Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Gays in the Military: Testosterone v. Facts

Full Court Press

    Whenever the debate about allowing gay people to serve openly in the military bubbles up, someone always grabs for the wreath reserved for whoever offers the most outrageous sound bite.

    After last week’s historic testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen  –“It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do”–that hallowed wreath was seized by Michael O’Hanlon.

    A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a venerable and quasi-liberal think tank whose motto is “Quality, Independence, Impact,” O’Hanlon managed to combine intemperance with pristine ignorance with this memorable declaration on CNN:

    “We can talk about this delicately or we can just be fairly direct.  There are a lot of 18-year-old, old-fashioned, testosterone-laden men in the military who are tough guys. They’re often politically old-fashioned or conservative; they are not necessarily at the vanguard, in many cases, of accepting alternative forms of lifestyle.”

    Up ‘till now, O’Hanlon’s main contribution on the Times op-ed page and everywhere else has been constant cheerleading for continuous escalation of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and usually he is a bit more articulate than this. He told me that it was only because of his position in favor of the surge that Frank Rich and Glenn Greenwald had brought attention to this idiotic quote.  According to O’Hanlon, these journalists had considered him “their enemy” ever since O’Hanlon supported that escalation.  To which Greenwald replied, “There’s the little matter of the war itself–y’know, like, starting it.”

    In any case, the big news that Rich, Greenwald and FCP all missed upon reading O’Hanlon’s testosterone-laden quote is a little surprising: besides being ignorant and abusive, O’Hanlon was actually  providing ammunition to those who oppose his point of view! 

    It turns out that O’Hanlon is actually in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

    When I reached O’Hanlon on the phone at Brookings, I began by reading his quote back to him, which led to this exchange:

 O’Hanlon: Maybe I can start by speaking for myself, instead of responding to some pointed questions that you’re putting my way?

FCP: I’m asking you to respond to words that you spoke yourself.

MO: And you’re calling with some presumption that I want to have this conversation.  And that there’s something about this moment that’s good, when I haven’t called you back, even though I already got your message. [It’s true: after he ignored my first message, I had the gall to call him a second time.Let me just put a couple of things out there the way I would like to put them out there.  And we’ll come back to your point in a second, if you want.

FCP: Sure. 

MO: First of all, I am a supporter of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and I have been in print on that point before.  I do not support the policy.  I actually believe that openly gay and lesbian individuals should be allowed to serve in the military.  I’m sure you’re familiar with how the media works.  And when you do a sound bite, you usually do 15 minutes in the interview, and they choose which sound bite to use.

    FCP is, indeed, familiar with the workings of devious reporters.  So after we finished our first conversation, I called O’Hanlon back to make absolutely sure I had understood him correctly:

   FCPIf in fact we’d seen your entire interview with CNN, it would have been clear that you were in favor of repealing the policy?

   MO: Yeah.  I will acknowledge the conversation that you and  I had earlier–kind of thinking through all the nuances in the 18-year-old–20-year-old demographic and how some parts of that group are more, let’s say, progressive than they used to be, and other parts may not be. I didn’t get into all that in great detail in the interview.  But I always speak clearly about the overall policy whenever I have a chance.

    Taken together with “they choose which sound bite to use,” this seemed to suggest that in its on-air report, as well as a story on its website, CNN had knowingly misrepresented O’Hanlon’s position.   So I queried a CNN spokesperson:

    “I am writing you to try to confirm that O’Hanlon did in fact call for repeal of the current law in his full interview with CNN.”

    To which CNN’s Edie Emery replied, “During the CNN interview, Mr. O’Hanlan did not take a position in the interview.  He was not asked.”

    A subsequent e-mail to O’Hanlon asking him to clear up this little discrepancy has  yet to elicit any response.

    Now, for a moment, let us examine the substance of O’Hanlon’s remarkable statement.   I asked,

   “Are you familiar with any of the literature on this subject?  Or is this kind of off the top of your head?”

    To which he replied, “No, I’m familiar with the literature as well.”

    But when I followed up–“Which part of the literature is it that would support what you’ve said here on CNN?”–he suggested that I should “take a step back”; he never got around to answering that quetion.

   Then I tried to point out the fundamental fallacy in his statement:

    “Actually, all of the statistical polling data of both soldiers and non-soldiers would suggest that 18 year-olds, having grown up in a culture in which gay life was very much part of that culture–unlike 50-year-olds and 60-year olds–are in fact, I think, according to most poll data, the ones most likely to be accepting of this change.  And that’s why your quote jumped out at me as not being reflective of the data as we know it.”

    O’Hanlon called that “a fair counterpoint,” but went on to say “there is also a group of very young people who are not the most cosmopolitan in our country…  Not to, again, paint with too broad of a brush but there is a certain over-representation especially in sort of the infantry ranks and the combat ranks of a fairly traditional mind set, mentality, on these kinds of issues…I still stand by what I said.  I think this particular group of people is a little less tolerant than the image you’ve got of the average American eighteen-year-old.”

    To fully understand O’Hanlon’s willful ignorance on this subject, it is necessary to consult Unfriendly Fire, Nathaniel Frank’s brilliant and definitive book on this subject, published last year.  Frank’s theme is that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell long ago became a joke, and having a policy that is unenforced, unenforceable, and widely mocked only undercuts military discipline by keeping on the books policies that are not followed or respected.

