Monday, May 27, 2013

Obama's turning point



The hunger strikers at Guantanamo have aroused the conscience of the world. Many are protesting their treatment in the US, for instance, Matt Daloiso of Witness against Torture (see below) and Diane Wilson, a Texas fisherwoman and co-founder of Code Pink on the 28th day of a hunger strike - see here.

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Because of protests against indefinite detention and torture, even for those now recognized as innocents (some 70 prisoners at Guantanamo have been cleared to leave, but the US has been unwilling to repatriate them to Yemen where Al-Qaida has some base, stimulated by drone killings of innocents, and those indefinitely detained and tortured, however peacefully inclined, might, the jailers imagine, be motivated to strike at the US).

See my previous posts on this here, here, here , here and here.

For Yemenis cleared for release, Obama's ordering of considering these cases one by one - he had previously had a moratorium on them - is an important concession.

And President Obama's words Thursday, in setting a new direction, are of great importance:

"Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"

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Because of mass anger in Pakistan and elsewhere and protest in America, the drone policy - escalated by the President in his first term and murdering many civilians - is also being scaled back.

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Barack Obama gave perhaps the most important speech of his Presidency last Thursday, calling for an end to the ostensibly endless global war on terror and to the anti-democratic, anti-rule of law, torturing, aggressing and murdering era which it represents. Listen here or watch the video here.

Obama invoked James Madison: no country which engages in perpetual war can remain free.

"For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home. Our servicemembers and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf. Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation — and world — that we leave to our children.

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that 'No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'"

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This gives a new, broad and hopeful direction to American policy. Will it stop the crimes the US is currently committing, end the hunger strikes at Guanatanamo, free even cleared prisoners swiftly, call off drone killing of civilians?

No, as many continuing protestors - and we need to continue and grow; the trillion dollar a year, 1280 bases abroad war complex is a powerful enemy - recognize.

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For this is the world's largest empire, even if in trouble, and no statement from a single official at the top is going to reverse the war complex swiftly, as if by a magic trick...

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But Obama's speech is a major change in direction toward the restoration of decency. It suggests that the Obama administration, for the rest of his time in office, will move, not mainly toward consolidating or pruning the Bush-Cheney police state (it still leaves the war criminals of the previous administration without judicial evaluation, even hearings, though they cannot travel abroad for fear of arrest - see here), but rather back toward the rule of law.

It is unusual in the directness and sometimes subtlety with which it faces the moral problems of anti-democratic US foreign policy and moves the country back toward a - comparatively - peaceful era. That era was also marked by crimes largely in client states, presided over by the CIA and American military aid. But the fate of the world pretty literally (of a planet providing a home for 7 billion human beings) depends on curbing the destructiveness of American militarism and abating global warming (ironically, under Obama, the military has taken the lead in going green, though Obama is still toying with the Keystone XL pipeline - see here). This is a very hopeful direction on the first point, however weakly Obama is still doing on the second...

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In Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (1999) I point to the anti-democratic feedback of war and global politics more generally on democracy at home which is the theme of Barack's speech:

"And these questions matter to every American.

For over the last decade, our nation has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home...

"From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation — and world — that we leave to our children...

"We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."

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In most foreign policy discussion and international relations as an academic field, realist theories - both official ones used in making/apologizing for American foreign policy and more sophisticated versions employed in the critical study of American errors and crimes, even systematic ones - abstain from the outset from looking at the consequences for democracy at home. They ignore decisively the point of Obama's speech.

For instance, the leading post-World War II realist, George Kennan in American Diplomacy, pits sober, professional diplomacy against democratic crusades like Woodrow Wilson's in World War I, culminating in the punitive and ultimately disastrous Treaty of Versailles. But in the 1984 edition, responding to the disastrous American aggression in Vietnam, Kennan noticed the war complex, "our military-industrial addiction." He shifted to a more democratic, common-good oriented view without naming the shift.

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In Cold War academia, the neo-realist theorist Kenneth Waltz, followed by J. David Singer (h/t Paul Viotti), developed the doctrine of a separation of levels of analysis. International politics is supposedly radically distinct from, not interactive with comparative politics. But consider these counterexamples: the US ate Iraq in 2003 and made it a "democracy"...Similarly, the Global War on Terror, as Obama says, has misshapen the kind of nation we hope to be...

