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Archive for the ‘Election 08’ Category

In the New Republic, William Galston compares Barack Obama’s “too-long wish list” with FDR’s way of doing things and comes up with a bleak conclusion:

The key analogy between today and 1933 is the centrality of the financial crisis, which makes it hard to understand why the administration has not yet moved as decisively to fix it as FDR did on the first day of his presidency. This issue could not have come as a surprise to Obama and his chief financial advisors. Their failure thus far to restore financial confidence raises two equally depressing possibilities: Either they do not know what to do, or they do not believe they can muster the political support to do what they know needs to be done.

There’s one crucial difference, though. Obama simply has more to do. Roosevelt may have inherited a depression, but he didn’t inherit two wars. The country’s reputation wasn’t in tatters, nor had civil liberties been under attack for eight years. FDR didn’t have to fix a justice department that had been reduced to churning out CYA memos for the president; or an intelligence agency that had been greenlighted to torture its detainees. Global warming wasn’t an issue, so there was no reason to re-examine misguided policies. Stem cell research? Abortion? Forget about it. Oh, and I don’t think there was anyone clamouring for a truth commission, either.

I’m not saying Obama shouldn’t get his priorities straight. In fact, I share Galston’s alarm. But it’s not simply a case of an inept administration fumbling in the dark. We just want so much more.

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I realise these are early days, and we don’t yet have all the information, but this business of the Obama administration invoking the state-secrets privilege is not good.

A guy is kidnapped, tortured and detained for years without charge, and when he tries to take his case to court, he is promptly told to go fuck himself by a representative of the most liberal Justice Department the country has seen in decades.

Not surprisingly, Greenwald and Horton are up in arms, as is Senator Russ Feingold, who has asked for a classified briefing so that he can “understand the reasons for this decision.”

This is all well and good, but just so we won’t forget what’s really at stake — what actually resulted from the extraordinary rendition that Obama now feels is a state secret –, here’s how Binyam Mohamed described to his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith what was done to him by Moroccan interrogators in August 2002, according to the book Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey:

‘Strip him,’ shouted Marwan. They cut off my clothes with some kind of doctor’s scalpel. I was naked. I tried to put on a brave face. But maybe I was going to be raped. Maybe they’d electrocute me, maybe castrate me. They took the scalpel to my right chest. It was only a small cut, maybe an inch. At first I just screamed… I was just shocked, I wasn’t expecting… Then they cut my left chest. This time I didn’t want to scream because I knew it was coming.

Marwan got agitated at this. ‘Just go ahead with the plan,’ he said.

One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction. I was in agony, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming. I remember Marwan seemed to smoke half a cigarette, throw it down, and start another. They must have done this 20 to 30 times, in maybe two hours. There was blood all over.

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Obama: Hope Wanes

Like millions of others around the world, I was elated when Barack Obama beat John McCain in last November’s presidential election. I had been an early fan of McCain’s, but by election day I had come to regard him as a volatile and cantankerous old bastard. By contrast, Obama seemed a genuine centrist liberal who would tackle problems with a healthy dose of realism.

Not surprisingly, his cabinet picks were sensible, and the transition was handled with consummate professionalism. I wasn’t all that excited about his inauguration speech, but then I’ve never been a great admirer of his oratory (he ought to lay off the metaphor). I liked the reference to “non-believers”, though; and his offer of friendship to the “Muslim world”, even if I cringed at the term, was admirable.

His first acts as president were stunning. The rapid-fire executive orders, the humble journey to Capitol Hill, the interview with al-Arabiya — you might disagree with the substance, but the symbolism was breathtaking.

And that was only his first week.

But then came the second week. And the third. And suddenly things were looking a lot less dandy.

First, there was Geithner. Then Daschle. Then Killefer. At the same time, the president’s tough new ethics guidelines were being skirted by… the president himself. And for what? Because he “needed” some guy. Sandy Levinson at Balkinization puts it well:

One of Ike’s most pathetic moments, many decades ago, was his resistance to firing Sherman Adams, of vicuna coat fame (younger readers can Google the episode) because, Ike said, ‘I need him.’ I am, as everyone knows, a very, very strong and elated supporter of our new President, but I would be dismayed to think that he ‘needs’ any given individual to the degree that he will overlook behavior that ought to set off alarms. And, to be clear, the alarm is not that Daschle of Geithner will embezzle federal funds; I’m sure that is not the case. Rather, the alarm is precisely that they further serve to reinforce the view of many in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans, that the elites who inhabit our dominant institutions, whether public or private, simply feel entitled to play by a different set of rules.