    But it is Rear Admiral John Huston (RET.), former JAG of the Navy, and one of the formulators of the current policy, whose testimony is most relevant.  Huston told Frank that even ten years ago, in 2000,

   “Things had changed so considerably, that I think 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds were just laughing at us because we didn’t understand what they were thinking. Young people had so dramatically opened up to the idea of working alongside openly gay people that us crusty old farts protecting them was just a joke.“

    “This is a policy,” Huston continued, that was “devised primarily by men who, like me, were born in the ‘40s and grew up in the ‘50s, but was being imposed on people who were at that time born in the ‘70s and grew up in the ‘80s. Now it’s born in the ‘80s and grew up in the ‘90s or the early 2000s. So there’s this huge gulf, and the changes that have occurred since then…” Hutson trailed off and took silent for a moment of thought. “I mean, I’m an Episcopalian, guess who my bishop is?” He was referring to Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, who was elected to the position in 2003. Hutson went on. “Queer eye for a straight guy,” he said slowly, getting the title of the television show almost right, “Ellen DeGeneres, things are so much different now than they were then.

    Hutson also said that the unit cohesion argument has now been “been completely reversed.” Telling military members that they “can’t deal with” open gays, that they’re not mature enough or well disciplined enough, “is divisive.” Today, stopping discrimination and instituting a policy of equal treatment “will enhance rather than detract from unit cohesion..It will make us a stronger force rather than a less strong force and it’s a good thing for the country.” Hutson’s biggest fear is that the U.S. military, an institution he reveres and is proud to have served, is “falling further and further behind” where the American public is. “This is what’s discouraging to me,” he said. “I don’t want an institution for which I have great affection to be antiquated in its ideas. The military is better than that.”

    If people like O’Hanlon read books like Unfriendly Fire, instead of pontificating without a clue about what they were talking about, we might actually get the rapid change in policy that the country deserves.

  As Nathaniel Frank told me today, “the problem with the debate you’re having with O’Hanlon is that this issue has a history of ungrounded alarmism that is out of proportion to other military policy changes. Operationally, having women in combat is a much tougher change for the military, but politically, it’s the gay thing that has caused all the doomsday scenarios. Any policy change can incur short-term adjustments, but in this case the research strongly suggests that short-term adjustment costs will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits.”

    Aaron Belkin, who is Frank’s colleague at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where all of the most serious research on this subject has taken place, put it this way:

   “Dr. O’Hanlon is correct in noting that the last thing the military or the country needs now is a polarizing debate. The way to avoid that is for the President to sign a stop-loss order suspending implementation of the ban, or for Senator Levin to include a moratorium in the Chairman’s mark up of the defense budget bill. The current plan to study rather than to act will invite the polarization that Dr. O’Hanlon fears.”


When Eric Met Jane


 Above the Fold

I think the US does itself a favor by showing the world who these people really are in a legal process whose legitimacy is beyond question.”

                                                    –Jane Mayer, in a live chat today at
    The most important and the most depressing piece of the week is Jane Mayer’s brilliant illumination in The New Yorker of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other terrorists in Federal Court in Manhattan.

    Thanks to the abject cowardice of Michael Bloomberg, Chuck Schumer, and Lindsay Graham–and just about every Republican in Washington–Holder has now been forced to rescind that decision.  Unlike Bloomberg and Schumer, at least the Republicans weren’t basing their position on the idea that the views of the lower-Manhattan real estate establishment should always trump the United States constitution.

    Mayer makes it abundantly clear why this is a terrible outcome for moral, practical and constitutional reasons.   As she said in her live chat at today,

    Fear was really whipped up, and with it, the estimated costs of the trial. The whole thing required some level-headed counterpoint, but, for some reason, there was very little. As a result, the business community in lower Manhattan, and some residents turned on the plan. The irony is that there is another Al Qaeda trial taking place there as we speak - and no one’s even paying any attention. Clearly, the atmospherics were disproportionate to the threat, but, once scared, it’s hard to calm people.

    Here are the relevant facts from Mayer’s piece, most of which, of course, have played no part at all in the arguments of those opposed to trying the terrorists in Federal Court:

    * The Bush Administration prosecuted many more terror suspects as criminals than as enemy combatants.

    * According to statistics compiled by New York University’s Center on Law and Security, since 2001 the criminal courts have convicted some hundred and fifty suspects on terrorism charges.

    * Only three detainees—all of whom were apprehended abroad—were convicted in military commissions at Guantánamo.

    * The makeshift military-commission system set up by Bush to handle terrorism cases never tried a murder case, let alone one as complex, or notorious, as that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who will face the death penalty for the murder of nearly three thousand people.

    * The Bush Administration obtained life sentences in the criminal courts for two terror suspects arrested inside the U.S.: Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who was planning a second wave of plane attacks. (Reid was read his Miranda rights four times.)

    * There is no evidence suggesting that military commissions would be tougher on suspected terrorists than criminal courts. Of the three cases adjudicated at Guantánamo, one defendant received a life sentence after boycotting his own trial; another served only six months, in addition to the time he had already served at the detention camp; the third struck a plea bargain and received just nine months.

    * The latter two defendants—Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who worked as Osama bin Laden’s driver, and David Hicks, an Australian who attended an Al Qaeda training camp—are now at liberty in their home countries, having been released while Bush was still in office.

    * The main reason that Rahm Emmanuel (and the rest of the White House political apparatus) opposed the trial of terrorists in Federal Court in Manhattan was because Rahm wanted to make Lindsay Graham happy.

    * Graham actually favors closing Guantánamo–but he told Mayer he would keep it open, rather than to allow “these guys civilian trials.”

    * Behind Graham’s opposition was an insistence that Obama not treat military commissions as second-class justice.  But given the commissions’ erratic track record, the argument seems dubious.

    * The trouble is, when the Obama administration decided to keep the commissions going to try some terrorists, while sending others to Federal Court, it put itself in an impossible bind–because Obama had forfeited the option of openly criticizing the commissions.

    * David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, said, “They can’t say military commissions are less legitimate, because they’re still using them. But if they tried K.S.M. in a military commission, they’d lose any chance of having a conviction seen as legitimate by the rest of the world.”