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In a powerful January 2011 article in the National Interest, "Imperial by Design" - here - John Mearsheimer, a leading neo-realist ("offensive realism") comes at last and very strikingly, to this point, also emphasizing the Madison quote. Conservatives like Mearshemer (along with Ron Paul) who hate imperial American wars which undercut the rule of law and equal liberty at home have been leaders in protesting American policies (see the website antiwar.com which often reprints my posts on foreign policy).

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In an era when authoritarian neocons emphasizing "commander in chief power" seized control of American policy, the emphasis on professional diplomacy and negotiations - something Obama has restored considerably - is a long step back toward sanity.

Contrary to waging aggressions like Vietnam and Iraq and putting hundreds of thousands on nonwhite, nonAmericans to death, to sacrificing American lives to tyrannical purposes, to persecuting dissent and jailing many, to undercutting the rule of law and equal basic rights, it is a step toward achieving a common good.

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In this context, Obama's speech is, as Jane Meyer and the New York Times rightly point out below, an epochal shift. The Obama presidency, despite its frequent subservience the war complex and militarism, means to move from an era of disgrace - America becoming after September 11th with Cheney the dark side, carrying out widespread torture, including today's forced feeding of hunger strikers, as Obama recognized - to a new country which, does not indefinitely detain and torture, trashing the rule of law, innocents.

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As Obama put it,

"The glaring exception to this time-tested approach is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay [sic - the violation is as sharp at Bagram and in continued renditions]. The original premise for opening GTMO — that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention — was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at GTMO [i.e. ordinary people as well as governments are frightened and repelled by what the US was in the Bush-Cheney era].

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Responding to protest from Medea Benjamin, Obama said forcefully:

"I know the politics are hard [a sign of the sickness of American militarism]. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that."

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Obama spoke of the war against terrorists as just and lawful, but it has doubtfully ever been that; it is largely not against those who carried out 9/11 but against civilians and waged secretly in countries the US is not at war with...Still, the President went further: if it were just and lawful, that would not mean that it is moral. Obama placed perpetual war in this kind of frame in order to speak for - set a new trend toward - reviving liberty, moving to end the war, cancel AUMA - the Congressional authorization for unlimited war- and, return, despite episodes of terror dealt with on a criminal and intelligence basis, to a pre-9/11 state.

This, it must be said, is admirable and heartening.

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In fact, Obama spoke to the harms of American occupations - his effort to hold back bombing in Iran or intervention in Syria and advance negotiations - as a way of speaking about drones, and then scaled the use of drones back (somewhat, "ultimately"):

"Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted lethal action would be the use of conventional military options. As I’ve already said, even small special operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, result in large numbers of civilian casualties and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict."

This is a sharp statement against American occupations...

"So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world. The results would be more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.

Yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life."

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This is an attempted apology for Obama's use of drones and his first term Tuesday afternoon meetings at the White House with John Brennan to select targets odiously described in the New York Times here. The speech underestimates the slaughter of innocents of Obama's policy. But the speech articulates the issue, and is part of scaling back the use of drones and trying to place them under guidelines, while shifting away from war.

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Taking out Bin Laden and the use of drones contributed to Obama's being reelected - being "strong on national security" - compared to the imperial buffoon Romney who would already have bombed Iran. That is Obama's apology, as it were, for the drone policy. One must remember here that the President of the Empire is a killer, frequently a major one. This shift is pretty significant.

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Obama then issued some restrictions about drone strikes - indicating that these, too, must be scaled back. He does not articulate the evil that has been done by America and the enemies of ordinary people it has made. This was left to Medea Benjamin's protests from below. But his words, too, mark a turn:

"Now, this is not to say that the risks are not real. Any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies and impacts public opinion overseas. Moreover, our laws constrain the power of the President even during wartime, and I have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.

And for this reason, I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress. Let me repeat that: Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike. That includes the one instance when we targeted an American citizen — Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP."

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Obama's speech was then interrupted by the protest of Medea Benjamin. She spoke rightly in the name of the hunger strikers and the civilians, including Americans, taken out by drones.

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Yet Obama's response to Medea's protest may have been the best thing about the speech. He acknowledged her moral seriousness. He said, whatever the disagreement, that the issues and debate about this are of primary importance. He listened to her, spoke with or to her three times, and continued speaking with her in mind - the Secret Service did not hustle her out until the third intervention....

Here are the exchanges:

"MR. OBAMA: As President, I have tried to close GTMO. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States.

