the British were not in a war when the Colonial revolutionaries were picking them off with rifles? Were the Viet Cong just protesters that should be dealt with by the courts?
    What you are complaining about, it seems to me, are errors in identifying the enemy and a suggested solution of some procedural method of avoiding those errors that will take up an awful lot of time during which the “target” will likely disappear. If that’s your position, so be it. Refusing to call the conflict a war, however, won’t go down with most people, including me. The attack on the World Trade Center was not a crime; it was an act of war.

    1. 9/11 was a horrific, shocking, immensely successful terrorist attack.

      I’m not conflating the use of the US military and the CIA by locals to settle local scores with the killing of Awlaki—that’s in addition to and not the same as. You asked me for an example of the military/CIA getting co-opted and I supplied one as representative of the issue; I should have gone with the Scahill story on Yemen instead, which includes examples much more to the point of misplaced counter-terrorism operations.

      As I said, there is a war and it is in Afghanistan and environs, and while it is a disaster of immense proportions that will haunt us for decades, it’s quite distinct from what we’re doing in Yemen and Somalia and the other who knows how many countries in which we’re unofficially but enthusiastically blowing things and people up.

      Of course only a handful of the people we’re at present fighting in that war and through our other activities hither and yon had the slightest connection with 9/11. Additionally, we have killed, maimed, traumatized, displaced or otherwise degraded the lives of millions upon millions of people who had not a god-damned thing to do with the towers or any other attack against the US, and we’re still having at it. I see that more as raving lunacy than a nasty business, and in any event a really, really, really poor allocation of resources in every respect.

  11. I am wary about labeling 9/11 an “act of war” but need not address the issue to make other points.

    If there is a “war” in “Afghanistan and environs,” we can kill people, even via targeted attacks, even if they are citizens, even if we don’t go to court first, even if the evidence it is a legal kill is secret, even via drone, etc.

    We are not “unofficially” attacking in Yemen etc. Congress authorized military force in the authorization of military force in 2001 & has yet to revoke it to use military force against persons and groups related to the 9/11 attacks.

    The force isn’t against some drug cartels in Colombia or something. The group does have the “slightest” and more connection to Al Qaeda groups that attacked on 9/11. The authorization of force was open-ended and I myself was concerned about that.

    Putting aside Iraq somewhat obviously, I’m don’t know what “millions upon millions” you speak of. That sort of thing is open-ended. The Taliban aided and abetted Al Qaeda & clearly is covered by AUMF 2001. Are you talking about “millions and millions” in Yemen or Somalia? Anyway, disagreement and all that. Stay frosty.

    1. Joe, I don’t know why but your comments get diverted into the “pending” queue more often than anyone else’s.

      The millions and millions includes Iraq, because we did that, but obviously there have been a steady stream of incidents in which civilians in Afghanistan have been killed and injured by us, and probably many in addition to the ones we’ve heard about, and large numbers have been displaced there as well. I would venture to guess that even excluding Iraq, we’ve killed and otherwise ruined the lives of many more civilians than we have people who actually had anything to do with the attacks or even the decision to shelter al Qaeda.

      Meanwhile, we’ve been assured that most of al Qaeda’s members are dead or in custody, and after 11 years I’m sure that many Taliban fighters were children or young adolescents on 9/11. And there is precisely no evidence that the Taliban want to attack the US anywhere but Afghanistan which is, not coincidentally, where most of them live. We are fighting a self-perpetuating war.

      The aiding and abetting thing … we have aided and abetted the very worst sorts of people in the Middle East and South Asia and elsewhere, for decades and decades. We’re still doing it. The Saudi royal family are not model citizens. Uzbekistan is a human rights nightmare, but we need them to help us blow up Afghanistan when the supply routes through Pakistan get clogged or shut down. Turkmenistan is almost as bad but there’s this gas pipeline the US really wants to see built through there. So is it open season on us for the people who suffer from our actions? If not, why not?

      We really are in Yemen unofficially. The training and supply part is official, but the Yemeni government maintains that the US isn’t conducting military operations there and so do we, despite the fact that everybody talks about it. The administration also officially don’t acknowledge that the CIA has a drone program—even though everybody and their administration siblings freely acknowledge that Awlaki was killed by a missile from a CIA drone, the CIA is in court arguing that they can’t acknowledge the existence of the program because it would damage national security.

      Anyway, yes, I’m thinking calm thoughts.

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