And that’s not all.

As someone who pays close attention to America’s exploits abroad, I’ve been perturbed by the apparent lack of strategy for forward movement. I haven’t seen any indication that Obama will handle Iraq’s brewing troubles any better than his predecessor. In Afghanistan, the signals have been mixed at best. Predator strikes in Pakistan continue; administration officials talk tough about expanding the war; and a Mandarin-speaking general is named ambassador to a country where Dari-speaking civilians have generally fared better.

What does all this amount to? I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t get it. I really hope so, because the other possibility, as Stephen Walt writes, is just too terrifying:

Looking over the administration’s main appointees, it’s hard to see the person (or people) who are going to provide the sort of clarifying, conceptual architecture that will help President Obama sort out the important from the trivial, and then help him figure out how to approach them in an integrated way. Whatever her other gifts may be, Secretary of State Clinton has never articulated a clear strategic vision of her own. Her chief aides are traditional liberal internationalists who are good at devising laundry lists of problems to be solved but less inclined to set priorities or to devise integrated strategies for achieving them.

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My Fellow Citizens…

The speech, courtesy of FP:

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It Starts

What I would give to be there:

A pre-dawn crush of people in the Washington DC Metro, eager to be part of history. The train passes one stop because the platform is overstuffed. At the Capital South Station, packed cars open. There’s little room to take actual steps; everyone shuffles. It’s a claustrophobic procession, clogging and pressing at a broken escalator. Then someone starts singing, and more join in:

Oh when the saints go marching in
When the saints go marching in
Oh Lord I want to be there in that number
When the saints go marching in!

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No more clichés. I’ll just say it like it is:

I’m so fucking relieved.

lego-obama01

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The Bush years may be all but over, but the lunacy lives on — even in Finland.

For reasons beyond me, my hometown newspaper Helsingin Sanomat has repeatedly chosen to allow its op-ed space be abused by Markku Ruotsila, a Finnish scholar whose views on the Bush presidency and its global consequences represent what can only be described as the nuttier fringe of neoconservative thought.

Ruotsila is a leading Finnish expert on the American religious right, so I guess it’s only natural that the ideological irrationality of his research subject has rubbed off on him. I’ve never met him, but judging by what I’ve read, he’s a true blue Straussian neocon, a fervent believer in the United States’ moral superiority and its god-given right to mold the world in its own image, to impose, by whatever means necessary, its Christian values and free-market ideals (‘Good’) on those deemed to be its enemies (‘Evil’).

In true neocon fashion, Ruotsila has invariably labeled those criticising Bush as anti-American, those trying to assess the neoconservative influence on his administration as anti-Semitic, any account of his failures as “myth”, and any effort to analyse those failures as “intellectual cowardice”.

Ruotsila obviously has the right to express his opinions, as does a newspaper to choose its contributors. But apart from being a prolific commentator he also happens to be an adjunct professor in two Finnish universities — a fact he never fails to advertise — , so his views, obscure as they may be, carry inordinate weight. In fact, in this intellectually most barren of lands, he at times seems to be about the only scholar of modern America.

For a historian with such an impressive resumé, Ruotsila is almost uncannily clueless. In 2007, for example, he wrote that the United States never lost the Vietnam war and that “most of the American anti-war activists were communists” who “openly advocated revolution”. In another op-ed, he predicted Hillary Clinton would never be elected president since the Christian right — “perhaps more than half of the adult population” — “believes she is a witchcraft-practising lesbian”. Clinton, Ruotsila wrote in Helsingin Sanomat, could only win if her Republican opponent was someone the evangelicals couldn’t identify with — and if half of the voters stayed home on election day.

Of course, he was right. The Americans didn’t elect Clinton. They elected a black dude.