These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from GTMO with Congress’s support. When I ran for President the first time, John McCain supported closing GTMO — this was a bipartisan issue. No person has ever escaped one of our super-max or military prisons here in the United States — ever. Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism or terrorism-related offenses, including some folks who are more dangerous than most GTMO detainees. They’re in our prisons.

And given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened. (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Excuse me, President Obama –

MR. OBAMA: So — let me finish, ma’am. So today, once again –

AUDIENCE MEMBER: There are 102 people on a hunger strike. These are desperate people.

MR. OBAMA: I’m about to address it, ma’am, but you’ve got to let me speak. I’m about to address it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You’re our Commander-In-Chief –

MR. OBAMA: Let me address it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: — you can close Guantanamo Bay.

MR. OBAMA: Why don’t you let me address it, ma’am.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: There’s still prisoners –

MR. OBAMA: Why don’t you sit down and I will tell you exactly what I’m going to do.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: That includes 57 Yemenis.

MR. OBAMA: Thank you, ma’am. Thank you. (Applause.) Ma’am, thank you. You should let me finish my sentence.

Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. (Applause.)...

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Here is Medea's second intervention:

"MR. Obama: I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen so we can review them on a case-by-case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: — prisoners already. Release them today.

MR. OBAMA: Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: It needs to be –

THE PRESIDENT: Now, ma’am, let me finish. Let me finish, ma’am. Part of free speech is you being able to speak, but also, you listening and me being able to speak. (Applause.)"

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A few minutes later, Medea intervened again:

"MR. OBAMA In sentencing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “The way we treat you…is the measure of our own liberties.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER: How about Abdulmutallab — locking up a 16-year-old — is that the way we treat a 16-year old? (Inaudible) — can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes killing people on the basis of suspicious activities? [signature strikes are a fundamental issue, one in which America blows up innocents who are in a "suspicious area" - and one that Obama may - though not in this speech, restrain]

MR. OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: — thousands of Muslims that got killed — will you compensate the innocent families — that will make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love (inaudible) —

MR. OBAMA: I think that — and I’m going off script, as you might expect here. (Laughter and applause.) The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. (Applause.) Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong."

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It is difficult to imagine another President of the Empire who could or would have handled this intervention with such principle or grace (when Ray McGovern, the former Presidential briefer for the CIA and leader of Intelligence Professional for Sanity stood up with a t-shirt marking America's crimes and turned his back at a campaign speech of Hillary Clinton in 2008, the police hauled him out and beat him up; she just went on...).

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In contrast, Obama, in defending freedom of speech and debate, recognizing the validity of Medea's position, did something that no President, and roughly speaking, no figure in the corporate "mainstream," has done.

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This is part of seeking a decent America, which, it must be said, Obama took a long step toward on Thursday.

It would have been better five years ago.

It would have been better without needing protest.

It would be better with more concrete measures in place. Reviewing Yemeni prisoners who have been cleared for moving out of Guantanamo is but a step.

More protest will be needed.

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For the war complex works over time to defeat this. See Mark Mazetti and Mark Landler "For Obama's Global Vision, Daunting Problems" in the Times Saturday here who have the nerve, as military specialists, to say sycophantically that the military-industrial enterprise gained strength only during the "global war on terror." What is true is that it expanded to nearly three times Cold War levels (the official budget then was $250 billion (not counting the intelligence budget and the nuclear research in the Department of Energy...); in Obama' first year, it was $704 billion.

The problem of the "military-industrial-Congressional complex," as President Eisenhower put it 53 hers ago - he also described the academic component of the war complex - runs far deeper, through the Cold War and larger and more entrenched today, with its dead hands, pushing steadily toward destruction...

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Nonetheless, Obama's speech marked an epochal shift in America. If with protest, the last three years of Obama s Presidency move in this direction, that will be a long way back toward decency...

It will be a long way towerd fulfilling the promise of the Obama candidacy.

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American government serves a powerful and corrupt ruling elite and always has. Decent things come only from protest from below. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and never looked back. But before, as Frederick Douglass underlined, he wanted Union more than abolition, temporized, equivocated, allowed continuing crimes (though black people were freeing themselves in the South, as were some indigenous people; the Civil War was, nonetheless, also a long war of genocide against native americans - see here). The abolitionist movement and the Union recruitment of black troops were the decisive forces.

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FDR got social security and unemployment insurance legislated after a long process of protest from below. The civil rights movement and rebellions in American cities sparked Kennnedy's and Johnson's gradual movement toward the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

American presidents do nothing decent without strong pressure from below and great international exigencies...

