The lesser of two evils is still evil

Does President Obama’s reelection represent a step ‘forward’? Not really.

As the President and his Republican adversary squared off in their foreign policy “debate” on Oct. 22, at least two things became abundantly clear.

First, they agreed on virtually everything, a reality upon which Obama capitalized, musing that Governor Romney wasn’t likely to glean political leverage by saying the same things the President and his deputy Joe Biden had already articulated, only saying them louder.

The prospects for Hope and Change don’t look good this time around. Image c/o gengsi/Flickr

Second, neither man raised a peep of objection to the murderous campaign of weaponized drones ravaging the Middle East, North Africa and south-central Asia. Quite the contrary in fact.

In response to moderator Bob Schieffer’s softball question on the drone program, Romney seemed to channel John Wayne’s character from¬†The Searchers,¬†John Ford’s ghastly motion picture paean to Manifest Destiny. His answer suggested he may have noticed a headline or two about flying robots that deployed rockets to take out bad guys somewhere far afield, but his level of nuance and expertise on the issue sounded childishly scant.

“I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world,” the former Massachusetts governor told Schieffer. “It’s widely being reported [indeed] that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely, and feel the President was right to up the usage of that technology…to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation.”

For his part, the president dextrously dodged Schieffer’s query, without mentioning the word ‘drone’ even once. Let no one doubt that he is possessed of exceptional rhetorical finesse. But it’s actions, not words, that define the man. And Obama’s actions betray, on no uncertain terms, a president whose reverence for law and order, civil liberties, and the powers and rights enshrined in his nation’s Constitution is dubious, at best.

Obama will drone on…and on

As Romney correctly noted in the foreign policy debate, Obama has “upped the usage” of drone technology relative to his predecessor, George W. Bush. According to the New America Foundation, in the final year of his presidency, Bush increased the number of drone strikes in Pakistan alone from a measly average of 2.5 between 2004 and 2007, to 36. For his part, Obama has presided over nearly 300 drone attacks in Pakistan, and counting. He has also kicked similar campaigns into high gear in Yemen, Somalia and several other East African nations, resulting in thousands of fatalities.

The number of resultant civilian deaths is also mired in controversy, based partly on the Obama administration’s definition of a “suspected militant” or “militant” (essentially, any military-aged male on the ground in the general vicinity of a drone attack is fair game, according to the CIA). Further complicating matters, is the CIA’s motive to report a low incidence of civilian casualties, and the corresponding rationale of U.S. adversaries, like the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, to exaggerate the death toll.

According to the best available data, sourced from the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The New America Foundation and The Long War Journal, estimates of the number of civilian deaths from CIA drone strikes range from as low as 138, to as high as 881. Most of these figures are sourced from local news reports, and government officials in Pakistan and elsewhere. The study “Living Under Drones”, released by researchers at Stanford and New York University in September even goes as far as to claim that only two per cent of drone strike fatalities in Pakistan were individuals the CIA had targeted for termination. While this figure is currently impossible to certify, the study also cites credible evidence of collateral impacts, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, among residents of Pakistan’s embattled Swat Valley.

In any case, it’s clear that there’s no end in sight for America’s various drone forays, the consequences of which are likely counterproductive to Obama’s stated foreign policy ambition of winning hearts and minds in regions traditionally hostile to the U.S.

Civil liberties?

At this point, a reasonable person might expect America’s president to ask, “Civil what?”

Indeed, for a man Republican commentators have portrayed as a liberal leftist, presumably based on the unremarkable observation that he happens to wear a “D” on his jersey, Obama has quietly delivered some virulently illiberal policies.

Prominent among these is the National Defense Authorization Act, a measure the president signed into law after midnight on New Year’s Eve, affording him unprecedented and unilateral authority to arrest, detain, interrogate, and perhaps even torture, any person he deems to have provided “support for terrorism”, and to do so on an indefinite timeframe. (Note that through the use of drone strikes, he continues to assert the power to murder alleged enemies of the United States, and those who associate with them, in foreign lands upon which his country has made no declaration of war. He has even produced an infamous “Kill List”, which included U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.) Plaintiffs who have fought back against the NDAA and its nebulous Indefinite Detention provision, including acclaimed journalist, author and essayist Christopher Hedges, have found themselves swimming upstream.

Demonstrators upbraid the NDAA. Guantanamo for everyone, indeed. Image c/o watchingfrogsboil/Flickr

In September, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest delivered a coup for Americans everywhere, by making permanent a temporary injunction she had placed on Section 1021, the Indefinite Detention provision, effectively declaring it unconstitutional. The administration fought back immediately, launching an appeal, and prompting a federal appeals judge to issue a stay of the odious provision until the end of September. The stay was then extended in October, as Obama et al. continued their endeavour to reinstate a legal abomination, wrought in the name of “security”. Based on the resistance his government has offered, Hedges has said he suspects the administration may already have effectuated the provision to incarcerate U.S. citizens.

