Friday, August 28, 2009

Tortured Logic (or, reason #127 why Barack Obama is not your friend)

In a December, 2007 essay in The Atlantic, the outspoken conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan did an interesting thing. In a long, polemical essay that ranged widely as primary season was heating up, he articulated a viewpoint for why Barack Obama should become the next President of the United States. Sullivan's chief argument for Obama was that his leadership would constitute what he termed a “re-branding of America” more than any substantive shift in its politics or specific policies. Sullivan argued that Obama's international upbringing, his post-baby-boomer age bracket, his relatively unassuming roots, his unique ability to straddle many cultural and political divides, and—the trump card—his nationality, added up to rare opportunity to project a new kind of American power in a volatile world situation that, in Sullivan's view, demanded precisely that.

There was both a domestic and an international edge to Sullivan's argument. But at a time when the war in Iraq was by all accounts going badly and when the rest of the world was still holding its nose to keep out the lingering stench of George W. Bush's reign, it may well have been the international dimension that had Sullivan most concerned. And, from his point of view as a commentator striving for (and often getting) the ears of the most powerful figures inside the Beltway, though I don't agree with him (far from it!), I can't say I blame him. The essay is worth quoting at some length:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

As the onset of an economic meltdown grew eminent in the months preceding the election, I think it's safe to say that the appeal of Sullivan's analysis only widened among those in the halls of power. “This,” it must have seemed to a growing number of them at the time, “is our guy.” He was able to simultaneously project calm and vigilance, worldliness and humbleness. And the best part: he was Black. Any mistakes he made in ruling over an outstretched empire or enforcing a necessarily less bellicose system of exploitation in his home country, would have to be measured against that one, irrefutable fact.

That one fact about Obama has led many to argue that he knows something about oppression—“he must!”—and that on this basis he would be a drastically different kind of leader with drastically different aims and motivations than his hated predecessor.

To be fair, he is quite different in many ways from George W. Bush. To take just one example, I recently read somewhere that until the royalties from his first book deal started coming in, he was still paying off loans on his Ivy League education. And he was one of only a small handful of Senators who voiced opposition to the Iraq War before it started.

But here's another irrefutable fact: Obama's job is Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful economic and military machine on Earth, not the community organizing job he came to Chicago for in the early 80s. The personal experience of growing up (largely) in America and being Black isn't going to change this.

And let's be real for a moment: the Oval Office is not a place where high-minded principles go to die; it's a place where an elite few who have learned to skillfully pay lip service to them go to bury them once and for all. And you don't get there without some clear proof, well in advance, that you're willing to do terrible things in the service of the larger cause you've signed on the dotted line to serve.

So in light of all this, as disgusting as it is, the announcement earlier this week of what amounts to a new way to torture people in U.S. custody, should come as no big shock. There will be a new White House-supervised unit called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which will shift chief responsibility for overseeing the interrogations of prisoners who have been “rendered” to various countries, from the CIA to the National Security Council. This time, we are told there will be more oversight by the administration.

Right about now, if we're being honest with ourselves, we should be asking some questions about all this.

First off: oversight? They want us to think that more oversight, by a President who has refused to release photos of torture by the previous administration, is going to make us feel better?

Moving right along, here's a basic one: if you guys don't plan on overseeing torture, why the hell are you shipping people overseas to be interrogated? Huh?! Isn't that the whole reason the U.S. government does that?

Obama was pretty unambiguous during his years in the Senate and throughout his campaign, that torture wasn't something he was going to let happen under his watch. Did he mean that in the we'll-just-continually-re-define-what-it-means-and-then-say-we-don't-do-it sense, or did he actually mean it? Or, was he just saying what he thought the right people would want to hear?

Finally, doesn't this all seem to fit pretty well with Sullivan's point?

Basically, what we're looking at with much of what's happening under Obama is a re-branding, and not something fundamentally different than what the world has known America to be. It's not that it's all about Obama, per se. But the perceived need on the part of the U.S. to do things like torture people to get information has not suddenly abated. And the presence of a man whom the world seems to adore at the helm of a machine that does these things can change the equation in dramatic ways. It can let that machine do a lot of awful things, with a whole lot less scrutiny. If we're talking about principals, there really isn't anything more basic than the unconditional prohibition of torture. So if “change we can believe in” means things like a change in who oversees the savage treatment of human beings held in secret dungeons, then we'd better turn our eyes away from Obama's handsome face and look to where real change comes from (hint: it's not the top).

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