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In this reality of American politics, Obama's speech - marking a consolidation of this shift - is of great significance.

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Here are some words from the Times's editorial page, which register, if ignoring the Times' long role as advocate of Bush and the global war on terror, this point:

"President Obama’s speech on Thursday was the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America. For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

'Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,' Mr. Obama said in the speech at the National Defense University. 'But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.'

As frustratingly late as it was — much of what Mr. Obama said should have been said years ago — there is no underestimating the importance of that statement. Mr. Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, used the state of war that began with the authorization to invade Afghanistan and go after Al Qaeda and others who planned the Sept. 11 attacks to justify extraordinary acts like indefinite detention without charges and the targeted killing of terrorist suspects.

While there are some, particularly the more hawkish Congressional Republicans, who say this war should essentially last forever, Mr. Obama told the world that the United States must return to a state in which counterterrorism is handled, as it always was before 2001, primarily by law enforcement and the intelligence agencies [this was actually coups against non-white democracies, military aid to generals who tortured, overseeing torture, and many other criminal acts. That that era contrasts favorably with the awfulness of Bush-Cheney is quite a comment...]. That shift is essential to preserving the democratic system and rule of law for which the United States is fighting, and for repairing its badly damaged global image." Editorial, May 24, 2013, see the full version here.

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Day 106 of the Guantanamo Hunger Strike

Dear Friends:

Included below is our response to President Obama’s comments today about Guantanamo. The additional suffering that the men in Guantanamo have taken on themselves in this hunger strike has forced those in power to respond. Because of their sacrifice, and the contributions of so many of you – in phone calls, vigils, letters, petitions, arrests, and many other creative actions – we are closer to Guantanamo’s closure today than we were yesterday.

But our work is far from done. It is more important now than ever before to keep up all forms of pressure!

Please take a moment to read our response below, and look through the list at the end of this message to find ways to engage in the continuing work.

Peace-
Matt Daloisio
for Witness Against Torture

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No More Excuses – Anti-Guantanamo Activists Demand that President Obama Make Good on Promise to Restart Transfers and Close Guantanamo; Vow to Keep Pressure on President

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MAY 23, 2103

Contacts: Matt Daloisio
Jeremy Varon

New York City/Washington, D.C. – Responding to the hunger strike at Guantanamo, President Obama announced in a speech today his wish to re-start the transfer of men from Guantanamo and for the closure of the US prison. Anti-Guantanamo activists insist that the speech be followed by concrete steps — including the immediate transfer of men from the prison — to show that the Obama administration is serious. 86 men have been cleared for transfer and must be released now.

We agree with President Obama that "GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law." The President must use his executive power and political leadership to at last close Guantanamo and end indefinite detention. He must renounce the unprecedented, illegitimate, and increasingly discredited Military Commissions as an unacceptable substitute for true due process; and he must reject any policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial, and commit to bring credible suspects within a proper judicial system. We applaud the courageous interruption of Obama's speech, which underscores the emergency situation at the prison, and need for rapid closure of Guantanamo.

"It should not take men starving themselves to have President Obama stand up for the Constitution and human rights.” Says Matthew W. Daloisio, organizer with Witness Against Torture. “We are more 11 years into the crime of Guantánamo and over 100 days into the current hunger strike. The promise to transfer those cleared is important, but without immediate steps to release actual people, it is only another promise."

“We have heard noble sentiments before from President Obama,” added Jeremy Varon of Witness Against Torture. “We will hold him to account. It is not enough to release those who should have been released years ago. Indefinite detention must end. And the rule of law will never be fulfilled in Military Commissions. Moving Guantanamo is not closing Guantanamo. All held in the prison must be charged, tried in legitimate courts, or released. We’ll be in the streets, at the steps of courthouses, in jail if necessary to make sure that Guantanamo closes.”

President Obama ended the Guantanamo portion of his speech today by asking the American people to "look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?"

We may wish that this is not who we are. But we will be judged by our actions, not our speeches.

Witness Against Torture and other groups will continue their vigils, rallies, solidarity fasts, calls to the White House, and direct actions until Guantanamo is shuttered.

Since the hunger strike began in early February, Witness Against Torture has held vigils in more than 30 cities and towns, had regular rallies at the White House, circulated a Change.org petition — signed by more than 210,000 people — demanding the closure of Guantanamo, helped organize a briefing for Congressional staff; coordinated a rolling fast in solidarity with the Hunger Strike and daily calls to the White House, Pentagon and the US Southern Command; and committed acts of civil disobedience."