Yesterday, Helsingin Sanomat published Ruotsila’s final defense of the Bush legacy, an astoundingly arrogant attempt to rewrite history even before it’s written.

In what he smugly offers as an “open-minded an unbiased review”, Ruotsila portrays the president as a man of grand purpose, “a bellwether” whose “vision is immense in its ambition”. Bush’s “mistakes and failures may therefore also seem immense”, Ruotsila writes, but “one shouldn’t seize upon them if one wants to understand the larger context”. Ruotsila then proceeds to commend Bush for “a comprehensive program to fight terrorism”, and as proof of its success, he says, the president’s “successors [sic] agree with him and are not planning to discard any essential elements of the program”.

And so, with the flick of his pen, showing no sympathy for the victims and apparently believing that Barack Obama will just pick up where his predecessor left off, one of the most prominent Finnish experts on present-day United States dismisses as mere distraction policies that are now almost universally condemned as catastrophically misguided.

The dismal failure of emergency response after Katrina, the warrantless wiretapping of Americans, the disregard for human rights and international law, the torture and consequent radicalisation of terror suspects, the invasion of Iraq and its mishandled aftermath, the poorly executed war in Afghanistan that resulted in seven years of misery, the bungling of efforts to capture bin Laden, the 100,000 Iraqi war dead, the thousands of Americans killed and tens of thousands maimed, and the near-total loss of respect for the U.S. — in Markku Ruotsila’s wacky world, mere footnotes of history.

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Of Obama’s many smart picks, one of the most significant, yet the one least likely to attract public attention, is the nomination of Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

You may recall that during the Bush years, the OLC, which is supposed to advise the president on how to obey the law, was overrun by ambulance chasers like John Yoo, who used the office’s influential legal opinions to shape profoundly misguided policies.

In case you’re wondering how much of an “anti-Yoo” Johnsen is, here’s a Slate blog post she wrote last April about the infamous torture memo. Money quote:

Where is the outrage, the public outcry?!  The shockingly flawed content of this memo, the deficient processes that led to its issuance, the horrific acts it encouraged, the fact that it was kept secret for years and that the Bush administration continues to withhold other memos like it–all demand our outrage.

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“Liberals are growing increasingly nervous – and some just flat-out angry – that President-elect Barack Obama seems to be stiffing them on Cabinet jobs and policy choices”, reports Politico.

I don’t quite get this. I consider myself something of a liberal, and I’ve supported Obama exactly because he’s pragmatic, lawyerly, and centrist. If anything, his cabinet picks, except for Hillary Clinton, show a strong lean towards the apolitical. He needs a national security team equipped to fight the wars he inherits, not quibble over campaign promises made two years ago; and he needs an economic team that is ready to tackle the country’s problems head-on, not advance someone’s agenda.

I would think Americans have had enough ideological stupidity to last a lifetime, but maybe not.

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“While Mr. Obama has yet to name any of his cabinet secretaries,” The New York Times reports today, “his early choices for White House staff positions and the names currently at the top of the list for staff and cabinet jobs suggest that his administration could be heavily stocked with Democrats who served under Mr. Clinton.”

This neatly sums up the narrative of the moment: Obama’s presidency will in fact be Clinton’s third term, since most of his staff, save for a couple of token Republicans, will have served under Bill. In terms of numbers, this will probably turn out true. I, too, have my qualms about Obama’s stocking up on former Clinton officials, particularly if it portends dithering in foreign policy. But here’s the thing: where else would Obama find qualified people? If you were a Democrat in Washington in the 90s, you probably either worked for Clinton or with him, and if you didn’t, well, where the hell were you? On the other hand, if you came of age politically after Clinton, you’re most likely too young for a top post in the inbound administration; if you worked for Carter, you’re too old.

Presidents tend to surround themselves with people who’ve been around. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Card all had histories with Republican administrations dating back to Nixon. As I recall, this was considered a plus for Bush until things started to go downhill. For all their faults, at least they had impressive résumés — we may not have liked what we saw, but at least we knew who we were dealing with. The same can’t be said of the faceless string-pullers like Addington, Yoo or Haynes, who came out of nowhere and disappeared back into the void after the damage was done. I’m sure none of us want a rerun of that.

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