Last week's controversy over Obama's assassination program forced into light many ignored truths that were long obvious
By Glenn Greenwald
This past week has been a strangely clarifying political moment. It was caused by two related events: the leak of the Justice Department's "white paper" justifying Obama's claimed power to execute Americans without charges, followed by John Brennan's alarming confirmation hearing (as Charles Pierce wrote: "the man whom the administration has put up to head the CIA would not say whether or not the president of the United States has the power to order the extrajudicial killing of a United States citizen within the borders of the United States"). I describe last week's process as "strange" because, for some reason, those events caused large numbers of people for the first time to recognize, accept and begin to confront truths that have long been readily apparent.
Illustrating this odd phenomenon was a much-discussed New York Times article on Sunday by Peter Baker which explained that these events "underscored the degree to which Mr. Obama has embraced some of Mr. Bush's approach to counterterrorism, right down to a secret legal memo authorizing presidential action unfettered by outside forces." It began this way:
"If President Obama tuned in to the past week's bracing debate on Capitol Hill about terrorism, executive power, secrecy and due process, he might have recognized the arguments his critics were making: He once made some of them himself.
"Four years into his tenure, the onetime critic of President George W. Bush finds himself cast as a present-day Mr. Bush, justifying the muscular application of force in the defense of the nation while detractors complain that he has sacrificed the country's core values in the name of security."
Baker also noticed this: "Some liberals acknowledged in recent days that they were willing to accept policies they once would have deplored as long as they were in Mr. Obama's hands, not Mr. Bush's." As but one example, the article quoted Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor and fervent Obama supporter, as admitting without any apparent shame that "if this was Bush, I think that we would all be more up in arms" because, she said "we trust the president". Thus did we have - while some media liberals objected - scores of progressives and conservatives uniting to overtly embrace the once-controversial Bush/Cheney premises of the War on Terror (it's a global war! the whole world is a battlefield! the president has authority to do whatever he wants to The Terrorists without interference from courts!) in order to defend the war's most radical power yet (the president's power to assassinate even his own citizens in secret, without charges, and without checks).
Last Week's "Revelations" Long Known
Although you wouldn't know it from the shock and outrage expressed over the last few days, that Barack Obama claims the power to order US citizens assassinated without charges has been known for three full years. It was first reported more or less in passing in January, 2010 by the Washington Post's Dana Priest, and then confirmed and elaborated on by both the New York Times and the Washington Post in April, 2010. Obama first tried to kill US citizen Anwar Awlaki in December 2009 (apparently before these justifying legal memoranda were concocted) using cruise missiles and cluster bombs; they missed Awlaki but killed 52 people, more than half of whom were women and children. Obama finally succeeded in killing Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, in October 2011, and then killed his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman in a drone strike two weeks later.
That Obama is systematically embracing the same premises that shaped the once-controversial Bush/Cheney terrorism approach has been known for even longer. All the way back in February, 2009 - one month after Obama's inauguration - the New York Times' Charlie Savage reported that "the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor's approach to fighting Al Qaeda" and that this continuity is "prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies" (I actually wrote at the time that Savage's alarmist conclusions were premature and overly pessimistic, but subsequently told him how right, even prescient, he turned out to be). In April, 2009, the Obama-friendly TPM site announced that "Obama mimics Bush" when it comes to assertions of extremist secrecy powers. In June, 2010, Obama's embrace - and expansion - of many of Bush's most radical policies had become so glaring that ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero gave a speech to a progressive conference and began by proclaiming himself to be "disgusted with this president", while Bush's most hawkish officials began praising Obama for his "continuity" with Bush/Cheney policy.
That many Democratic partisans and fervent Obama admirers are vapid, unprincipled hacks willing to justify anything and everything when embraced by Obama - including exactly that which they pretended to oppose under George W Bush - has also been clear for many years. Back in February, 2008, Paul Krugman warned that Obama supporters are "dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." In May, 2009, a once-fervent Obama supporter, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, wrote a column warning that Obama was embracing many of the worst Bush/Cheney abuses and felt compelled - in the very first sentence - to explain what should be self-evident: "Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House." The same month, former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith - who provided the legal authorization for the illegal Bush NSA warrantless eavesdropping program - went to the New Republic to celebrate that Obama was not only continuing the core Bush/Cheney approach to terrorism, but even better (from his perspective), was strengthening those policies far beyond what Bush could achieve by transforming Democrats from opponents of those policies into supporters.