    *Holder assigned eight experienced criminal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia to build the best criminal case they could against Mohammed and his co-conspirators. The prosecutors gathered fresh evidence from around the globe, rendering the military’s case comparatively weak.

    * Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney who represents Virginia’s Eastern District, participated in the process, and said, “The prosecutors came together, and produced hundreds of pages of analysis that was granular, and evidence-specific.”

    * Many countries–including France, Germany and Great Britain–which had refused to coöperate with military commissions at Guantánamo, were much more willing to provide evidence and witnesses for court prosecutions.

    * Last May, Obama declared that the Bush Administration’s legal approach had created “a mess.”  Another source put it more bluntly to the New Yorker writer: “We were buried in an avalanche of shit.”

    Despite the determination of Maine Senator Susan Collins and so many others to humiliate themselves by repeating their idiotic criticisms of the way the Obama administration has handled the questioning of the Christmas bomber–“wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again,” as Rachel Maddow characterized the Maine Senator’s remarks–the fact is the civilian system almost certainly elicited more information from him than any military torturer could have.

    As the Justice Department revealed a couple of weeks ago, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is now coöperating with the F.B.I.  A Justice official pointed out to Mayer, “He has an incentive to talk in the criminal-justice system, which the other system doesn’t offer.’  The key to gaining Abdulmutallab’s coöperation was the F.B.I.’s ability to enlist his family in getting him to talk.”

    That’s the kind of common sense observation which almost never makes it into the debate about what is actually most effective: friendly interrogation, or violent torture.

    Holder asked Mayer, “Would that father have gone to American authorities if he knew his son might be whisked away to a black site and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques? You are much more likely to get people coöperating with us if their belief is that we are acting in a way that is consistent with American values.”

    Which brings us to the essential fallacy in all of the arguments in favor of torture from Dick Cheney and his loud-mouthed camp followers: there is no evidence that torture is more likely to produce actionable intelligence than the techniques which are actually allowed by the United States constitution–and the anti-torture treaties which are supposed to bind us to legal behavior.

    During Mayer’s appearance this morning on  Joe Scarborough launched into one of his typically mindless rants about how the Bush administration was much more interested in obtaining information that would prevent another attack on America than it was in trying terrorists in civilian courts. 

   “It’s just a myth that the military is like Jack Bauer,” Mayer retorted.

   Then Scarborough claimed that we couldn’t know what the CIA had learned through torture, because much of it remained classified.

    Mayer replied that Senator Jay Rockefeller had read everything in the CIA’s files, and he had told her that the CIA actually got nothing important through torture.  When Scarborough dismissed Rockefeller as a partisan source, Mayer responded with the coup de grace:

    “What does FBI Director Robert Mueller III say was gained through these techniques?” Mayer asked.

    The answer, of course, is nothing–something which even The New York Times finally managed to report, after FCP repeatedly berated it for ignoring the FBI director’s view that no information was obtained through torture which prevented any new attacks on the US.

    How did Scarborough respond to Mayer when she reported Mueller’s position?

    The TV man  changed the subject.

    Of course.



History in the Making

 It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do…For me personally, it comes down to integrity; theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.
                                  –Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

    Admiral Michael Mullen brought honor to his office and to his country today with some of the most courageous testimony Congress has ever heard from a chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

    Declaring, “I have served with homosexuals since 1968…everybody in the military has,” Mullen placed his personal prestige squarely behind Barack Obama’s commitment to repeal the hideous policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which has done so much to weaken America’s national security since it was enacted in 1993.

    “No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” said Admiral Mullen. “I also believe that the great young men of our military, can and would accommodate such a change–I never underestimated their ability to adapt.”

    The contrast between Mullen’s bravery and Colin Powell’s cold cowardice  could not have been more dramatic.   Back when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, it was an unholy alliance between General Powell and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn which made it impossible for Bill Clinton to keep his campaign promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

    Within the last year, both Nunn and Powell have called for a re-examination of the policy–but neither of them has shown anything like the valor of Admiral Mullen, or former Joint Chiefs chairman John M. Shalikashvili, who called for a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell three years ago in The New York Times.
    Although Powell rose to the pinnacle of the American military because of the courage of President Harry Truman, who ended the segregation of the armed forces, Powell never understood his obligation to do the same thing for gay people that Truman had done for African-Americans.

    Instead, Powell declared,  “Skin color is a benign nonbehavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.”

    Today, Senator Roland Burris shamed Powell by drawing the exact comparison Powell had shunned.  After expressing his “deep admiration” for Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also declared his support for a new policy, Burris recalled:

    You go back to President Truman, who took the audacity to integrate the services.  At one time my uncle couldn’t even serve in the military–and we’ve moved to this point where [African-Americans are] some of the best and brightest that we have.  Generals, and even, now, the commander in chief is of African-American heritage… The policy must be changed and we must have everyone who is capable, willing and able to defend this great tradition of ours to have the opportunity to serve, regardless to their sexual orientation…I hope we will get moving on this issue, and not be wasting the tax payers time on something that is so basic to human rights and individuals in this country.

    Secretary Gates declared, “The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it.”

    John McCain was a parody of an out-of-touch old man.  “I’m deeply disappointed in your statement,” the Arizona Senator told the secretary of defense. “Your statement is obviously one that is deeply biased.”

    In an implied rebuke to McCain, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado recalled that it was another Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, who observed, “You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.” 

     Udall told Admiral Mullen, “the centerpiece of your statement will long be remembered for its courage and integrity.”

   What makes McCain’s position even more embarrassing? The Washington Post points out tonight that his statement today reverses the honorable position he held three years ago: “The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to.”  (McCain’s spokesman explained that since Mullen’s position was a “personal” one, the chairman of the joint chiefs no longer counts as a military leader.)

