Mehdi Hasan: Barack W Bush … Change we can’t believe in
October 9, 2009   By:    Obama's Broken Promises   Comments are off   //   388 Views

By Mehdi Hasan, senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman.

On a cold February morning, less than three weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, a lawyer from the department of justice stood up in a San Francisco courtroom to defend the government from accusations of torture. Five detainees, including the British resident Binyam Mohamed, had filed a suit against Jeppesen Dataplan Inc, a subsidiary of Boeing, for its alleged role in “extraordinary rendition”, in which terrorism suspects are sent to third countries for detention, interrogation and – the plaintiffs claim – torture.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly criticised the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees, its rendition policy and the use of the “state secrets” privilege to prevent classified information from being discussed in court. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2007, he had argued that building a “better, freer world . . . means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law”.

But on that February morning, the government lawyer Douglas N Letter made the same “state secrets” argument for dismissing the case as the Bush administration had used in previous months. The legal position he was advancing on behalf of the government, Letter said, had been “thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials within the new administration”, and this was the “authorised” position.

As the prominent liberal blogger and lawyer Glenn Greenwald pointed out at the time, this was “the first real test of the authenticity of Obama’s commitment to reverse the abuses of executive power over the last eight years”. But Obama failed the test – and he did so not only in this instance, but in a number of similar court cases. Together, these cases suggest that his administration has no immediate or concrete plans to realise the hopes and dreams of liberals at home and abroad by rolling back the imperial overreach of the Bush era. On the contrary, in the field of counter-terrorism and on the issue of executive power as a whole, Obama has distressingly begun to resemble George W Bush.

Another San Francisco court case in February this year involved the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a charity that the Bush administration accused in 2004 of supporting terrorism. The plaintiffs claimed that federal authorities had illegally listened in on their lawyers’ phone calls. In 2007, Obama described Bush’s warrantless wiretapping programme as “unlawful and unconstitutional”, but two years later the Obama justice department again followed in the footsteps of Bush and tried to have the case dismissed on grounds of national security and protecting “state secrets”.

“Obama has stepped into the shoes of President Bush,” Jon Eisenberg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told me. “He continues to assert the state secrets privilege to resist holdover lawsuits from the Bush era . . . in an attempt to prevent the judiciary from adjudicating on the legality of the warrantless wiretapping programme, and addressing the larger presidential power issues that the case presents.” He added: “Change we can believe in? Nope.”

The distance between Obama and Bush on a host of policies is not as great as many people might hope or have expected – and it appears to get narrower by the day. This should not, perhaps, come as a huge surprise. One reason for continuity between US presidents – even those who are, on the surface, as different as Bush and Obama – is the nature of the modern imperial presidency, at the apex of a bloated national-security state. As the historian Garry Wills pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, the president “is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets . . . he becomes the prisoner of his own power . . . a self-entangling giant”.

Then there is the pattern of presidential candidates railing against the incumbent’s record, only to find themselves sympathising with their predecessor’s predicament and policies once they have taken his place. In 1952, as a candidate, Dwight Eisenhower denounced President Truman’s policy of containment towards the Soviet Union, yet embraced it within six months of entering the White House. In 2000, Bush derided President Clinton’s attempts at nation-building in Somalia and Bosnia, only to spend two terms trying to build new political structures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his inauguration, Obama, it is said, told Bush that he hoped to call on him for advice – and he has since spoken to his predecessor at least once. But there are those who would argue that it is absurd to compare the liberal Democrat Obama with the ultra-conservative Republican George Bush. And some would say it is unfair to hold Obama to account only nine months into his presidency. Others would point to the range of policies on which Obama has marked out new terrain: proposing health-care reform, taking climate change seriously, standing up to Wall Street and announcing an end to torture and the closure of Guantanamo Bay. On these and many other issues, his army of fans would argue, the president has shown the world his liberalism, his radicalism, his enthusiasm for change – that he is, in the words of the writer Michael Tomasky, “the anti-Bush”.

But let us consider each of these in turn. Now is, in fact, an ideal time to pass an interim verdict on Obama’s presidency, with the one-year anniversary of his election fast approaching. Previous presidencies, from FDR on, have been judged on their first 100 days in office: Obama has had more than 250, representing a fifth of his first – possibly only – presidential term…

Source: New Statesman (UK) (10-8-09)

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