And exactly as Goldsmith happily predicted, polls now show that Democrats and even self-identified progressives support policies that they once pretended to loathe now that it is Obama rather than Bush embracing them. On MSNBC, Obama aides and pundit-supporters now do their best Sarah Palin impression by mocking as weaklings and losers those who think the President should be constrained in his militarism and demonizing as anti-American anyone who questions the military (in between debating whether Obama should be elevated onto Mount Rushmore or given his own monument). A whole slew of policies that would have triggered the shrillest of progressive condemnations under Bush - waging war after Congress votes against authorizing it, the unprecedented persecution and even torturing of whistleblowers, literally re-writing FOIA to conceal evidence of torture, codifying indefinite detention on US soil - are justified or, at best, ignored.
So none of this - Obama's assassination program, his general embrace of Bush/Cheney radicalism, the grotesque eagerness of many Democrats to justify whatever he does - is at all new. But for some reasons, the events of last week made all of this so glaring that it could no longer be denied, and it's worth thinking about why that is.
What Made Last Week's Revelations So Powerful?
What this DOJ "white paper" did was to force people to confront Obama's assassination program without emotionally manipulative appeal to some cartoon Bad Guy Terrorist (Awlaki). That document never once mentioned Awlaki. Instead - using the same creepily clinical, sanitized, legalistic language used by the Bush DOJ to justify torture, renditions and warrantless eavesdropping - it set forth the theoretical framework for empowering not just Obama, but any and all presidents, to assassinate not just Anwar Awlaki, but any citizens declared in secret by the president to be worthy of execution. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee wrote that the DOJ memo "should shake the American people to the core", while Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman explained "the revolutionary and shocking transformation of the meaning of due process" ushered in by this memo and said it constituted a repudiation of the Magna Carta.
In doing so, this document helpfully underscored the critical point that is otherwise difficult to convey: when you endorse the application of a radical state power because the specific target happens to be someone you dislike and think deserves it, you're necessarily institutionalizing that power in general. That's why political leaders, when they want to seize extremist powers or abridge core liberties, always choose in the first instance to target the most marginalized figures: because they know many people will acquiesce not because they support that power in theory but because they hate the person targeted. But if you cheer when that power is first invoked based on that mentality - I'm glad Obama assassinated Awlaki without charges because he was a Bad Man! - then you lose the ability to object when the power is used in the future in ways you dislike (or by leaders you distrust), because you've let it become institutionalized.
This DOJ document underscored that Obama's claimed due-process-free and secretly exercised assassinations powers aren't confined to cartoon super-villain Anwar Awlaki but are now an embedded, institutionalized part of the American political system going forward. That's why it provided such a wake-up call for many even though these dangers have long been obvious.
What also made this last week unique was the reaction of the American Right. Progressives love to recite the conceit that Republicans will never praise Obama no matter what he does. This is a complete sham: conservatives, including even Cheney himself, have repeatedly lavished praise on Obama for his embrace of Bush/Cheney policies in these areas. But this past week, they did so with such effusive enthusiasm that the cognitive dissonance could not be ignored.
Supreme GOP warmonger Lindsey Graham announced his intention to introduce a Senate resolution praising Obama for his assassination program. RedState's Erick Erickson wrote a Fox News column denouncing civil libertarians and defending Obama: "we must trust that the president and his advisers, when they see a gathering of al-Qaida from the watchful eye of a drone, are going to make the right call and use appropriate restraint and appropriate force to keep us safe." Michelle Malkin criticized her own staff for attacking Obama and wrote: "On this, I will come to Obama's defense." Others vocally defending Obama included John Bolton, Peter King, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.
These are not just Republicans. They are the most extreme, far-right, warmongering conservatives in the country. And they are all offering unqualified and enthusiastic praise for Obama and his assassination program. In our political culture, where everything is viewed through the lens of partisan conflict and left-right dichotomies, this lineup of right-wing supporters is powerful evidence of how far Obama has gone in pursuit of this worldview. That, too, made the significance of last week's events impossible to ignore.
But the most significant factor was the behavior of many Democratic pundits and self-proclaimed progressives. Given how glaring all the assembled evidence was of Obama's dangerous radicalism, they faced a serious dilemma: how to fulfill their core purpose - defending Obama no matter what he does - while maintaining a modicum of dignity and intellectual coherence?
Some of them, like MSNBC host Touré Neblett, invoked the language of John Yoo to outright defend Obama's assassination powers on the ground of presidential omnipotence: "he's the Commander in Chief", he intoned. But the explicit submission to presidential authority necessary to justify this was so uncomfortably similar to Bush-era theories, and the very suggestion that MSNBC commentators would be saying any of that if it had been Bush's program rather than Obama's was so laughable, that this approach provoked little beyond widespread ridicule.
A slightly different approach was chosen by the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky, a supremely loyal Obama acolyte. He wrote a whole column devoted to pronouncing himself "suspicious of high-horse denunciations" because the question here is such "a complicated one". It's so "complicated", he says, because he's "always written about politics with part of [his] brain focused on the question of what [he] would do if [he] were in Politician X's position".