    Even Joe Lieberman, who opposed the current policy back in 1993, remains sane and sensible on this subject. “What matters most is not how a military person lives their private sexual life” but whether “they are prepared to risk their lives for their country,” the Connecticut Senator declared.  “Someone in a tank today is going to care a lot more about the capability and the courage of that soldier than about his sexual orientation… I thank you both for saying the question now is not whether but how.”

    Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is another strong supporter of a repeal of the law, while his counterpart in the House, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, favors a continuation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

    In the days before today’s testimony, Elisabeth Bumiller scored a scoop by reporting in The Times  that the Pentagon would ease its enforcement of the current policy, by taking no action “to discharge service members whose sexual orientation is revealed by third parties or jilted partners.”

    But Bumiller–as well as Craig Whitlock and Michael D. Shear, writing in the Washington Post –all failed to report the most significant legislative development in the fight to repeal the law: the fact that Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy now has 187 co-sponsors in the House on a bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

   The only news story which mentioned that fact was Yochi J. Dreazen’s article in The Wall Street Journal.       (Although Bumiller omitted Murphy, The Times did mention him and his bill in an excellent editorial on January 28.)

    Congressman Murphy is a two-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress.
“The momentum is clearly on our side,” Murphy told the Journal.  “It’s time for Congress to have the guts to stop turning its back on talented and professional soldiers just because they’re gay. I served with great soldiers who were thrown out just because they were gay. I was disheartened that the Constitution that I took an oath to support and defend was really being abused by that policy.”

    Among Murphy’s other reasons for supporting repeal of the law through his own Military Readiness Enhancement Act:

  • Since 1994, over 13,000 servicemembers - the equivalent of 3 ½ combat brigades- have been discharged as a result of DADT.
  • In the last five years, while our country has been engaged in two wars, the military has discharged over 800 mission-critical troops under  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including over 50 Arabic linguists.
  • Up to $1.3 billion in taxpayer money has been wasted discharging otherwise qualified troops under DADT. It costs the military at least $60,000 to recruit and train each new servicemember, and much more to prosecute and pursue separations under DADT.

    Polls show roughly 60 percent of the American public is in favor of allowing gay people to serve openly in the armed forces, and passage of Murphy’s law by the House now seems extremel likely.  Getting a filibuster-proof majority of sixty votes in the Senate would be very difficult indeed, but Senator Levin suggested today that the reform could be enacted by a simple majority, if the law change was made through an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill. 

    If Barack Obama can finally bring this new measure of equality into law, it will go a long way toward diffusing the anger of his gay supporters, who are deeply disappointed by the president’s paltry achievements on behalf of the gay community during his first year in the White House.    It would also give him one of the most important progressive victories of his presidency.



Update: AFSCME weighs in on the side of justice here.


Second Update: On NBC Nightly News, Admiral Mullen’s historic testimony was story #2; on CBS, story #3, and Pentagon correspondents Jim Miklaszewski and David Martin both did pedestrian pieces.  Only ABC’s Martha Raddatz distinguished herself with the novel idea of including someone who could be directly affected by the policy change–Lt. Dan Choi, the gay Arabic-speaking linguist now facing dismissal for publicly announcing his sexual orientation.  Diane Sawyer’s World News was also the only network broadcast to lead with the story.

Kudos to Diane.


Third Update: See Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council prove his worthiness to live in Uganda by calling for the recriminalization of gay sex, during a debate with Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on the Chris Matthews Show.

Question: Why do so many of the most virulent opponents of equal rights for gay people seem so…gay?

Answer: People who know they are straight never feel the least bit threatened by those who are not.   This is the experience of gay people everywhere.


Fourth Update: From another fine editorial in The New York Times: “The United States has traveled far since 1993 on gay rights. It is ready for a military built on a commitment to equal rights for all.”
Lest we forget–whatever its other failings–this newspaper has done more to promote gay equality in the last twenty years than all the other newspapers in the world put together.
Quite a contrast to a previous New York Times.


Fifth Update: Seventeen years too late: Colin Powell finally gets it right

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed.  I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

State of the Union


Above the Fold

    Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts result, Congressional Democrats seem to be running for the hills instead of making every possible effort to pass a health care reform bill.
                                 –FCP, January 22, 2010

    To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.
                                –Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 28, 2010

    There was quite a lot to admire in last night’s State of the Union speech–a combination of plain truths and worthy policy proposals.   These were some of the highlights:

* The lobbyists are trying to kill [the financial reform bill passed by the House.] But we cannot let them win this fight.

* We still need health insurance reform

* From some on the right, I expect we’ll hear a different argument -– that if we just make fewer investments in our people, extend tax cuts including those for the wealthier Americans, eliminate more regulations, maintain the status quo on health care, our deficits will go away. The problem is that’s what we did for eight years. That’s what helped us into this crisis [although that’s what created this crisis would have been stronger–and more accuate.]

* Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

* With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests–including foreign corporations –to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.  They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps  to correct some of these problems.

* Let’s tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years –- and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service to correct some of these problems.

* This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.  It’s the right thing to do.

    These were all admirable declarations–and none more so than the president’s reminder to the Senate Democrats that even after their defeat in Massachusetts, they still have their largest majority in decades. 

    Of course, Obama has never had a problem giving a fine speech.

    The problem, so far, has been follow-up.

    I always thought the fact that Obama was the product of the Chicago Democratic machine was one of the most appealing parts of his resume–because it made it plausible that this freshman Senator could be strong enough to become an effective president.

    Confronted by a Republican minority which is reflexively committed to going for the jugular, what the Democrats have needed for years is a comparable toughness.   If Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi can’t provide that, the White House somehow has to find a way to provide that missing backbone.

