Why does he keep doing it again and again?

>> Friday, February 20, 2009

Believe it or not, I'm patient. Abundantly patient, no rush whatsoever. There are things I certainly would like President Obama to do--e.g. withdraw from Iraq, fix the economy--that I'm willing to wait for. Indeed, there are things I'd like Obama to do that I'm not sure he can do--e.g. withdraw from Iraq, fix the economy--that I won't be disappointed so long as he's given things an earnest try.

This is, after all, a President I want to admire: a lawyer, a bit of a nerd, something of a technology fetishist... there's actually somebody like me in the White House! That's never been a big selling point for me, actually--I've never understood why people want somebody just like them in the White House, as opposed to somebody better; and, indeed, I'd really like to think Obama is better than I am: smarter, nerdier, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound....

What I'm having a hard time abiding, however, is the active continuation of Bush policies that don't have to be "wound down" like Iraq or that don't really require time to dismantle. I've already written about my objections to the first instance of the Obama Administration abusing the "state secrets" doctrine; this week I find the Obama administration has invoked the doctrine again, this time in a case involving warrantless wiretapping, although it appears possible the doctrine was more properly used in this instance (and invocation of the doctrine denied by the trial judge). And it also appears that President Obama has issued Executive Orders allowing the CIA to continue with its renditions program, although it also appears that the entire program will be reviewed by some kind of "task force" (why renditions can't be suspended pending review remains puzzling to me).

Here is a rule of thumb: if an action was unconscionable and wrong when President George Walker Bush did it, it's just as wrong if President Barack Obama does the same exact thing. And it logically follows that if President Obama is justified in taking an identical course of action, then President Bush must have been justified to start with.

Attempts to finesse this--arguing, for instance, that Obama must continue to act in accordance with Bush's actions because it would be worse not to--strike me as nothing more than weaseling. It's also, frankly, the kind of rationale that served this country very poorly during the Vietnam era.

Furthermore, our system of government presumes that power corrupts and therefore should be divided and limited. As Glenn Greenwald writes:

We don't place faith in the Goodness and kindness of specific leaders--even Barack Obama--to secretly exercise powers for our own Good. We rely instead on transparency and on constant compulsory limits on those powers as imposed by the Constitution, by other branches, and by law. That's what it means to be a nation of laws and not men. When Obama embraces the same abusive and excessive powers that Bush embraced, it isn't better because it's Obama rather than Bush wielding that power. It's the same. And that's true even if one "trusts" Obama more than Bush.


It appears that Congress may step in and try to limit the powers that Obama should already be repudiating--I can only hope they're successful and able to reach a majority vote, though I have to admit I'm not optimistic. One of the troubling signs that President Obama might be a weak leader on governmental restraint in "security" matters occurred during the campaign, when then-Senator Obama reversed positions and voted in favor of extending retroactive telecom immunity to telecom companies that cooperated with the Bush Administration's wiretapping program. President Obama's previous change-of-heart makes recent developments unsurprising, albeit disappointing; the Senate's previous failure leaves me pessimistic about the chances of a check being placed on this and future Administrations.

That's one thing that needs to be clear, as well: even assuming that President Obama is the most virtuous leader of men to take leadership of the Republic since George Washington allegedly turned down an offer of kingship (and I do continue to cling to the hope that Mr. Obama is an honorable man who is being misled by seemingly-pragmatic considerations), arrogation of Presidential power tends to ratchet one way until something irreparably snaps (e.g. members of the President's re-election committee are caught burglarizing a hotel). Even if one trusts that President Obama would use renditions, wiretaps, and secrecy claims sparingly, one doesn't give President Obama powers he wouldn't want, say for instance, President Palin to have in eight or twelve or twenty years. Much as President Obama finds himself claiming powers created by President Bush, future Presidents will look to President Obama as a precedent; a shame, then, that it doesn't look like that Precedent will be one of voluntarily renouncing extra-constitutional prerogatives.

