As we know, Candidate Obama in ’08 pledged to close Guantanamo; President Obama, now in his Second Term, as we also know, lied so egregiously, on a matter of extreme importance to the every meaning of the rule of law (because puking on Magna Charta and centuries of jurisprudential wisdom and morality by sanctioning and adopting the practice of indefinite detention—and all that follows, from denial of habeas corpus to affording the accused the right of counsel), that anything he says must be viewed with skepticism, if not worse. We have lived through some pretty horrible presidencies as measured by the standards of democratic government, liberal as well as conservative, which provides irrefutable proof of bipartisan injustice in American life, but Obama is something special, a summation of the worst of each, primarily because he has operated on such a fundamental level—from abrogation of civil liberties to global paramilitary operations—that so far has slid under the radar screen, largely through the silence of liberals and progressives. Republican obstructionism is welcome, because it allows him to pursue, through seemingly standing still, the reactionary alternatives to all policy issues (such as health care, social safety net reductions, favorable tax structures for the very wealthy, oil drilling as per usual, etc.) under the pretext that nothing can be done. Welcome, too, because the resulting paralysis in government ideally prevents genuine social welfare measures and democratization of class, income, and power in America.
There are no late or early, partial or full, affronts to democracy under his leadership, but rather the seamless web of continuity, a unified policy-context of Reaction, which, gaining personal confidence, especially by means of working closely with and gaining the soldierly regard and respect of, the whole national-security establishment (particularly the intelligence and Special Ops communities), Obama is actually growing steadily worse, more aggressive, more arrogant, more hubristic, with no end in sight. This sustained course, elements of which could be seen from the moment of taking office, as in faking health reform (to the delight of health insurers and Big Pharma), installing weak cabinet agency heads, compliant with and often championing the interests of those ostensibly to be regulated (Geithner and Salazar, Treasury and Interior, to say the obvious) and, of moment here, a combination of DOJ-NSC leadership, Holder and Brennan, useful in neutralizing the law itself in ensuring the militarization, done with impunity, of public policy at large, the armed drone transgressive of all legal restraints the perfect symbol of prevailing despotic practices. Whether Guantanamo, covert operations, assassination, wiretaps, surveillance, none stands alone, as the US embarks on a phase of counterrevolution made more urgent, and conducted more deftly—the liberalization of attempted hegemonic retention—than perhaps ever before, because of the changing nature of the world system.
America is no longer the center of the universe, and the more it tries to be such the greater its ultimate isolation and retrogression via the political-ideological-structural process of blowback. Obama is sitting on a powder keg of America’s own making. Willful blindness to the social misery and destruction caused others only hastens the decline in international power and stature. For now, the eyes of the world have focused on Guantanamo and drones as integrated aspects of and integral to the US framework of policy and power, while Americans persist in viewing them as discrete and of secondary importance (for some, of course, rather, both as being wisely pragmatic and highly satisfying, testifying to the nation’s courage and superiority). Increasingly, however, not only the victims of US policy, but major nations classified as “friends and allies,” are having sobering thoughts, on moral grounds and for fear of the precedents now created for rendering the world order a playground of destructive impulses.
Enter Harold Koh, Yale Law and former State Department councillor, whom the New York Times (May 8) reported now criticizes the Obama Administration for the drone-warfare program, which at State he had favored—and even to this day (hardly earning the Times’s encomiums) finds fault not with the program, including assassination, but with the lack of publicity and candor concerning its legal (?) rationale. Thus spake the modern liberal—substance is irrelevant, just gussy up the appearance. Here follows my Times Comment (May 9):
Harold Koh in his Oxford speech cannot undo the harm he has previously done by giving his name and reputation in support of the drone program. I should like to see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statement inscribed on his Yale School office door: There are no second chances. This is particularly true here, an equivocation, straddle, call it what one likes, which merely continues the practice of drones AND indefinite detention, the torture and denial of habeas corpus rights to detainees, that is Guantanamo, both inseparable–a permanent blight on America’s civil-liberties record.
Koh wants clarification, not abolition, so that illegal practices can be dressed up as legitimate. Rather than outright condemnation of the Obama administration (which necessarily follows from the contempt it demonstrates for the rule of law), he wants to sprinkle flowers on the graves of the victims. Not good enough, by the standards of moral decency and first principles of jurisprudence. A Roberts Court may look on indulgently, but not, I think, the Warren Court and, in particular, Mr. Justice Brennan.
Guantanamo and drones are the forward edge to America’s slide into authoritarianism under Obama (I try to speak in moderation and will avoid the f-word–fascism–for the present), because of the amoral barbarism which has brought them into existence, and because the American people sit passively by, if not in an attitude of complicity and/or condonation, at their very existence and continuation.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.