    As Frank Rich pointed out last Sunday, in one of his most powerful columns, patricians like FDR and JFK never hesitated to battle their own class.  Rich wrote that Obama desperately needed something like JFK’s U.S. Steel moment–the president’s broadside against the steel maker after its chairman decided to “break a White House-brokered labor-management contract agreement and raise the price of steel (but not wages).”  Kennedy’s assault left reporters “literally gasping,” according to Dick Reeves, and U.S. Steel backed down two days later.

    So populist rhetoric against the banks–“We all hated the bank bailout”–is fine as far as it goes.  But what this administration needs more than anything else right now is proof that there will be serious consequences for anyone who derails its agenda.  It needs actual results, on health care, and financial reform, and it needs them well  before Washington’s cherry blossoms reach their peak at the beginning of April. 

    Up until now, the hallmark of Rahm Emanuel’s political management has been a terror of replicating the mistakes of the Clinton administration.   That’s why Obama waited much too long to roll up his sleeves, and involve himself directly in the health care negotiations.  And that is also why Obama’s campaign promise to repeal Clinton’s idiotic don’t ask, don’t tell policy for gays in the military remains unfulfilled twelve months after Obama took office–even though the political climate (and the poll numbers) are dramatically different in 2010 than they were in 1993.

    Instead of reflexively avoiding Clinton’s mistakes, it’s time to emulate Lyndon Johnson’s mastery at manipulating the Congress.   Rahm Emanuel played a big role in creating the large majorities the Democrats enjoy right now in both houses.  Now it’s time to make them produce the kind of legislation we can all be proud of.

    If that doesn’t happen soon, all the predictions of disaster for Democrats in the fall are certain to come true.


Coakley, Schilling, Obama and Sawyer

Above the Fold

   It’s a toss up as to which is worse: the news out of Massachusetts and the Supreme Court, or the way some network news broadcasts are covering these disasters.  Call it a pitcher’s choice.

    Let’s start with Massachusetts, where Martha Coakley will be remembered as one of the most incompetent Senate candidates of modern times. Overconfident and out-of-touch: with just six weeks between the primary and the general election, Coakley took a full week off for Christmas, according to Nagourney, Zeleny, Zernkike and Cooper  writing in the Times. 

    The race formally ended two weeks later on January 15th, when Coakley identified legendary Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling as a Yankee fan.  Is there anything more important to the average Massachusetts voter than the Red Sox?   No, there is not.   And a candidate trying to become the first woman ever elected to the United States Senate from Massachusetts really needed to know that.

    The failure of the Democratic establishment to recognize that a disaster was brewing until it was too late to do anything about it is also a severe indictment of White House political guru Rahm Emmanuel, the DNC and the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, all of whom seem to have been asleep at the plate.

    Of course, we didn’t lose just because Coakley was a terrible candidate–all those independents who voted for Obama plus a lot more switched eagerly to the Cosmo model because of the gigantic dissatisfaction with everything that is going on in Washington.  Now, in the wake of the Massachusetts result, Congressional Democrats seem to be running for the hills instead of making every possible effort to pass a health care reform bill.

    Having devoted most of 2009 to this effort, is there anything  they could do that would do more to reinforce their reputation for incompetence than a decision to abandon health care right now?

    No, there is not.

    Two days later the Supreme Court weighed in with one of the most radical decisions in its history, wiping away dozens of federal & local laws and decades of precedent, with a 5 to 4 vote to give corporate America even more complete control over the government than it already enjoys.

   Why didn’t the rest of us realize that this was what America needed the most right now?

    And the next time you hear someone repeat the idiotic myth that liberal judges are the real “activists” in the judiciary–well, just slap them.

    Here is part of Rachel Maddow’s excellent  summary of the decision’s effects:

    [This is] one of the most radical Supreme Court actions in years.   Corporations are free to inject unregulated billions, absolutely unlimited money into the political system now.   If you are a regular person who’s ever made a campaign donation before, forget about ever having to do that again.  What’s the point of an individual trying to make a donation if Exxon or some other corporation can quite literally match and therefore cancel out the combined donations of every single individual donor in the nation in one check, in every year, in every state, in every race?…This ruling rolls back decades of protections against corporate interference and control of governance…I personally think it is impossible to overstate the impact of this decision on American politics.

    In a scathing 29,000 word dissent, some of which he read from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that “five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”  Stevens continued,

    At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.   It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.   While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

    Given the gigantic importance of this decision to American democracy, some of us naively expected that this was the news that would lead each of the network evening news broadcasts that night.

  Forget about it.  Over at ABC, where Diane Sawyer is having the rockiest debut of any new anchor in memory, these were the stories deemed more important than the Supreme Court’s action at the top of the broadcast:

* A recall of Toyota automobiles
* A really, really big mudslide in California
* John Edwards’ belated acknowledgment of paternity of the daughter he had with his mistress
* Obama’s sweeping new proposal to reform the banking system
* A “pillow talk” story which apparently was enchanting the cable news networks.

    For the first nine minutes of her broadcast, Sawyer managed to say nothing at all about the Supreme Court.   But a little later, she did manage thirteen whole seconds to report that Nancy Pelosi had declared there were not enough votes in the House to pass the Senate version of the health care reform bill.

    FCP also loved the way Sawyer and just about everyone else that night seemed to assume that when it came to judging the worthiness of Obama’s announcement that he would push for the broadest reform of the banking system since the Depression, the only thing that really mattered was the reaction of the stock market.  Therefore:

    Market down; proposal, bad!

    This is roughly equivalent to reporting that the government is planning a  new crackdown on child molestation–and then using the reaction of the nation’s most prominent child molesters to gauge the worthiness of the government’s proposal. 

    Except, of course,  that the banks always prefer to molest adults.

    Was this the most disgraceful series of “news judgements” FCP has ever witnessed on a network evening news broadcast?

    Yes, it was.


Winners and Sinners

Winners & Sinners / Martin Luther King Jr. Day edition.