A sort of relevant aside: the other day, I joined others in mocking NRO's list of "The Best Conservative Movies." There are several perverse choices on the list, but (somewhat oddly) one in particular is relevant to today's discussion: at number 12 on the list, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Andrew Klavin writes in part:

In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public. If that sounds reminiscent of a certain former president — whose stubborn integrity kept the nation safe and turned the tide of war — don’t mention it to the mainstream media. [emph. added]


What makes this relevant and especially perverse on the part of NRO is what happens to that "new means of surveillance" that pushes legal limits. In the film (and this may be a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie), Batman (Christian Bale) comes up with a way to turn all of Gotham's cell phones into sonar devices, allowing him to surveil the entire city. Needing to be out in the field, however, he turns the actual surveillance operation over to his gadgeteer, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman)--leading to Fox's immediate resignation and his statement "As long as that thing's at Wayne Enterprises, I won't be." Batman's response? Apparently anticipating Fox's revulsion, he's installed a self-destruct into the system, to be triggered by Fox as soon as the Joker is caught (and if you haven't seen the movie, surely you would have seen that coming, no?).

Indeed, throughout The Dark Knight, the temporary nature of emergency powers is repeatedly emphasized and the dangers inherent in permanent arrogation or power repeated. Julius Caesar is referenced, and Bruce Wayne's desire to quit and settle down to a civilian life repeated again and again. The movie's position on the issue is quite clearly the opposite of the position staked out by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and President George Bush in their pronouncements about what the President of the United States may do: I am aware of no instance in which George Walker Bush acknowledged the powers he claimed for the Executive were vast, dangerous, and undesirable. Indeed, the nature of President Bush's "War On Terror" implicitly made those powers permanent, which is why many of us hoped that President Obama would pull a Lucius Fox and pull the plug on the whole damn thing (another thing Obama would have had in common with Fox: dismantling much of the apparatus would have been as simple as putting his own name on something).

No rational person will ask the new Administration to rush headlong into anything. We can accept that some things will take time to tear apart. Processing prisoners out of Guantánamo, withdrawing from Iraq, pulling us out of Bush's recession--all time-consuming tasks. And if the Bush Administration violated the law in authorizing what several officials have now said was torture and if the United States will honor its legal obligations by taking action against Bush officials (and Federal law requires some kind of action, presumably prosecution if the Administration tortured and if we're going to obey the law), this is not something I expect to see soon and would indeed rather see done thoroughly and properly if it's to be done at all (and yes, I believe we should keep our promises--or admit we're liars and withdraw from the treaties we're unwilling to keep). These things take time.

But asking the Obama Administration to stop doing the things the Bush Administration did that they don't have to do--that's not rushing headlong into anything. Basically, there's no good excuse to keep breaking the law, if you believe that the Bush Administration's position was extra-legal to start with.

I have high hopes for this Administration. It will be nice if it ends up deserving them.


11 comments:

mattw Friday, February 20, 2009 at 9:23:00 AM EST  

Well said Eric. I don't know what to make of it all, but I too would hope that he puts an end to the unlawful practices that GWB began.

Leanright,  Friday, February 20, 2009 at 1:24:00 PM EST  

Eric, I respect your point of view, but to refer to the recession as "Bush's Recession" shows a lack of knowledge on the steps that brought the economy to where it is today. Although his hands are not perfectly clean on the economy, what brought us to this point happened over a very long period of time.

And an $800 billion bailout is a very short-sighted solution and the "stimulus" part of the bill leave much to be desired.

Eric Friday, February 20, 2009 at 5:00:00 PM EST  

Leanright, yes, I know: anything that happens during a Democrat's presidency can be tracked back in time to the previous Democrat, while anything that happened during a Republican's presidency can be tracked back in time... to the previous Democrat. You people would blame this recession on Woodrow Wilson if you could figure out a way to do it.

This recession started well into George Bush's second term. No doubt you can pick and choose through causality until you've managed to blame a random Tyrannosaurus Rex for it ("Dammit, if only she hadn't eaten that one Garudimimus corpse she found in a ditch, the Community Reinvestment Act would have never been passed sixty-seven million years later! Curse you, random T. Rex!")

But I think any rational person would rather take into account that this recession started on Bush's watch, not Carter's, Reagan's, the other Bush's or Clinton's, and well enough into Bush's watch that he can't blame Clinton for it. It takes a special kind of dodginess to blame Carter, which I guess is what you probably want to do. Because obviously in the intervening thirty years nothing else happened to forestall the inevitable collapse, yada, yada, yada. In a weird, loopy way blaming the T. Rex would make more sense.