But the NDAA does not stand alone among the Obama administration’s grievous overreaches; as a matter of fact, it’s just one of a host of recent constitutional violations on the part of the U.S. government.

  • As a U.S. Senator in 2008, Obama voted in favour of the FISA Amendments Act, according impunity to telecommunications firms that had participated in the warrantless wiretapping of American civilians under the Bush administration, despite his insistence that he would not do so. Since taking office, he has continued, and even intensified, his predecessor’s use of warrantless wiretaps, originally an adjunct to the Patriot Act. The provision is up for review again this year, but based on recent history, a repeal, or much less the slightest change, is unlikely.
  • Adding to the U.S. government’s certifiably creepy surveillance practices, which include online spying and eavesdropping by the Department of Homeland Security, there is TrapWire. Unveiled through the efforts of hacktivist organization Anonymous, the program operates through a private security firm staffed by U.S. intelligence cognoscenti, and has led to the installation of cameras in urban centres throughout the country, all linking to a central database outfitted with advanced facial recognition software.
  • H.R. 347, a bill ostensibly designed to preserve access to buildings and prevent trespassing, has effectively become a tool for suppressing protest, and undermining the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, home to some of the Bush administration’s most nefarious documented acts of torture, remains open. What’s more, Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, has declined to prosecute CIA officials accused of torture under the Bush administration, out of a desire on the part of the president to “look forward instead of looking backwards”. Apparently, Obama and friends are reticent to prosecute crimes that occurred in the past. More on this later.
  • This president has overseen a significant militarization of police forces, which have been deployed against Occupy protesters and at other instances of civil unrest – uprisings hardly surprising in a country increasingly ravaged by inequality, and social and judicial injustice. The belligerence of police over the past year has added an additional chilling factor to the rights of protest and assembly.
  • As if all this weren’t enough, Obama has also waged a war on whistleblowers, like former CIA analyst John Kiriakou and former U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who chose to place their duty to the American people above their duty to the administration. As a result, Kiriakou and Manning have faced imprisonment, and in Manning’s case, solitary confinement. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has convened a grand jury over allegations against WikiLeaks, ostensibly the reason why the web site’s founder, Julian Assange, remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, fearing for his safety.

Is this an omen for Hope and Change, Round 2? Unfortunately, at this point there’s no reason to believe otherwise.

Barack Obama: bad, but not horrible, for the progressive movement

The November 6 election, at least at the outset, seemed to offer far more promising options for those of the fiscally and socially conservative Right, than for denizens of the progressive, socially liberal Left.

On the one hand, Americans could select a chamelionic, dishonest self-styled uber-conservative determined to oppose a woman’s right to choose, a man notably indifferent (or perhaps uneducated) on the subject of equal pay for women, who (for the moment, at least) views the spectre of climate change as prime punchline material, and steadfastly opposes same-sex marriage (an opinion that is, as far as I can tell, logically indefensible). Further, Romney planned to augment the already gargantuan U.S. military budget to an obscene extent, while further reducing the already low marginal tax rate on America’s rich, despite a wealth of historical evidence that such a move would do little, if anything, to empower the nation’s economy (and would very likely exacerbate the already pressing issue of wealth inequality, which has contributed to the aforementioned social unrest).

Despite defrauding the world’s citizens of unfathomable sums of capital, Wall Street banksters have been the beneficiaries of an overly generous – and almost risibly lenient – Obama administration. Perhaps the record campaign contributions Wall Streeters heaped on Obama in 2008 have something to do with that. Image c/o Michael Aston/Flickr

And on the other, the electorate could bring back a leader with more than his share of pitfalls, a man with an alarming aversion toward constitutional rights and freedoms, but one whose economic stimulus – as well as, unfortunately, the massive Wall Street bailout – helped to prevent a second Great Depression. Obama presided over an economy in freefall and, despite tossing it a lifeline, hasn’t acted nearly decisively enough to counterract the fraudulent activities of the financial titans. (Nor, indeed, has he overseen a single Bankster prosecution. By contrast, former President Ronald Reagan’s prosecutions, under the supervision of financial regulator Bill Black, led to the imprisonment of more than 1000 executives involved in the Savings & Loan fraud of the 1980s, a substantially lesser crisis than the 2008 collapse.)

So what does a second term for Obama mean for American progressives? I suppose the answer is, it’s good in some ways, bad in others. Is it a neutral step for progressivism? Or even a slightly backward step for progressivism? I’ll let you decide for yourself. As far as I’m concerned, an extended Obama presidency still beats the alternative. But not by a landslide.

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