When presidential sermons collide

Obama tells the Indonesians that looking backward to their past abuses is a prerequisite for moving forward

Topics: Barack Obama, Washington, D.C.,

When presidential sermons collide

(updated below – Update II – Update III)

President Obama gave an interview earlier this week to an Indonesian television station in lieu of the scheduled trip to that country which was canceled due to the health care vote.  In 2008, Indonesia empowered a national commission to investigate human rights abuses committed by its own government under the U.S.-backed Suharto regime “in an attempt to finally bring the perpetrators to justice,” and Obama was asked in this interview:  ”Is your administration satisfied with the resolution of the past human rights abuses in Indonesia?”  He replied:

We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed.  We can’t go forward without looking backwards . . . .

When asked last year about whether the United States should use similar tribunals to investigate its own human rights abuses, as well his view of other countries’ efforts (such as Spain) to investigate those abuses, Obama said:

I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards, and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there.

That “Look-Forward/Not-Backward” formulation is one which Obama and his top aides have frequently repeated to argue against any investigations in the U.S.  Why, as Obama sermonized, must Indonesians first look backward before being able to move forward, whereas exactly the opposite is true of Americans?  If a leader is going to demand that other countries adhere to the very “principles” which he insists on violating himself, it’s probably best not to use antithetical clichés when issuing decrees, for the sake of appearances if nothing else.

The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer — in the last paragraph of her new article documenting the multiple lies told by former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen in his pro-torture book — offered the best summary yet as to why Obama’s “Look Forward/Not Backward” mentality is so destructive:

The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation.  By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

Nothing enables the glorification of crimes, and nothing ensures their future re-occurrence, more than shielding the criminals from all accountability.  It’s nice that Barack Obama is willing to dispense that lecture to other countries, but it’s not so nice that he does exactly the opposite in his own.


UPDATE:  The Mayer article on Thiessen’s book has been discussed in various places over the last several days, though I hadn’t read it until day.  It’s quite amazing:  she does not merely “debunk” Thiessen’s central claims, but proves that they’re outright lies and that he is a fabulist on the level of Jayson Blair.  It speaks volumes about The Washington Post that they hired him as a regular columnist after the publication of that book.

On a more positive note:  the superb journalist Jeremy Scahill was named the recipient of the 2nd Annual Izzy Award for Outstanding Independent Journalism.  Information about his award is here.


UPDATE II:  On an unrelated note, I’ve done several interviews on Canadian TV and radio over the past few days about this piece I wrote on Canada’s creepy censorship laws.  Ann Coulter, who is now mostly ignored in the U.S., has received more attention over the past few days than she’s received in years as a result of this incident, which underscores a key point:  beyond their inherent dangers, censorship laws almost always backfire by converting their targets into martyrs.  For those interested, here is a TV interview I did last night in Canada; my segment begins at 7:45.  But the interview before me — with one of the students from the University of Ottawa who protested Coulter’s appearance — is worth watching for a bit just to get a flavor for the childish mentality that underlies the desire to have the Government dictate what political views can and cannot be heard:  even at universities, which, of all places, should be devoted to the free inquiry into all ideas.


UPDATE III:  The aforementioned Jeremy Scahill gave an interview today about what “independent journalism” means.  The whole interview is worth reading and reflects why he’s such a deserving recipient of that award.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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