Winner:  Scott Horton.  This morning Harper’s Magazine jumped its publication date for the March issue by thirty days to rush out Scott Horton’s blockbuster cover story  about three possible murders at Guantanamo which the government and the mainstream media have always described as suicides.

    The piece also identified a black site on Guantanamo where those who died may have been tortured on the night of their supposed suicide.

    Horton is a law professor, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and one of the finest torture reporters of our time.

    At the heart of the cover-up Horton alleges is the fact that the Pentagon told the press–and convinced most reporters–that the three prisoners who died had hanged themselves.  However, Horton has interviewed five American servicemen who gave this account of what Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, told a meeting of fifty guards at 7am the morning after the prisoners had died.

    The commander said to the guards, “you all know” that the prisoners committed suicide by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death.  “But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells.  It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes.”

    Horton says Bumgarner refused all of his requests for interviews, although Bumgarner did attack the story today to the Associated Press  after it was posted on the Harper’s website.

   The guards interviewed by Horton said the night of the prisoners’ deaths, the guards believed that they had witnessed the prisoners’ removal to the black site away from the prison compound.  They also said that their clear site lines from the guard towers made it possible for them to know that none of the prisoners had been taken from their cells to the medical center on the night of their deaths.

    In a  article entitled “The Battle for Guantánamo” in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, Tim Golden wrote about Col. Bumgarner’s efforts to humanize conditions at Guantanamo.  He also reported the “suicides” of these three prisoners as an established fact.

   Golden never interviewed any of the guards quoted in Horton’s story.  Yesterday, he told FCP that he had read Horton’s story “quickly,” but he refused to make any comment about it.

   Some of the guards interviewed by Horton ridiculed Golden’s piece as “stenography” for Col. Bumgarner.

    Horton’s story also accuses the Obama administration of allowing the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of these deaths which was nothing more than a continuation of the cover-up that started under George Bush.

    He writes that the chief investigator in the case, Teresa McHenry, “has firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department’s role in auditing such techniques, having served at the Justice Department under Bush and having participated in the preparation of at least one of those memos” which authorized the torture conducted at Guantanamo and elsewhere.  McHenry refused to discuss her role in the preparation of that memo with Horton.

    Tune in to Keith Olbermann’s Countdown tonight on MSNBC, where Horton is expected to produce new evidence casting doubt on Col. Bumgarner’s credibility.

Sinners: David Carr and Tim Arango, who wrote a worshipful, 1,943 word profile
 of fox News Chief Roger Ailes
for the front page of The New York Times–which included exactly one paragraph of balance:

         “I am by no means alone within the family or the company in being ashamed and sickened by Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards that News Corporation, its founder and every other global media business aspires to,” said Matthew Freud, who is married to Ms. Murdoch and whom PR Week magazine says is the most influential public relations executive in London.”

    The other 1,878 words were favorable–because Fox is supposedly the most profitable division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  And why would anyone bother to mention that those profits come from constantly stirring up the dumbest 1 percent of the American TV audience with lies, hatred, and the never-ending tears of Glenn Beck?  The sad truth is, readers of The New York Times almost never learn the truth about Fox or Beck or the rest of the serial prevaricators on that network.  For that information, you have to be a regular viewer of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Sinner: Lloyd Grove, for his appalling review of a new biography of Molly Ivins in The New York Times Book Review–one of the worst FCP has ever read.  Who was the genius editor who decided that a failed gossip columnist like Grove would be the best person to evaluate the life of one of the most important progressive journalists of the 20th century?  According to Grove,  “Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life isn’t convincing as the biography of a significant figure in journalism”, mostly because “Ivins never wrote the big, important book about Texas that she’d always wanted to.”

The fact that she was one of the great newspaper columnists of her era, who was right about Iraq, George Bush and oh-so-much else when the geniuses in the Washington press corps were getting it all wrong, well, Grove (an alumnus of that fabulous group) doesn’t mention that.  To understand who Ivins really was, read Paul Krugman’s great column about her or FCP’s own tribute.   Or CJR’s excellent review of the book here.

Winner: The indispensable Hendrik Hertzberg, for his laugh-out-loud review  in this week’s New Yorker of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book–the first account of the 2008 campaign to be “told in the style of an airport potboiler.”  Says Hertzberg:

      Game Change is a bit like those tabloid photo features in which celebrities are caught with their cellulite showing. What do we learn from it, apart from the news that the thighs of the famous may be lumpier than they look onscreen? One lesson is that the eagerness of political operatives to trash tends to be inversely proportional to the power, present and future, of the trashee.

Winner: Tony Judt, for one of the most important pieces of 2009: What is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy, published last month in The New York Review of Books. His 6,600 word article is a devastating account of the sharp decline of the Western World over the last three decades–and essential reading for anyone disturbed by the perilous condition of American democracy.  For this, it was also the winner of the Hillman Foundation’s Sidney Award for December.

The Tower of Dubai

Above the Fold

 Dubai–When the world’s tallest tower was inaugurated last week, the lavish ceremony began with bag pipes and seven precision parachutists, each one jumping from the top of the 2,717 foot tower into the same small spot just in front of the VIP area, which was populated by hundreds of local residents in turbans and flowing white robes, and an equal number of business-casual-attired Westerners.

    What bridged the cultural divide between the suited and the robed?  Everyone from Judy Miller–yes, that Judy Miller–to the Sheikh of Dubai was texting, almost all the time.

   The new building, nearly twice the height of the Empire State, features the world’s
highest swimming pool, (76th floor), the highest observation deck, (124th floor) and the highest–and probably smallest–mosque (158th floor).  It’s a mix of offices and apartments, with an Armani Hotel at the base (the designer’s first).  Some days the temperature is 15 degrees warmer at the base than it is at the top.   When the building went on the market two years ago, it sold out within two days, although Dubai now has a glut of office and residential space all over the city.

