Criticisms, political pressure and Barack Obama

The president-elect's advisors respond to the firestorm created by Sunday's remarks on Guantanamo, illustrating the value of criticizing Obama when he deserves it.

Published January 13, 2009 1:47PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II- Update III)

Barack Obama's announced intentions on ABC News this Sunday regarding Guantanamo sparked substantial objections from civil liberties and human rights advocates.  The result of those objections?   From today's New York Times:

President-elect Barack Obama plans to issue an executive order on his first full day in office directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, people briefed by Obama transition officials said Monday.

Not only did Obama advisers quickly leak that Obama planned to do that -- something he made no mention of on ABC or at any time before that -- but they also made known that they have all but rejected the principal plan urged by the pro-war, anti-civil-liberties Brookings Institution and like-minded comrades (such as former Bush official Jack Goldsmith) for a Congressionally-authorized scheme of preventive detention to empower the President to indefinitely detain Terrorists inside the U.S. without having to charge them with any crimes:

In addition, people who have conferred with transition officials said the incoming administration appeared to have rejected a proposal to seek a new law authorizing indefinite detention inside the United States. . . .

In formulating their policy in recent weeks, Obama transition officials have consulted with a variety of authorities on legal and human rights and with military experts. Several of those experts said the officials had expressed great interest in alternatives to the military commission system, like trying detainees in federal courts, and appeared to have grown hostile to proposals like an indefinite detention law.

Why did Obama advisers rush forth on Monday to ensure publication of articles like this one with new announcements for Obama's plans for closing Guantanamo? The reason seems rather obvious, but in case it isn't, the NYT spells it out:

The president-elect drew criticism from some human rights groups Monday who said his remarks suggested that closing Guantánamo was not among the new administration’s highest priorities. . . . .

Several said the officials appeared concerned that a proposal for a new law authorizing indefinite detention would bring the new administration much of the criticism that has been directed at the Bush administration over Guantánamo. A former military official who was part of a series of briefings at the transition headquarters in Washington said the officials had spoken about the indefinite detention proposal as a way of creating a “new Guantanámo someplace else.”

There are still many vital details left unaddressed, beginning with what Obama meant in the interview when he spoke of the need for authority -- what he called a new "process" -- to detain accused Terrorists even when the evidence against them is "tainted."  Critically, the NYT article does not indicate what Obama's views are regarding the largest concern prompted by his Sunday comments:  namely, whether he favors the commonly advocated policy (also urged by Brookings/Goldsmith) to create, upon the closing of Guantanamo, a new so-called "national security court" or other type of judicial process that allows "tainted" evidence (including torture-induced confessions) to be introduced, whereby the "new court" would -- as Brookings/Goldsmith euphemistically put it -- "reduce the burdens on and dangers to ordinary civilian courts and employ nimbler evidentiary and classification rules."

As the ACLU's Anthony Romero is quoted as pointing out in this morning's NYT article:

The devil is in the details. Just like we need specifics on an economic recovery package, we need specifics on a justice recovery package.

For those reasons, these new Guantanamo announcements are very far from a guarantee that Obama will do the right thing here. Still, these leaked responses to Sunday's criticisms are an important step forward, and they underscore the reasons why it is so vital to express criticism of Obama when he deserves it.

* * * * *

Politicians, by definition, respond to political pressure. Those who decide that it's best to keep quiet and simply trust in the goodness and just nature of their leader are certain to have their political goals ignored. It's always better -- far better -- for a politician to know that he's being scrutinized closely and will be praised and supported only when his actions warrant that, and will be criticized and opposed when they don't.

Right this moment, there are enormous pressures being exerted on Obama not to make significant changes in the areas of civil liberties, intelligence policy and foreign affairs.  That pressure is being exerted by the intelligence community, by the permanent Pentagon structures, by status-quo-loving leaders of both political parties, by authority-worshipping Beltway "journalists" and pundits (such as the ones who wrote the wretched though illustrative "What Would Dick Do?" cover story for this week's Newsweek).

If those who want fundamental reform in these areas adopt the view that they will not criticize Barack Obama because to do so is to "help Republicans," or because he deserves more time, or because criticisms are unnecessary because we can trust in him to do the right thing, or because criticizing him is to "tear him down" or "create a circular firing squad" or "be a Naderite purist" or any of those other empty platitudes, then they are ceding the field to the very powerful factions who are going to fight vehemently against any changes.  Do you think that those who want the CIA to retain "robust" interrogation powers and who want the federal surveillance state maintained, or want a hard-line towards Iran and a continuation of our Middle East policies, or who want to maintain corporate-lobbyist-domination of Washington, are sitting back saying:  "it's not right to pressure Obama too much right now; give him some time"?

It's critical that Obama -- and the rest of the political establishment -- hear loud objections, not reverential silence, when he flirts with ideas like the ones he suggested on Sunday.  This dynamic prevails with all political issues.  Where political pressure comes only from one side, that is the side that wins -- period.

* * * * *

We just witnessed the results of that dynamic with the ugly spectacle last week of a virtually unanimous Congress approving a completely one-sided Israel/Gaza Resolution.  That Middle East war is an issue which, whatever else one might want to say about it, generates intense controversy, division and passion around the world.  But not in the U.S. Congress.  There, virtually the entire Congress (510 of the 535 members) -- from the furthest left precincts of the Democratic Party to the furthest right-wing of the Republican Party, from all four corners of the U.S. and everywhere in between -- looked at this war and just-so-happened to reach the same exact conclusion: not only is Israel 100% in the right, but the U.S. should involve itself publicly and squarely on Israel's side.

