May 29th, 2009

Baby and me

'Change' I am losing belief in

[2009/05/29, 0400 hours Eastern Time: Edited to provide link to full Schell article.]

You all probably know I greet the election and the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States with a lot of enthusiasm (and — ahem — a "little" to my surprise) and that enthusiasm remained more or less unbowed during the first month or two of his presidency.

But for a while now — the past month, maybe two — it's been flagging.

I don't know enough about economics to judge the wisdom of the massive deficit spending, though I get the sense the "plan" is meant to succeed by more or less re-creating the consumer-driven, easy-credit environment that (at least in part) got us into this mess in the first place — and frankly, when just about every economist in the world says anything in unison, I itch to reach for my gun.

But what's really disturbing me is the rapid devolution of the Obama administration's foreign policy.
  • The Bush-like fantasy of "victory" in Iraq;

  • the Johnson-like escalations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, both efforts doomed to ultimate failure, but which will, in the interim create literally millions of civilian casualties, further destroy the economies and whatever progressive civil societies struggling there and — create even more terrorists and poppy-farmers; and

  • possibly worst of all (at least for the civil society of the United States itself), Obama's back-tracking on his promises to end torture, secret prisons and the rest of the fascist brutalization of the Bush II administration.

On Wednesday, May 27, The Nation published Jonathan Schell's brilliant article, "Torture and Truth", which I commend to all of you, but especially to those Americans among you who supported Obama.

If you believed in that "change you can believe in" when you voted, when you canvassed, when you blogged, then now is not the time to sit back and let the boys (and girls) in Washington fall prey to the permanent "government", as seems to be happening.

I'll offer you a few quotes, but really, just read the damned thing and start writing letters, making phone calls ... whatever you think might help to remind your President why it was you elected him.

It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release [...] He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention [...] Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the "future" rather than the "past." As he put it a while back, he is bent on "getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past." Or as he said in the National Archives speech, "We need to focus on the future" while resisting those "with a strong desire to focus on the past."[...]

When the full history of the Bush administration is finally told, one event may prove iconic: the torture of the Al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who recently died, allegedly by his own hand, in a prison in Libya, where he was sent by the United States. Libi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. At first, he was interrogated by the FBI, and he provided useful information on the inner workings of Al Qaeda. But more was wanted from him. The Bush administration, hellbent on justifying its forthcoming invasion of Iraq, was ransacking the intelligence bureaucracy to find or produce two things that, it turns out, did not exist: weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq and cooperation between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Pressure to find evidence of both intensified in 2002.[...]

As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, has stated, the "harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002...was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and Al Qaeda." And according to the recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees, a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, has confirmed the charge. "A large part of the time," he told Army investigators, "we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful.... The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link...there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results." The CIA took custody of Libi and began to expose him to abuse. Next, it "rendered" him to Egypt, where he was subjected to, among other torments, severe beatings and confinement in a tiny cage for more than eighty hours. He then produced the desired false statements linking Al Qaeda with the Iraqi government.[...]

This purpose of the Bush-era torture is inscribed in its origins. In the Korean War, the Chinese invented torture techniques whose aim was to force American prisoners of war to make false confessions of participation in war crimes for use in propaganda. Since false confessions, not information, were the desired product, a heavy emphasis was placed on sensory deprivation and other techniques for producing mental breakdown.[...]

Even as the torturer shatters the world of his victim, he assaults the foundation of his own world, although he does not know it. Indeed, his blindness is a consequence of the torture, even a condition for it. The torturer and his victim are close to each other. There is physical contact. Yet in every other respect they are as distant as it is possible for one person to be from another. In the moral and affective vacuum that has been generated, sympathy, empathy, pity, understanding--every form of fellow-feeling--have been reduced to absolute zero. That is why torture is always, in Scarry's words, an "undoing of civilization," and, probably more reliably than anything, it foretells the descent of a civilization into barbarism. The power of the state that tortures may be increasingly fictional, but the degradation of its civilization is real.[...]

Oh, just read the damned original already!

It was the US that was in large part responsible for the (correct) insistence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials that "following orders" was not an excuse for committing crimes against humanity, including torture. If Barack Obama is not willing or able, if if he does not have the courage, to look to the (o! so recent!) past his country is doomed to repeat the crimes, again and again and again.

And the rest of us might just as well look to China for moral leadership in this world.