   The big news of the inaugural evening was the building’s exact height (a state secret until then) and the name change announced by  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

   What had been known during construction as the Burj Dubai had suddenly become the Burj Khalifa, in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, and the head of oil-rich emirate Abu Dhabi, which so far has provided $25 billion to prop up its over-extended neighbor.   “Abu Dhabi has the oil, Dubai has the chutzpah,” a local expat explained.

    That meant the $1.5 billion glass and steel structure designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had  set another record–the highest naming fee for any structure in the history of the planet.

    After the bag pipes, the parachutists, and the Sheik’s speech, the tower exploded from top to bottom in a spectacular fireworks display, echoed in the moat in front of it by the world’s largest fountain, whose geysers pulsated and swayed in time to an Arabic Ode to Joy.

    Drowning in bad publicity since last November, when the state-owned Dubai World group succumbed to the worldwide credit crunch and requested a six-month freeze on $26 billion of debt repayments, Dubai saw a chance to use the opening of the spectacular new structure to improve its image.

    “Brand Dubai” is a new government office headed by Mona Al Marri, a dazzlingly attractive former journalist who was previously president of the Dubai Press Club.  Created five months before the crash to coordinate all media affairs, Brand Dubai invited three dozen journalists and architects from around the world to a conference on sustainable architecture, which was thrown together just three weeks before the inaugural ceremony for the stunning new Burj (“tower” in Arabic.)    New York’s Cooper Union was recruited to be the co-sponsor of the all-expenses paid junket, to which FCP was invited.

    Besides Judy Miller, conference members included Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, as well as former Clinton White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis, who carried a personal message of congratulations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Also present was the architect of the 38-story monstrosity at Broadway and 99th Street, which is twice as tall as its neighbors, and could well be the worst building erected in Manhattan in the last forty years.  Its violation of the scale of the neighborhood was so severe, it inspired a change in the zoning law to prevent any future imitators.  

    That architect’s presence was appropriate, because Dubai is one over-the-top skyscraper after another.   Oddly, the only one which seems understated is the world’s tallest, because its elegant, set-back  design makes it fit perfectly on top of its gigantic base. 

   The city has exploded from a sleepy port just thirty years ago into a center of tourism, commerce and American-style consumerism, featuring 12-lane highways and a brand new (mostly above ground) Metro with wi-fi.   It boasts twenty-eight shopping malls (including the world’s largest, with a gigantic aquarium with sharks and barracudas) and a panoply of man-made islands. Streets filled with hundreds of Mercedes, Bentleys and Rolls Royces, and the presence of Tiffany’s, Cartier, Bloomingdales, Galeries Lafayette, and just about every other major Western brand you can imagine, combine to give the desert city something of the feel of a crowded East Hampton on a July afternoon.

    It’s a strange mix of ultra-modernism, and medieval instincts, the latter leading to zero tolerance for gays and drugs, and the periodic seizure of foreign newspapers, whenever they get a little too harsh towards one of the sheiks. Two years ago a Canadian changing planes at the Dubai airport was caught with .6 of a gram of hash and two poppy bulbs.  The fact that he had been working as a consultant for the U.S. State Department’s Afghan poppy elimination program did not prevent him from receiving a four-year prison sentence.

    There is one under-the-radar gay bar, but half of its patrons are apparently undercover policemen.

    It’s also a place where the “properties” section of the Gulf News features ads for villas, hard by another one offering “Labor Camp For Rent–183 rooms, generator provided; water + electricity extra.”   The labor camps are for the foreign workers who do virtually all of the construction, and are kicked out of the country as soon as their jobs are over.   Last year, 27,550 were arrested for over-staying their welcome.  In 2007, the US State Department estimated that less than 20 percent of the UAE’s population of 4.4 million are citizens–and 93 percent of its workforce is foreign.

    The big question is whether the Burj Khalifa will mark the end of Dubai’s glory days or the beginning of its resurrection after the financial bust.  The betting here is that the oil money of its neighboring emirate and the undaunted ambitions of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed will gradually lead to the city’s financial revival.  But the plan for a massive new seawater canal through the center of the city to create waterside properties in the desert hinterland is probably on hold– forever.


Sage Advice for the President from Spitzer, Koch and The New York Times

Above the Fold

More than a year after the rescue began, crucial questions remain unanswered. Who knew what, and when? Who benefitted, and by exactly how much? Would A.I.G.’s counterparties have failed without taxpayer support?…We know where the answers are. They are in the trove of e-mail messages still backed up on A.I.G. servers…The government should insist that the company immediately make these materials public. By putting the evidence online, the government could establish a new form of “open source” investigation.
                                               –Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black

The President should do more. He should instruct his Attorney General, Eric Holder, that one of his highest priorities should be holding criminally liable those who engaged in illegal activities on Wall Street that nearly caused our banking system and, indeed, our entire economy to collapse.

                                               –Edward I. Koch

What profits the banks have made over the last year were funded by oodles of cheap financing provided by the Federal Reserve. This is a windfall that they should not be allowed to keep…Bankers are likely to scream…No one should be intimidated…A windfall tax on bankers’ bonuses would not be enough, but it would be a start.

                                               –from an editorial in The New York Times


        This week the Obama administration will quite rightly celebrate a huge achievement, one which eluded six previous Democratic presidents–a giant step towards universal health care for every American citizen.  Yes, the Senate bill is vastly inferior to the House version, and not just because of the absence of a public option, but it is also a very important beginning, and it represents a triumph over a fiercely-united, know-nothing Republican minority, which was paid tens of millions of dollars by the medical-industrial complex to prevent anything from passing.
       When David Gregory pointed out yesterday that the president’s approval ratings are still sliding downward, White House counselor David Axelrod was perfectly correct to point out that no poll numbers will really matter until October of next year, on the eve of the next Congressional election.  And if health care reform is accompanied by a genuinely rebounding economy, all of the predictions of massive Democratic losses in that election may prove to be unfounded.

