The joys of pragmatism

Even when he adopts polar opposite positions within a matter of months, the president is right

Published February 16, 2010 11:17AM (EST)

(updated below)

The New Yorker, February 23, 2009:

"It’s possible but hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law," [White House counsel Greg] Craig said. "Our presumption is that there is no need to create a whole new system."

The New York Times, May 21, 2009:

[In his speech at the National Archives, in front of the U.S. Constitution, President Obama] proposed "prolonged detention" for terrorism suspects who cannot be tried . . . The answer proposed by Mr. Obama would write an entirely new chapter in American law to permit "prolonged detention" -- just as at Guantánamo, but with oversight by the courts and Congress. Human rights advocates express outrage at that approach, however, saying it would violate the very civil liberties Mr. Obama, a former lecturer on constitutional law, has vowed to protect. 

The New York Times, September 23, 2009:

The Obama administration has decided not to seek new legislation from Congress authorizing the indefinite detention of about 50 terrorism suspects being held without charges at at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday.

Instead, the administration will continue to hold the detainees without bringing them to trial based on the power it says it has under the Congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorizing the president to use force against forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In concluding that it does not need specific permission from Congress to hold detainees without charges, the Obama administration is adopting one of the arguments advanced by the Bush administration in years of debates about detention policies.

Politico, yesterday:

The White House is considering endorsing a law that would allow the indefinite detention of some alleged terrorists without trial as part of efforts to break a logjam with Congress over President Barack Obama’s plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Monday. . . .

Last summer, White House officials said they had ruled out seeking a "preventive detention" statute as a way to deal with anti-terror detainees . . . However, speaking at a news conference in Greenville, S.C. Monday, Graham said the White House now seems open to a new law to lay out the standards for open-ended imprisonment of those alleged to be members of or fighters for Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

* * * * *

Here we find, in all its splendor and glory, the beauty of Pragmatism as an all-purpose justifying mantra:  no matter what position the President takes, even when they're polar opposites, the President is always right.  He's right when he rejects a preventive detention law and he's right when he wants one.  No matter the position at the moment, he's being pragmatic, which means not bothering oneself with any of those annoying "principles" that are the provenance of shrill ideologues and dreaded purists, even when it comes to matters that were intended to be shielded from political compromise (i.e., core Constitutional liberties, such as the right not to be put in a cage for life without charges and a trial, or a "preventive detention" scheme which The New York Times, the day after Obama proposed it, called "a departure from the way this country sees itself"). 

Here's more Pragmatism in action:

ABC News, April 24, 2009:

In a letter from the Justice Department to a federal judge yesterday, the Obama administration announced that the Pentagon would turn over to the American Civil Liberties Union 44 photographs showing detainee abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq during the Bush administration. . . . The Bush administration argued that releasing these photographs would violate US obligations towards detainees and would prompt outrage and perhaps attacks against the U.S.

President Obama did the right thing!  Transparency is crucial to our democracy and must be honored, and he's bravely fulfilling his campaign pledges to restore civil liberties and openness!

ABC News, May 12, 2009:

The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State For Near Eastern Affairs Liz Cheney, took to the television airwaves today to assail the decision by President Obama to release photographs, as ordered by a judge, showing detainee abuse by American soldiers and/or CIA operatives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I have heard from families of sevicemembers, from families of 9/11 victims, this question about, you know, 'When did it become so fashionable for us to side, really, with the terrorists?'" Ms. Cheney said on Fox News Channel. "You know, for us to put information out that hurts American soldiers?"

It's outrageous for the Right to engage in this fear-mongering by accusing the President of Endangering the Troops with the release of these photos.  How dare Liz Cheney exploit The Troops to justify covering-up evidence of war crimes!

Associated Press, May 13, 2009:

President Barack Obama declared Wednesday he would try to block the court-ordered release of photos that show U.S. troops abusing prisoners.

He said the abrupt reversal of his position came out of concern that the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . Obama said of the photos[:] "In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

President Obama did the right thing (just like he did when he made the opposite announcement three weeks earlier)!  His first obligation is to protect the Troops, and releasing these photos would put our soldiers in harm's way, while transparency would accomplish nothing good (just like Liz Cheney helpfully pointed out)!   He's the Commander-in-Chief and has to be Pragmatic about these matters.

Or this:

CNN, November 13, 2009:

Five Guantanamo Bay detainees with alleged ties to the 9/11 conspiracy, including accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be transferred to New York to go on trial in civilian court, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday.

The Obama administration should be praised for honoring the Constitution and following the rule of law!  Civilian trials are the linchpin of our justice system.

From the same CNN article and The New York Times, January 22, 2010:

Holder also announced that five other detainees held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be sent to military commissions for trial. . . . The Obama administration has decided to continue to imprison without trials nearly 50 detainees at the Guantánamo Bay military prison in Cuba because a high-level task force has concluded that they are too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release,

Well, you can't follow the Constitution and the Rule of Law in all cases; you have to be Pragmatic about it.

The Washington Post, February 12, 2010:

President Obama is planning to insert himself into the debate about where to try the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, three administration officials said Thursday, signaling a recognition that the administration had mishandled the process and triggered a political backlash. . . . .And Holder, in an interview Thursday, left open the possibility that Mohammed's trial could be switched to a military commission, although he said that is not his personal and legal preference.

Well, if that happens, I'm sure the President will have good reasons for it.  He knows things we don't know, and besides, he probably doesn't want to make the Republicans angry, otherwise they won't support his health care bill.  He's being Pragmatic.

This is the behavior of politicians who are completely unmoored from any fixed beliefs or convictions.  They flail wildly from one position to its polar opposite, all within a matter of months or even weeks, and even on matters of core, fundamental principle.  There's no conviction to any of it, and thus no coherent way to justify it and persuade others of its merit.  "Pragmatism" is the birdseed fed to their most hardened supporters to allow them a way to justify this radically inconsistent conduct, but to many outside that circle of loyalists, it simply appears weak, confused, and frightened.  As always, that's why Republicans appear "strong" and Democrats appear "weak":  not because of any specific policy positions, but because Democrats scamper from their own claimed "principles" at the first sign of difficulty or criticism.


UPDATE:  A reader cc's me on an email he wrote to Andrew Sullivan, responding to this post in which Sullivan touted the administration's successes in combating Terrorism and wrote:  "And that [Obama] has done so by adhering to American values will go a long way to repair some small part of the damage Cheney inflicted."  Sayeth the emailer, complete with links:

Right, all those American values like warrantless eavesdropping, suppression of evidence, military tribunals, indefinite detention, extra-judicial murder . . . .

And let's not forget that core American value of citing secrecy to block all judicial review of Presidential lawbreaking.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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