Barack Obama has few, if any, more adoring fans in the world of establishment punditry than New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Back in February, Herbert constructed an entire column around the ultimate Obama fan cheer: he venerated Obama as a "chess master," a "championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike" who "is smart, deft, elegant and subtle." That's what makes Herbert's superb column today -- lambasting Obama for his "unwillingness to end many of the mind-numbing abuses linked to the so-called war on terror and to establish a legal and moral framework designed to prevent those abuses from ever occurring again" -- so significant.
Here's the first sentence of Herbert's column; the fact that this even needs to be pointed out -- and it does: over and over -- is significant in itself:
Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House.
That's so axiomatically true that it's difficult to believe it could be disputed. But it is disputed. The prime danger of placing "trust" and "faith" in a political leader is precisely that it leads one to conclude that policies one once vehemently condemned become acceptable and even just when embraced by a Good Leader. Herbert notes the handful of steps Obama has taken to ban some of the Bush interrogation techniques, but argues that "other policies that offend the conscience continue":
Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention, imprisoning people indefinitely, for years and perhaps for life, without charge and without giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their innocence.
And yet we’ve embraced it, asserting that there are people who are far too dangerous to even think about releasing but who cannot be put on trial because we have no real evidence that they have committed any crime, or because we’ve tortured them and therefore the evidence would not be admissible, or whatever. President Obama is O.K. with this (he calls it "prolonged detention"), but he wants to make sure it is carried out -- here comes the oxymoron -- fairly and nonabusively.
Proof of guilt? In 21st-century America, there is no longer any need for such annoyances.
Human rights? Ha-ha. That’s a good one.
White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it's "hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law." Indeed. Bob Herbert is obviously having a hard time with that -- as every American should be. And if recent polls are any indication, most are.
Herbert next attacks Obama for what I think is the worst breach, one could even say the central one: Obama's ongoing obsession with, and embrace of, Bush's radical secrecy doctrines:
Also distressing is the curtain of secrecy the Obama administration has kept drawn over shameful abuses that should be brought into the light of day. . . .
[I]n an affront to a society that is supposed to be intelligent and free, the Obama administration is trying to sit on photos that are just as important [as the Abu Ghraib photos] for Americans to see. The president’s argument for trying to block the court-ordered release of the photos is a demoralizing echo of the embarrassingly empty rhetoric of the Bush years:
“The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.”
The Obama administration is also continuing the Bush administration’s abuse of the state-secrets privilege. Lawyers from the Obama Justice Department have argued, as did lawyers from the Bush administration before them, that a lawsuit involving extraordinary rendition and allegations of extreme torture should be dismissed outright because discussions of such matters in court would harm national security.
In other words, the victims, no matter how strong their case might be, no matter how badly they might have been abused, could never have their day in court. Jane Mayer, writing in the June 22 New Yorker, said of the rendition program, in which suspects were swept up by Americans and spirited off to foreign countries for imprisonment and interrogation: “As many as seven detainees were misidentified and abducted by mistake.”
The Bush and Obama view of the state-secrets privilege effectively bars any real examination of such egregious mistakes.
In a new Newsweek article this week, Michael Isikoff similarly documents the multiple ways Obama is violating his pledge of open government and transparency -- not with regard to past Bush abuses but in order to conceal Obama's actions in the present.
Finally, proclaiming Obama's record on civil liberties and transparency to be "unacceptable," Herbert concludes:
It was thought by many that a President Obama would put a stop to the madness, put an end to the Bush administration’s nightmarish approach to national security. But Mr. Obama has shown no inclination to bring even the worst offenders of the Bush years to account, and seems perfectly willing to move ahead in lockstep with the excessive secrecy and some of the most egregious activities of the Bush era.
Note that Herbert is not complaining that Obama has failed to move fast enough to fix these problems. Rather, he's exclusively criticizing Obama for Bush-replicating policies, positions and abuses which the administration has affirmatively embraced and aggressively defended. And as Herbert suggests in his last sentence -- in which he argues that Obama's actions are mutually exclusive with the pledge "to get our moral compass back" -- these issues were not ancillary to progressive objections to the Bush presidency but were central to them. As Herbert says: "Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House." If a full-fledged Obama admirer like Herbert has the intellectual honesty to acknowledge this and be angry about it, that's a fairly compelling sign of just how extreme this has now become.