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New Yorker
MAY 24, 2013
OBAMA’S CHALLENGE TO AN ENDLESS WAR
POSTED BY JANE MAYER

One first impression left by President Obama’s much-anticipated speech re-casting U.S. counterterrorism policy is that of the contrast between Bush’s swagger and Obama’s anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society. It could scarcely be starker. While Bush frequently seemed to take action without considering the underlying questions, Obama appears somewhat unsure of exactly what actions to take. That is not a bad thing: at least he is asking the right questions. In fact, by suggesting that, after a decade and seven thousand American and countless foreign lives lost, and a trillion dollars spent, it might be time to start downsizing the “war on terror,” he is leading the national debate beyond where even most Democrats have dared to go.

The two Presidents seem to have fundamentally different starting points about how much can be achieved by the exercise of U.S. force. Bush seemed to think it possible that America could expunge evil around the globe—he declared war on what he called the “Axis of Evil,” and announced, shortly after September 11, 2001, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda but does not end there.” Obama, in contrast, conceded that the elimination of evil in general, and terrorism in particular, was beyond the scope of any politician or nation. As he defined it, the struggle against evil was part of the human condition, not an enemy suitable for armed warfare.

“Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror,” Obama said. “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.” As Obama expressed it, “We must be humble in our expectations.”

Obama agonized over other limitations, too. Bush’s lawyers propounded the astonishingly radical theory that, as Commander-in-Chief, a President couldn’t be limited by domestic or international law. His lawyers dubbed it “the New Paradigm” and reasoned that if national security was at stake, no other legal constraints could stand in the President’s way. The Geneva Conventions became optional, cast aside as “quaint.” Obama embraced both constitutional and international legal limits, at least in principle, even as he struggled to define them in practice. In fact, his speech was a paean to the theory of “just war,” which requires a balance between means and ends, demanding proportionality whenever the state resorts to the use of force. It’s a sophisticated and nuanced moral theory, on which the law of conflict rests. Obama has openly grappled with the most difficult questions posed by the most serious thinkers in this area.

Obama’s public acknowledgement of his armed drone program, and willingness to subject it to tighter scrutiny and oversight, won’t satisfy his most persistent critics. Indeed, shortly after the speech, Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, released a statement criticizing what he called the program’s “insufficient transparency,” adding, “We continue to disagree fundamentally with the idea that due process requirements can be satisfied without any form of judicial oversight by regular federal courts.”

Yet here, too, Obama’s evident pain over the program, whose civilian deaths he said would “haunt” him and his command “as long as we live,” seemed a telling change from the secrecy and winking smugness of the past. So was Obama’s admission that just because the United States has the technical prowess to incinerate its enemies halfway around the world doesn’t automatically mean that there is a moral basis for doing so. “As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it.”

He went on to acknowledge that drones have their limits, and that “force alone cannot make us safe.” Instead, he called for a “conversation about a comprehensive strategy” to “reduce the wellsprings” of radicalism, one that uses not just hard power but soft power, such as foreign aid, education, and support for transitions to democracy in the Arab world and peace in the Middle East:

Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue… But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

Obama’s reiteration of his early vow to close down the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, where a hundred and sixty-six terror suspects are being held, the vast majority languishing without having faced specific charges or trials, also left some exceedingly tough questions unanswered. Obama said he would lift the moratorium he had imposed on transfers of prisoners to Yemen, because of security in that country. Some fifty-six Yemenis form the core of a group of eighty-six prisoners who have been cleared for release. Once that group is moved out, however, and others are put on trial, there will still be a hard core of suspects whom the government is willing neither to charge nor release. Obama touched on this group glancingly, saying,

Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those Guantánamo detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted—for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing Guantánamo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.

What kind of solution for indefinite detention can be arrived at, however, Obama left for later. It won’t be easy. As Joseph Margulies, clinical professor at Northwestern University Law School and lead counsel in the first Guantánamo case in the Supreme Court, noted, “The devil is in the details.”

Obama’s speech has, at least, put the right questions on the table. Even Margulies, who has been critical of Obama for not doing more to close Guantánamo in the past, admitted he was “excited” by the speech. He said, “All the high-flying rhetoric about values and ‘who we are,’ and national identity is great.” But, he said, “Unless he follows up on it, it’ll all be for naught.” Much of the burden of moving forward, however, is not in Obama’s hands. Within minutes of his speech, conservatives on Capitol Hill had already begun jumping on him for having a “pre-9/11 mindset”—as if, somehow, the 9/11 mindset should last forever."