As Reason quickly documented, Tomasky's tone on such matters was radically different during the Bush years. But the most important point is that the excuse Tomasky offers for his leader - it must be very difficult to be in the Oval Office and get these reports about Terror threats and not take action - is exactly what Bush followers said for years would happen once Obama or any other Democratic president got into power. Indeed, every debate in which I ever participated on Bush/Cheney terrorism policies involved their supporters making exactly the same argument Tomasky makes in defense of Obama: if you knew what Bush knew, and faced the hard choices he faced, you would do the same thing to protect the country: it's easy to condemn these things when you're not in power.
That is why, as I have written many times before, Democratic partisans owe a public, sincere, and abject apology to George Bush and Dick Cheney. It's certainly true that Obama has not continued many of the policies progressives found so heinous: he hasn't invaded Iraq or legally authorized waterboarding. But Obama has completely reversed himself on so many of the core criticisms he and other Democrats made about Bush and Cheney regarding the need for due process for accused Terrorists, the dangers of radical secrecy, the treatment of Terrorism as a war on a global battlefield rather than a crime to be prosecuted. And if Tomasky's excuse is correct - empathy with the leader's need to Keep Us Safe shows that these are much more complicated issues than civil libertarians claim - then he and his fellow partisan soldiers should apologize, since that's exactly what Bush/Cheney defenders said for years would happen once a Democratic president was empowered.
The most honest approach to this quandary has come from those, like Granholm, who simply admit that they would vehemently object to all of this if it were done by Bush (or some other GOP President), but don't do so because it's Barack Obama doing it. This same astonishing confession was heard from MSNBC host Krystal Ball: "So yeah, I feel a whole lot better about the program when the decider, so to speak, is President Obama"; as Digby wrote about Ball's confession:
"Glenn Greenwald's been calling this out for years, but I defy him to find a better example of the hypocrisy that drives him so crazy. Obviously, this is a fairly common belief among those who believe the President they voted for is 'good' and the one they don't like is 'bad' but it's rare that you see anyone boldly say that they think the standard should be different for their own because well . . . he's a better person. It takes a certain courage (or blindness) to come right out and admit it."
Indeed. MSNBC's Chris Matthews decided the program was justifiable because Leon Panetta goes to church often and thus can be trusted.
On Sunday morning, MSNBC host Chris Hayes devoted a full hour to Obama's assassination program, and before doing so, he delivered an excellent monologue addressing the many progressives who complain any time he critically covers Obama's actions in this area. He cited an amazing post by an Obama supporter who wrote: "I support President Obama's drone attacks. And I admit that I'm a hypocrite. If a republican administration were executing these practices, I'd probably join the chorus to condemn them as unconstitutional, authoritarian or worse". About that, Hayes said:
"I think this is probably the most honest defense of the program you'll hear from liberals. They trust President Obama to wield broad, lethal executive authority with care and prudence. And besides: it's war; would you rather, I am often asked by supporters of the kill list, that we have boots on the ground, big expensive, destructive deadly disastrous land invasions of countries like the Iraq war? . . . .
"This narrow choice between big violence and smaller violence shows, I think, just how fully we have all implicitly adopted the conceptual framework of the War on Terror, how much George W. Bush's advisers continue to set the terms of our thinking years after they'd been dispatched from office. Because that argument presupposes that we are at war and must continue to be at war until an ill-defined enemy is vanquished. . . .
"The Obama administration quite ostentatiously jettisoned the phrase war on terror from its rhetoric, but it's preserved and further expanded its fundamental logic and legal architecture."
In other words, Obama has embraced and expanded the core premises of the Bush/Cheney global war on terror that Democrats so vehemently claimed to find offensive, radical, a "shredding of the Constitution". And they are now supportive for one reason and one reason only: it's a Democratic president whom they trust - Barack Obama specifically doing it - rather than a Republican president they distrust. That is the very definition of vapid, unprincipled partisan hackdom, and it matters for several reasons.
Why Progressive Partisan Hackdom Matters So Much
The behavior and mindset of Democrats (and self-identified "progressives") is significant in its own right because they are now the most powerful political faction in the US. By the time Obama leaves office, they will have controlled the White House for 16 out of 24 years. When the current term of Congress ends, they will have controlled the Senate for the last eight years and the House for the last four out of eight. They exercise far more power and influence than the GOP and conservatives, and their attributes are therefore worthy of discussion in their own right.
During the right-wing dominance of the Bush era, progressives had little trouble understanding why right-wing hypocrisy and leader worship were so dangerous. In early 2006, just a few months after I began writing about politics, I wrote about pervasive blind trust and leader-worship among Bush followers and it was widely cited and cheered by progressives. Just marvel at how perfectly applicable it is to many Obama-era progressives:
"'Conservatism' is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as 'liberal' is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government. . . .