Eric Friday, February 20, 2009 at 5:07:00 PM EST  

(Also, you know, maybe the fact that it's Bush's recession is slightly less-important than the question of whether or not Mr. Bush should be charged with war crimes for authorizing activities that, if they occurred and were torture--and waterboarding was authorized, occurred, and has been described as torture by several experts and officials, including Bush appointees--were violations of Federal law and international treaties--said treaties being the law of the land per the U.S. Constitution.)

(Just saying.)

(Because, honestly, if I were Bush I would rather own the recession than the responsibility for allowing a man to be rendered for interrogation to "people" who allegedly "cut [a man's] genitals with a scalpel then poured a hot stinging liquid over the wound.")

(Just saying.)

Leanright,  Friday, February 20, 2009 at 5:54:00 PM EST  

Eric, sir, your area of expertise is law, and that I respect. Mine is economics and finance.

I don't BLAME anyone in particular, and yes, this happened on Bush's watch. But to say it is HIS recession is misleading. Much of what occurred can be traced back as far as "The New Deal", creation of Fannie and Freddie, too many creative loans (encouraged by Greenspan, etc...).
We could pin it on Barney Frank and Chris Dodd for their "Hey, no..everything is PERFECT with Fannie and Freddie! This collapse was inevitable. Everyone is to blame from the politicians to the homeowner who signed loan docs without READING them and accepting responsibility for their actions.

Random Michelle K Friday, February 20, 2009 at 11:45:00 PM EST  

If one is going to make an appeal to authority, one must actually, you know, provide an authority.

In matters of economics and finance I think I'll take the word of my brother, who actually has degrees in accounting and finance and works for the government over the word of someone who claims to be an authority without even providing their name, no less educational background and work history.

So, no, I don't think I'll take your word that this is your area of expertise.

(And my profile links back to my website, where I use my real name. Just in case you wanted to get tetchy about my handle.)

Leanright,  Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 11:16:00 AM EST  

David Nelson, 40, BS in Finance and Investments from CSU Long Beach. BS in Economics.

Certified Financial Planner, UC Irvine.

Series 3, 7, 63, 65. CA, AZ, OR, CO, NV State insurance licenses.

Manages 70 million in Assets at Compak Asset Management.

There...you know something about me

Random Michelle K Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 9:37:00 PM EST  

David,

I'm glad you've come out of the closet finally. Perhaps since you're no longer an anonymous entity you'll be less likely to act like a smarmy ass hat. I'll hope so anyway.

However, as I said previously, I still have no reason to accept your opinions as expert. You work with 401k and educational groups which is not the same as public policy or even history, which is what we're talking about here.

Again, given the option of your opinion--and unknown entity who has come here with an agenda and a chip on his shoulder--or the opinion of my brother, who's knowledge, education, and intelligence I know and trust, I'll going to go with my brother.

You may have an educated opinion, but it's just that, an opinion. And given your attitude, one that I certainly am not willing to trust.

Leanright,  Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 10:22:00 PM EST  

My primary clientele are individuals and families, usually within the "retirement red-zone", that's generally thought of as 5 to 10 years prior to or after retirement. Many of my clients are in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas, which were a couple of the hardest hit with the bust in real estate.

I don't expect you to agree with my opinion. You don't know me from Adam, and my knowledge of you and your area of expertise are limited as well. All I know is your name is Michelle, and apparently you're "random". I will say this though, reading your discussion with Eric on the abortion issue really gave me an awful lot of respect for you.

Anyway, I will try to be less "smart ass-y" in the future; Thank you for calling my attention to that. My wife mentions it to me often; perhaps she's on to something.

The president of my firm has a market commentary radio broadcast 6 days a week, and he often has very good guests, if you are ever inclined, check out www.marketwrapwithmoe.com. I even had the great fortune of enjoying lunch in our office one day with Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez when she came in for an interview. Not my type of politics, but a very nice woman. Meeting Larry Elder was more like it for me.

Random Michelle K Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 9:27:00 AM EST  

David,

I hope you mean that about the ass hattery.

And as I said, my blogger profile links back to my website, where I write under my real name--my domain name is my last name.

And I am very random, so that's all good.

Leanright,  Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 12:50:00 PM EST  

I DO mean it. At least at this moment ;) I do have other interests. Antagonizing others is not really my first love. I'm actually a proud papa to twin girls, and I would give up anything for them.

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