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One can see, in this comment from Andrew Sullivan, the broad political climate that exists for major change away from unending aggressions and toward the rule of law:

"The Daily Dish
An End In Sight
MAY 23 2013 @ 9:39PM

US-POLITICS-OBAMA-COUNTERTERRORISM

The challenges that Barack Obama faced upon taking office were, even his critics would admit, daunting: an economy tail-spinning toward a second Great Depression, two continuing, draining and tragically self-defeating wars, and an apparatus of vastly expanded executive power (including torture) which had only just begun to be checked by the judiciary. More to the point, the United States was formally at war in a conflict which seemed to have no conceivable end.

And so easily the most important thing the president said today, it seems to me, was the following:

We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” … The AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists] is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.

Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

“Ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate”. I wish the word “ultimately” were not there. But the announcement of an eventual, discrete, concrete end to this war may have been a step enough for now. For my part, I think it should be a critical goal of this administration to repeal that AUMF by the end of its second term. Our goal must not be an endlessly ratcheting of terrorist and counter-terrorist violence that creates more enemies than friends. Our goal must be normalcy and freedom, even as we continue strong counter-terrorism strategies outside of the context for warfare.

I’m glad the president defended the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki as forcefully as he should:

When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team. [it would be nice for them to finally release the evidence; Obama's murder of three other Americans, two of them plainly innocents, needs to be spelled out in this context, which Sullivan does not].

My view entirely. I’m struck too by his Niebuhrian grasp of the inherent tragedy of wielding power in an age of terror – a perspective his more jejune and purist critics simply fail to understand. This seems like a heart-felt expression of Christian realism to me:

It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.

Indeed he must. And in the aggregate, I think history will look back on the balance he struck and see more wisdom in it than the purism on the civil liberties left and right or the lawless violence and torture of the Bush-Cheney years.

A few more key points: he will end the moratorium on releasing Yemeni prisoners at GTMO; he has appointed a figure to expedite the closure of the former torture camp (perhaps his newfound friendship with John McCain can accelerate the process). But he offered no real solution to the 50 or so prisoners deemed still dangerous to the world but who cannot be tried for lack of admissible evidence. He had noting really on that – except a self-evidently vain appeal to a Congress unwilling to give an inch on anything.

But the broader framework of the speech was the most important: the possibility of a return to normality, to a point where the understandable trauma of 9/11 no longer blurs our ability to construct a realist but restrained counter-terror strategy. That’s the promise of his presidency: the healing of a giant wound to this country’s psyche and values. And here’s where it came through most tellingly for me:

The scale of [the current] threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. In the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our Embassy in Beirut; at our Marine Barracks in Lebanon; on a cruise ship at sea; at a disco in Berlin; and on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center; at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia; and at our Embassy in Kenya. These attacks were all deadly, and we learned that left unchecked, these threats can grow. But if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.

We can envisage a world in which this war is over, and yet our counter-terrorism continues “smartly and proportionally”. It is a tough and usually lonely task to make these calls. Which is why a president is ultimately accountable for them. Today, he stood accountable; and he neither shirked from responsibility nor apologized for the inherent tragedy of any armed conflict.

From this hard realist assessment, however, came a light at the end of a psychological and political tunnel; a small flicker hope at the end of a long dark night of fear.
(Photo: US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration’s drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. By Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.)

***

And this important point on freedom of speech beats the corporate press by a hoot and a holler:

The Daily Dish
Why Obama Matters
MAY 23 2013 @ 9:00PM

A reader writes:

If only Americans appreciated how hard this was to do, given the institutional resistance, and how singularly the President himself, within the government, actually understands this in its broader context. I was there at the speech, and moved to tears. Even the interruption by the Code Pink woman turned out to be a blessing in disguise — instead of the usual bromides about the virtues of free speech, after a full minute or two of interruption, in one of the most important speeches of his tenure, he responded: “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.” Can you imagine any other chief of state extemporizing with that line in those circumstances? — acknowledging the power of her concerns and honoring them?

And then at the end, it occurred to him to incorporate the incident again, once more because he realized it helped make his point:

“Now, we need a strategy – and a politics –that reflects this resilient spirit. Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony on a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street; a citizen shouting her concerns to her President.”

Wow.

I’m with my reader who was there. We remain lucky to have him, as we long have been.

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