Monday, November 19, 2012

Liberal Hypocrisy and Obama's War of Terror

In the years following 2003, a liberal or progressive movement mobilised around President Bush’s decision to take the United States to war in Iraq.  The basis for that war changed daily as the Bush administration massaged intelligence to suggest that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (he didn’t, having given up the ones we’d given him in previous years).  The Vice President lied to the public when he invented a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.  The Secretary of State disgraced himself when he went before the United Nations with absurd claims about the imminent threat Saddam Hussein posed to the world.  And the Defence Secretary strutted around the television studios promising us a quick, easy victory.

During this debate, the administration and its Republican allies in Congress smeared those who opposed their agenda.  Critics of the war were labelled unpatriotic or un-American.  Backed into supporting this ruinous farce, Democrats rubber-stamped the President’s war, to the outrage of their constituents.  The media allowed itself to be bullied, and didn’t conduct the most cursory or elementary investigations into the administration’s assertions. 

Then the war began.  We bombed Baghdad with breathtaking ferocity, killing thousands of Iraqis.  We obliterated the infrastructure and gutted the institutions of this country we were supposedly rescuing from misrule.  Finding ourselves faced with an insurgency sparked by our violent and hubristic intervention, we turned to unaccountable and often-unhinged trigger-happy gun-slingers, hired hands and mercenaries who protected our viceroy, raced around cities, unleashing rounds at will, unleashing a war of terror on Iraqis.

To combat this all-too-predictable uprising, we set up secret prisons and torture chambers.  Like Latin American juntas from the ‘70s, we “disappeared” Iraqis in their hundreds and thousands.  Like former British colonial rulers, we suspended the rule of law and imprisoned people without trial.  Like Saddam Hussein, we brutally interrogated and then murdered some of the prisoners in our custody, and failed to hold many of the torturers, most of the murderers, or any of their superiors who gave the orders to account.

This terrible chain of events sparked a backlash at home.  Progressive groups emerged organically when Democratic leaders failed to lead, and under pressure from the grassroots who were outraged by the war, the mounting U.S. casualties, the tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, and the revelation that our military and intelligence agencies were behaving like crooks and thugs, liberal Congressional leaders began finding their backbones and their voices.

The President who could do no wrong after 9/11 found himself on the defensive, flayed vigorously by his Democratic opponent (ultimately to no avail).  Bush emerged from his pyrrhic electoral victory in 2004 faced by even stronger opposition.  More U.S. soldiers died, more abuses came to light, and the President’s party took an incredible pummelling during the midterm elections.  Infuriated voters, reminded by the daily body counts of the lies and misrepresentations on which they’d been taken to war, the stonewalling and the unaccountability of the administration, turned en masse to a Democratic candidate who had been catapulted into the public eye on the basis of his stinging critique of the war in Iraq.

Probably more than any other issue in the past few decades, the war in Iraq motivated progressive grassroots.  After the near-silence which greeted Bush’s 2000 loss of the popular vote, and the Supreme Court decision which stopped vote-counting in Florida, the explosion of anger over the disastrous, bloody, immoral, and costly war in Iraq waged on a transparently-false basis along clearly-illogical lines was a pivotal moment for liberals and progressives in the United States.


Four years after the end of the Bush presidency, the coalition that gathered to oppose George W Bush’s war in Iraq has just re-elected a President who plunged the United States deeper into an ill-judged and unnecessary war in Afghanistan.  The same President, thanks in part to the moral cowardice of his Congressional allies, has failed to make good on his promise to close the reprehensible prison we maintain at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. 

President Barack Obama has strengthened the same domestic surveillance tools progressives decried in the Bush Administration, and went a step further in passing the NDAA which allows for the indefinite detention without trial of American citizens (his sole misgiving in passing the final version of the NDAA was that it had watered down his executive power).  The President has shut down investigations into CIA murders of prisoners, and has failed to apologise to those wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo, leaving them with a heavy burden to carry through their lives—one which will prove socially, economically, and politically debilitating.

Worse still, the President has embraced the use of un-manned drones as a method of waging war, and has proceeded to use these tools of terror and indiscriminate violence to kill militants and civilians alike in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.  Indeed, drones formed the cornerstone of his attack in Libya.  While the bombardment of Libya might have been defensible in human rights terms, the President removed this and all future wars waged by drone attacks from public and Congressional scrutiny by ordering his lawyers to make the incredible claim that the killing of people and the destruction of infrastructure in another country is not a hostile act. 

The wholesale expansion of the 11-year-old war in South Asia to Pakistan, a place where Bush had lobbed a few bombs, but now the epicentre of the U.S. War of Terror, went unmarked by the President, Congress, the media, and, most surprisingly, the very same people who would have called George Bush out in the most vehement terms had he undertaken such a drastic move so out of step with the public interest.  Liberals and progressives would have condemned him in even stronger terms had he done so in the secretive and underhanded way—without debate, without announcement, and without explanation—that the President opted to wage war in Pakistan. Some praise the President for his understated approach to national security and international affairs—there are no aircraft carriers and “Mission Accomplished” signs in the Obama White House.  But when silence lets the President get away with murder—quite literally—this is a problem for our democracy.

The hypocrisy is hard to stomach.  The fervour with which Obama was embraced by many Democrats in 2012 may have been less fulsome than in 2008, but only just so.  And where the enthusiasm was lacking, it didn’t appear to have anything to do with the standard-bearer of a supposedly progressive and social democratic party having embraced the policies and methods of the Bush White House, Pentagon, and Justice Department.  John Yoo must be chuckling in his Berkeley office, as the unholy principles behind his once-maligned “torture memos” are underwritten by the assassinations, bombings, and imprisonments of a Democratic president backed by the same grassroots who fought so passionately against the terrible wars and atrocities of the Bush era. 

One measure of torture is whether the acts perpetrated “shock the conscience”.  The same metric could be applied to the conduct of the Obama Administration in its persecution and expansion of conflicts which are not only unnecessary, but which will ultimately prove self-destructive.  For moral reasons and out of concern for the public interest, Americans of all political stripes should be loud in their condemnation of this President’s immoral and frankly very vicious foreign policy. 

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what saddens me more. That the President who rode to electoral victory the wave generated by mass opposition to one terrible war is now managing several equally-awful if not worse wars of aggression.  Or that the people who found their voices in condemning injustice, the abuse of public trust, and the violence of war when those things were perpetrated by a President from one party are now so silent when it comes to the precise same dreadful things being done by a President from another party.

As an idiot from Texas once tried to say, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice...”  


A White House petition asking the President to halt drone attacks.

An ACLU petition reminding the President of his promise to close Guantanamo Bay.

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