"Indeed, as many Bush followers themselves admit, the central belief of the Bush follower's 'conservatism' is no longer one that [subscribes] to a limited federal government - but is precisely that there ought to be no limits on the powers claimed by Bush precisely because we trust him, and we trust in him absolutely. He wants to protect us and do good. He is not our enemy but our protector. And there is no reason to entertain suspicions or distrust of him or his motives because he is Good.
"We need no oversight of the Federal Government's eavesdropping powers because we trust Bush to eavesdrop in secret for the Good. We need no judicial review of Bush's decrees regarding who is an 'enemy combatant' and who can be detained indefinitely with no due process because we trust Bush to know who is bad and who deserves this. We need no restraints from Congress on Bush's ability to exercise war powers, even against American citizens on US soil, because we trust Bush to exercise these powers for our own good . . . .
"And in that regard, [Bush followers] are not conservatives. They are authoritarian cultists. Their allegiance is not to any principles of government but to strong authority through a single leader."
To many conservatives, Bush could and should be trusted to exercise extreme powers in the dark because he was a Good evangelical Christian family man with heartland cowboy values. To many progressives, Obama can and should be trusted because he's a Good sophisticated East Coast progressive and family man with urbane constitutional scholar values. It's lowly reality TV viewing and rank cultural tribalism masquerading as political ideology.
Beyond the inherent dangers of fealty to political leaders for partisan gain, this behavior has a substantial effect on the ability to fight radical government policies. Progressives often excuse Obama's embrace of these extremist Bush/Cheney terror policies on the ground that Americans support these policies and therefore he's constrained. But that claim reverses causation: it is true that politicians sometimes follow public opinion, but it's also true that public opinion often follows politicians.
In particular, whenever the two political parties agree on a policy, it is almost certain that public opinion will overwhelmingly support it. When Obama was first inaugurated in 2009, numerous polls showed pluralities or even majorities in support of investigations into Bush-era criminal policies of torture and warrantless eavesdropping.That was because many Democrats believed Obama would pursue such investigations (because he led them to believe he would), but once he made clear he opposed those investigations, huge numbers of loyal Democrats followed their leader and joined Republicans in opposing them, thus creating majorities against them.
Obama didn't refrain from investigating Bush-era crimes because public opinion opposed that. The reverse was true: public opinion supported those investigations, and turned against them only once Obama announced he opposed them. We see this over and over: when Obama was in favor of closing Guantanamo and ending Bush-era terrorism policies, large percentages supported him (and even elected him as he advocated that), but then once he embraced those policies as his own, large majorities switched and began supporting them.
Progressive willingness to acquiesce to or even outright support Obama's radical policies - in the name of partisan loyalty - is precisely what ensures the continuation of those policies. Obama gets away with all of this because so many progressives venerate leader loyalty and partisan gain above all else.
What's most remarkable about this willingness to endorse extremist policies because you "trust" the current leader exercising them is how painfully illogical it is, and how violently contrary it is to everything Americans are taught from childhood about their country. It should not be difficult to comprehend that there is no such thing as vesting a Democratic President with Power X but not vesting a GOP President with the same power. To endorse a power in the hands of a leader you like is, necessarily, to endorse the power in the hands of a leader you dislike.
Like Bob Herbert's statement - "policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House" - this is so obvious it should not need to be argued. As former Bush and Obama aide Douglas Ollivant told the NYT yesterday about the "trust" argument coming from some progressives: "That's not how we make policy. We make policy assuming that people in power might abuse it. To do otherwise is foolish."
It is not hyperbole to say that the overarching principle of the American founding was that no political leaders - no matter how kind and magnanimous they seem - could or should be trusted to exercise power in the dark, without checks. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798: "In questions of power . . . let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." Six years earlier, John Adams warned: "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." James Madison, in Federalist 51, explained: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
This is not just basic American political history. It's basic human nature. And the greater the power is - and there is no greater power than targeting citizens for execution - the more urgent those principles are. Watching progressive media figures outright admit that trust in Barack Obama as Leader guides their unprincipled political arguments is only slightly more jarring than watching them embrace that mentality while pretending they're not. Whatever else is true, watching the political movement that spent years marching behind the banner of "due process" and "restraints on presidential power" and "our Constitutional values" now explicitly defend the most radical policy yet justified by the "war on terror" - all because it's their leader doing it - is as nauseating as it is dangerous.
[My Guardian colleague, Gary Younge, has a provocative column from Sunday headlined: "Barack Obama is pushing gun control at home, but he's a killer abroad"]