Does anyone actually believe that, in the absence of extremely effective political pressure, 510 ideologically diverse members of Congress -- at exactly the moment when worldwide opposition to the Israeli assault is growing in response to documented civilian horrors -- would all have jointly decided that Israel was right to bomb and invade Gaza and that it is in America's interests to insinuate itself on Israel's side? Even Governors, such as Democrat Martin O'Malley of Maryland, ludicrously popped up to follow the pro-Israel script.

That happens for one clear reason: because one side of the debate (the AIPAC faction) is strong and aggressive in its criticisms and pressure tactics and the other side (the faction wanting an even-handed U.S. approach) is not.  Over the weekend, Juan Cole described this dynamic perfectly:

Europe has ceded dealing with the Israelis to the United States.

The people of the United States have ceded dealing with the Israelis to the US Congress.

The US Congress generally abdicates its responsibilities when faced with large powerful single-issue lobbies such as the National Rifle Association, the Cuban-American pro-boycott organizations, and the Israel lobbies.

So Congress has ceded Israel, and indeed, most Middle East, policy to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its myriad organizational supporters, from the Southern Baptist churches to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. The Israel lobbies take their cue on what is good policy from the Israeli government and the Likud Party.

So, US Israel policy is driven by . . . the Israeli rightwing. That is why Congress voted 309 to five to support Israel's war on the people of Gaza, with 22 abstaining.

If those who get angry whenever Obama is criticized have their way -- and as anyone who writes about political issues knows, there is a small though quite substantial and vocal minority who get angry when they read criticisms of Obama -- the Israel dynamic that Cole describes will drive every issue.

Just as Congressional Democrats have known for the last eight years, Obama will know that there is only a price to pay when he acts contrary to the Republican and Beltway "centrist" agenda, but no price to pay when he acts contrary to the agenda of his most ardent supporters (because they won't criticize him, because to do is to "tear him down," "help Republicans," act like a Naderite purist, etc. etc. etc.). That meek and deferential attitude -- aside from being a wildly inappropriate and even dangerous way to treat a political leader -- also ensures that one is irrelevant and taken for granted and one's views easily ignored.

When Obama does things that warrant praise -- when he appoints someone like Dawn Johnsen as OLC Chief, or defies Beltway demands by going outside of the intelligence community to find his CIA Director -- he should be praised.  When he does things that warrant criticism -- such as going on national television to talk about the need for a special process to allow the use of "tainted" evidence against Guantanamo detainees, or when he openly contemplates naming someone as CIA Director who supports rendition and torture, or when he votes in favor of warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty -- he should be vigorously criticized.  When he makes statements without any apparent basis -- such as Sunday's assertion that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons -- he ought to be made to account for that claim and show evidence for it.  That's just basic accountability for a political official.

Like all politicians, Obama is not intrinsically good.  Good things don't happen by virtue of the mere existence of his presidency.  His presidency will be good only and exactly to the extent that he does good things.  Pressure and criticisms make his doing those good things more likely (there is a quote from FDR, which I cannot find but am certain commenters will quickly cite, where FDR privately instructed his supporters to publicly criticize him for not doing X so that he would be able to do X more easily).

Obama is about to become one of the world's most powerful political leaders, if not the single most powerful.  He begins with sky-high approval ratings, his political party in control of Congress by a large margin, and enjoys reverence so intense from certain quarters that such a loyal following hasn't been seen since the imperial glow around George Bush circa 2002.  He's not going to crumble or melt away like the Wicked Witch if he's pressured or criticized.  The far more substantial danger is that he won't be pressured or criticized enough by those who are eager to see meaningful changes in Washington, and then -- either by desire or necessity -- those are the voices he will ignore most easily.


UPDATE:  The benefits of having a very smart, informed and active comment section can't be overstated.  The very first commenter here points to this:

FDR was, of course, a consummate political leader. In one situation, a group came to him urging specific actions in support of a cause in which they deeply believed. He replied: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

Those who adopt the "stop-criticizing-Obama" mentality renounce that vital instrument for influencing the outcome of political events.


UPDATE II:  At The Washington Monthly, Hilzoy amply documents why the one issue left unresolved by the Obama/Guantanamo leaks to the NYT -- namely:  whether to create a special, new process to allow use of "tainted evidence" against Guantanamo detainees -- may be the most important issue of all.  She argues eloquently why doing so would be a catastrophic decision.  Obama, as reflected by his Sunday comments, is clearly contemplating something like that, and it's because of issues like this one that it's so vital that pressure on Obama be maintained, criticisms of him be voiced when merited, and praise be expressed only when earned.

There are no shortage of blogs and websites devoted to giddy cheerleading and constructing hagiographies for Obama, and those who dislike being exposed to criticisms of Obama will, in just eight short days, have still another ideal website to frequent.  By contrast, this won't be a very good place to visit for those seeking that.


UPDATE III:  John Cole points to a really extreme -- and quite amazing -- example of what happens when only one side of a political debate is organized, engaged and aggressive.

Conversely, in comments, El Cid points to an important historical example illustrating the real benefits that come from a President's supporters applying intense and adversarial pressure to ensure that their political priorities are heeded.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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