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Nadir of American Liberalism

And we thought the cold-blooded planning and execution of armed drone assassination vitiated any claim to moral character, a POTUS swaggering around on Air Force One methodically using drones and air power to destroy civilian targets and, as in the recent attacks on UN schools/shelters in Gaza, countenance—if not encourage-the same among friends and allies (Israel), now it is revealed by Charlie Savage of the New York Times, in an article, “Obama Could Reaffirm a Bush-Era Reading of a Treaty on Torture,” (Oct. 19), that our Nobelist Warrior is exquisitely parsing international treaties to allow for US TORTURE abroad, so long as not on the Homeland. Whether the program of torture or the rationale for its authorization is the greater Evil I leave to the professional philosophers to determine. But from here, America’s vanguard role, already the purveyor of global counterrevolution by all means possible, in this latest chapter of structural-political sadism, smells to high heavens. (In an adjoining Times column, the administration is counting on blacks to see it through in the coming senatorial election—manipulation and cynicism which merit protest in the streets, rather than admiration and acquiescence. We might toss in organized labor as well, and whatever remnants of so-called progressivism unable to see through Obama’s and the Democrats’ over-the-wall Reaction.)

Torture is torture; no pick-and-choose definitions of locale or gradations of suffering can change that. Its practice reveals the soul of a nation, a nation of rampant capitalism, moral indifference to poverty, soaking up the world’s wealth and giving in return: war, intervention, control of international financial-economic institutions to provide one-sided American advantage in commercial-investment penetration to the deprivation of those unable to resist. Why surprise? The policies and actions themselves are a form already of torture, altogether legal and legitimate, backed by overwhelming military force, because US sovereignty has gradually since the end of World War II been redefined as, anything for an absolutist conception of American global hegemony.

Torture is the handmaid of hegemony; America has a systemic craving for both, lest it be forced to live in harmony with other nations possessing different values, histories, patterns of development, many of which having already experienced colonial-imperialist domination and military dictatorships imposed from within and without, and wanting to breathe their own free air and pursue their own aspirations. No go (!), for if that were allowed, where would America be? Torture is the glue to cement a desired relation of superiority and inferiority. To blanch from that is, un-American. Obama is our new scout-master to mark the way.

Savage points out that Obama opposed, when it was revealed in 2005, the Bush administration’s secret interpretation of a “treaty ban on ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas,” as violating the UN Convention on Torture. That was then. No longer. The reporter continues: “But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty, and now, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view.” Whether Obama has the guts (honesty?) to publicly disavow the Convention, these behind-the-scenes deliberations are, even to be taking place, incriminating evidence of morally vile intent. Savage: “It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treat imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.” I repeat, to entertain the violation of the Convention is bad enough; not to sack the whole lot of his legal experts is still worse—his own shining presence in the discussion should make every morally conscious American turn their back on him.

So much water over the dam, it’s a little late to come forward. But the clock is ticking: “The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency.” Here the UN itself appears culpable, as though giving the US a free pass for such a length of time, itself emboldening America to pursue violations until compelled to make account, and even then, in a seemingly routine manner, rather than adversarial process before the International Criminal Court.

Obama had “issued an executive order in 2009 that forbade cruel interrogation anywhere and made it harder for a future administration to return to torture,” but Savage should know better than to take this at face-value given the commission of war crimes from the moment Obama took office, John Brennan, among other advisers, standing closely beside him, and an Office of Legal Counsel equally as adept as Bush’s to squirm around existing treaties. Policies hang together—not only the continued practice of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc., speaking of “cruel interrogation,” but the predisposition to a consistent psychology and practice of cruelty, so that drone assassination, saturation bombing, covert operations of regime change, none of which is performed with kid gloves, incorporate the same mental traits as that which is allegedly ruled out by Obama’s executive order, makes me skeptical of the veracity in carrying it out. Cruelty is indivisible—getting caught is another matter.

There is some in-house debate going on, State on one side, the military and intelligence communities on the other, but whether the former’s urge for treaty compliance is half-hearted, given the Department’s leadership since Obama came into office, seems probable. The latter, however, in full battle-dress leave no doubt about favoring treaty violation. The last thing wanted, is that America be held accountable for war crimes (as I read Savage between-the-lines): “But military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts.” Operational impacts? Don’t impede US freedom of action against the baddies out there, and yes, a fleeting thought about prospective and real war crimes ( my reading): “They [military and intelligence lawyers] have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture, although courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits brought by detainees held as terrorism suspects.” Not only is cruelty indivisible, but institutions are synchronized, the courts and the Executive working together to abrogate the rule of law.

Here we have one of the more sublime distinctions recorded in modern times: Bernadette Meehan, an NSC spokesperson, said Obama’s “opposition to torture and cruel interrogation anywhere in the world was clear, separate from the legal question of whether the United Nations treaty applies to American behavior overseas.” Not clear enough, when the exception demolishes the principle. Before Harold Koh, State’s top lawyer, returned to Yale Law, he called for the repudiation of the Bush interpretation of the torture convention and a related treaty which supposedly “imposed no obligations on American officials abroad.” Bluntly in a 90-page memo Koh wrote, “’In my legal opinion, it is not legally available to policy makers to claim’ that the torture treaty has no application abroad.” Translated: Don’t torture at home; for the Obama administration, rejecting Koh (no wonder he left, on such a fundamental point) meant an area of free grace, abroad, to torture, telling the UN that the US “still believed that it [the torture treaty] applied only on domestic soil.” Elsewhere, sky’s the limit.

What’s illuminating here is how much Obama has swept under the rug, i.e., through a continuation of Bush policies. As Savage writes, “The torture treaty debate traces back to the January 2005 [Gonzales confirmation hearings for Attorney General]…. He faced questions about torture because the previous year, amid the Abu Ghraib scandal, someone had leaked a Justice Department memo addressed to him that narrowly interpreted a statute banning torture.” The upshot? Gonzales revealed that DOJ lawyers “had concluded that the treaty’s cruelty ban did not protect noncitizens in American custody abroad.” Then when McCain proposed the prohibition everywhere, enacted by Congress, Bush “issued a signing statement claiming that his powers as commander in chief overrode the statute,” to which Obama, now ordering compliance, nonetheless preserved the domestic/foreign distinction and that between citizen and noncitizen.

Abraham Sofaer last week cleared the air for us. A former top State lawyer who negotiated the treaty for Reagan and presented it to the Senate for Bush I, denied the purpose was “to limit the treaty’s geographic applicability.” He said, “’We shouldn’t have done it [made torture acceptable abroad]. And we need to send a signal to the world that we mean it, we should not have done this, we misinterpreted the convention. This is a really important worldwide ban that we need to get behind again.’” Obama, are you listening? Doubtful.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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