The silence of the left: Obama, Bush and extrajudicial killing

February 25, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has spent the duration of Obama’s presidency asking a fundamental question of the left: Why are George W. Bush’s transgressions, which elicited fury from Democrats and liberals, acceptable when President Obama adopts – and embraces – them? In a recent post, Glenn decries the intellectual dishonesty he sees reflected in a Washington Post poll:

During the Bush years, Guantanamo was the core symbol of right-wing radicalism and what was back then referred to as the “assault on American values and the shredding of our Constitution”: so much so then when Barack Obama ran for President, he featured these issues not as a secondary but as a central plank in his campaign. But now that there is a Democrat in office presiding over Guantanamo and these other polices — rather than a big, bad, scary Republican — all of that has changed, as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll demonstrates.

A core plank in the Democratic critique of the Bush/Cheney civil liberties assault was the notion that the President could do whatever he wants, in secret and with no checks, to anyone he accuses without trial of being a Terrorist – even including eavesdropping on their communications or detaining them without due process. But President Obama has not only done the same thing, but has gone much farther than mere eavesdropping or detention: he has asserted the power even to kill citizens without due process. As Bush’s own CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden said this week about the Awlaki assassination: “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” That is indeed “something.”

Is there even a single liberal pundit, blogger or commentator who would have defended George Bush and Dick Cheney if they (rather than Obama) had been secretly targeting American citizens for execution without due process, or slaughtering children, rescuers and funeral attendees with drones, or continuing indefinite detention even a full decade after 9/11? Please. How any of these people can even look in the mirror, behold the oozing, limitless intellectual dishonesty, and not want to smash what they see is truly mystifying to me.

Greg Sargent digs deeper into the poll numbers and reaches a similar conclusion:

This finding, however, is particularly startling:  What if those suspected terrorists are American citizens living in other countries? In that case do you approve or disapprove of the use of drones? Approve: 65 – Disapprove: 26

The number of those who approve of the drone strikes drops nearly 20 percent when respondents are told that the targets are American citizens. But that 65 percent is still a very big number, given that these policies really should be controversial. And get this: Depressingly, Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35. Those numbers were provided to me by the Post polling team.

It’s hard to imagine that Dems and liberals would approve of such policies in quite these numbers if they had been authored by George W. Bush.

It is indeed baffling how quickly and completely Democrats and liberals have forgotten their overwhelming dismay at Bush’s assault on core liberties. Bush was the embodiment of everything the left feared about the radical right, spurring  the creation of the progressive blogosphere and motivating legions of liberal activists. Protesters marched by the millions to resist what they perceived as Bush’s brazen flouting of our Constitution.

How is it that the Obama administration’s actions fail to cause a similar uproar? And why is this issue largely invisible in the public debate?

Glenn explains the consequences of this silence:

One of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that he has transformed what was once known as “right-wing shredding of the Constitution” into bipartisan consensus. When one of the two major parties supports a certain policy and the other party pretends to oppose it — as happened with these radical War on Terror policies during the Bush years — then public opinion is divisive on the question, sharply split. But once the policy becomes the hallmark of both political parties, then public opinion becomes robust in support of it. That’s because people assume that if both political parties support a certain policy that it must be wise, and because policies that enjoy the status of bipartisan consensus are removed from the realm of mainstream challenge. That’s what Barack Obama has done to these Bush/Cheney policies: he has, as Jack Goldsmith predicted he would back in 2009, shielded and entrenched them as standard U.S. policy for at least a generation, and (by leading his supporters to embrace these policies as their own) has done so with far more success than any GOP President ever could have dreamed of achieving.

Evidence of how far we’ve slipped down the slippery slope is a speech by Attorney General Holder attempting to justify the targeted killing of American citizens without due process. Charles Pierce reacts:

Holder’s appearance at Northwestern on Monday, during which he explained the exact circumstances under which the president can order the killing of just about anyone the president wants to kill, was not promising. The criteria for when a president can unilaterally decide to kill somebody is completely full of holes, regardless of what the government’s pet lawyers say. And this…

“This is an indicator of our times,” Holder said, “not a departure from our laws and our values.”

…is a monumental pile of crap that should embarrass every Democrat who ever said an unkind word about John Yoo. This policy is a vast departure from our laws and an interplanetary probe away from our values. The president should not have this power because the Constitution, which was written by smarter people than, say, Benjamin Wittes, knew full and goddamn well why the president shouldn’t have this power. If you give the president the power to kill without due process, or without demonstrable probable cause, he inevitably will do so. And, as a lot of us asked during the Bush years, if you give this power to President George Bush, will you also give it to President Hillary Clinton and, if you give this power to President Barack Obama, will you also give it to President Rick Santorum?

Marcy Wheeler adds:

Eric Holder’s speech–which starts with a defense of civilian trials and ends with dead American citizens–fails to achieve its impossible task.

Naomi Wolf is blunt about where America is headed:

The US is sleepwalking into becoming a police state, where, like a pre-Magna Carta monarch, the president can lock up anyone. … As I have been warning since 2006: there is not a country on the planet that you can name that has ever set in place a system of torture, and of detention without trial, for an “other”, supposedly external threat that did not end up using it pretty quickly on its own citizens. … On 1 March, the National Defense Authorization Act will go into effect and no one in America, no US citizen, will be safe from being detained indefinitely – in effect, “disappeared.”.

And if ever the word ‘chilling’ was appropriate, it’s here:

FBI Director Robert Mueller has entered the fray. On Wednesday Mueller was asked in a congressional hearing whether the current policy would allow the killing of citizens in the United States. Mueller said that he simply did not know whether he could order such an assassination. It was the perfect moment to capture the dangerous ambiguity introduced into our system by this claim of inherent authority. I can understand Mueller deferring to the Attorney General on the meaning of his remarks, but the question was whether Mueller understands that the same power exists within the United States. One would hope that the FBI Director would have a handle on a few details guiding his responsibilities, including whether he can kill citizens without a charge or court order.

UPDATE: Further reaction from Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic:

I thought I’d rewrite [Holder's] speech to better reflect reality:

An operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who intelligence agencies say is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who intelligence agencies say is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government claims it has determined, after a review that it says is thorough and careful, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, intelligence agencies say that capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be declared to be conducted in a manner consistent with the presidential interpretation of applicable law of war principles.

The New York Times weighs in:

President Obama, who came to office promising transparency and adherence to the rule of law, has become the first president to claim the legal authority to order an American citizen killed without judicial involvement, real oversight or public accountability.

The last word goes to Glenn Greenwald:

The President and his underlings are your accuser, your judge, your jury and your executioner all wrapped up in one, acting in total secrecy and without your even knowing that he’s accused you and sentenced you to death, and you have no opportunity even to know about, let alone confront and address, his accusations; is that not enough due process for you?

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