        But despite these “green shoots” of optimism, the Obama administration still faces a gigantic political problem because of the way it has treated Wall Street.  Even if the financial reform bill Barney Frank is shepherding through the House survives a much more conservative Senate, this administration must finally put some real muscle behind its anti-Wall Street rhetoric.

        Of course it was welcome to hear the president tell Steve Croft, “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of…fat cat bankers on Wall Street. Nothing has been more frustrating to me this year than having to salvage a financial system at great expense to taxpayers that was precipitated, that was caused in part by completely irresponsible actions on Wall Street.”  But now he must do something decisive to dispel the idea that the administration’s first priority is to keep Goldman Sachs happy.  And the best way to do that would be to embrace the powerful  advice of two middle-of-the-road Democrats and one very-slightly-left-of-center newspaper.

        Eliot Spitzer is the undisputed master of how to investigate Wall Street fraud to propel a political career, and the Obama administration could learn volumes from studying Spitzer’s tenure as New York’s attorney general.  Spitzer’s proposal to force a government-owned A.I.G. to make public all of its emails is good policy and good politcs.  So is Ed Koch’s admonition to focus the Justice Department’s attention on the bankers who knowingly participated in the massive fraud which came so close to destroying the economy.  And the windfall tax advocated by The New York Times could be the single most popular policy change the president could champion.
       Earlier this month the Senate Judiciary Committee summoned Robert Khuzami, the enforcement director of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general of the criminal division at the Justice Department; and Kevin Perkins, the F.B.I.’s assistant director in charge of its criminal investigative division, to find out why it is taking so long to hold anyone accountable for Wall Street’s criminal shenanigans. 

        “Why aren’t we seeing more board room prosecutions?” Ted Kaufman, Democratic senator of Delaware, demanded.  Assistant attorney general Breuer replied that the cases were “complicated,” and would take a long time to investigate, “but they will be brought.”

        Khuzami said the S.E.C. had already gone after top officials in the mortgage industry–like Angelo R. Mozilo, the head of Countrywide Financial–but he too said that other areas of the financial industry were a bit more complicated to investigate.  And the FBI’s man said that a new interagency financial fraud enforcement task force created only last month would speed up the process, and could lead to more prosecutions down the road.
       This is much too little,  too late.  What we need now is a president who will match not only the rhetoric but also the bravery of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest American president of the 20th Century.

        These were Roosevelt’s words during his first re-election campaign in 1936.  Obama must now find  the courage to adopt Roosevelt’s tone, and his policies:

         We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.  They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

         Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.  I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

            From FDR’s lips to Obama’s ears.




Special thanks to FCP contributors DEK and JWS.

Danner v. Cheney


Above the Fold

   Our own era, I am convinced, will be remembered for the American Government’s official development of, its placing the country’s legal imprimatur on, and Americans’ acceptance of, the techniques and practice of torture.

                                                                                             – Mark Danner, December 16, 2009

    This week Mark Danner synthesized the most important points from all of his articles and books about torture for the Irving Howe Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at the graduate center of the City University of New York.

    As I have pointed out before, when the history of this era is written, Danner will be remembered as one of a handful of journalists who summoned the necessary outrage to alert his readers to the horrendous costs of America’s broad embrace of torture during the Bush years.   Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Scott Horton of Harper’s, Andy Rosenthal of The New York Times editorial page, Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Jon Stewart–yes, Jon Stewart–all deserve praise for their superb efforts in this area,  but none more so than Danner.

    Danner is a professor at Bard and the University of California at  Berkeley, where, he noted wryly, ex-Bush administration torture-enabler John Yoo is now his colleague: “I can hear the demonstrators down the street in front of his house.” 

   Earlier this year, Danner broke the story of the Red Cross report on American torture practices  in the New York Review of Books and an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

    This week he began his lecture by quoting Irving Howe on George Orwell’s 1984:

    The book appalls us because its terror, far from being inherent in the “human condition,” is particular to our century; what haunts us is the sickening awareness that in 1984 Orwell has seized upon those elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable.

    Danner argued that courage and intelligence were exactly what had been needed to prevent America from falling into the abyss of torture.  He also noted the deadening similarities between our endless war on terror, and the permanent war among Oceania, Urasia and Eastasia depicted in 1984.

    Danner’s lecture was entitled “Escaping the State of Exception: Torture and Truth, Obama and Us,” and he reminded his listeners that America had endured many previous  “states of exception:”

* “The most famous:” when Lincoln  suspended habeas corpus and took other measures solely on his own authority in the months after his inauguration in 1861;

* John Adams’ imprisonment of hundreds of political opponents in 1798 and 1799 in the run up to an expected war with revolutionary France;

* Woodrow Wilson’s imprisonment and deportation of thousands who spoke out against the country’s entry into World War I;

* Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to imprison 110,000 Japanese-Americans afer Pearl Harbor – the great majority of them American citizens.

    So, Danner concluded, “we have been here before.”   But while each of these previous “exceptions” occurred within the confines of a well-defined event, like the Civil War or World War II–and thus ended along with those conflicts–elements of the current state of exception could last as long as the endless war on terror.  

   “So far,” Danner declared, “those elements have included wholesale arrest and long-term detention of aliens on American soil; massive wiretapping of Americans without benefit of a warrant, as prescribed by law; ‘extraordinary rendition’—secret kidnapping–of large numbers of foreign citizens on foreign soil and their transfer to other countries for interrogation or to secret American facilities; establishment of offshore prisons, the most notorious of which the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the long-term detention without trial of hundreds and, taken as a whole, thousands of prisoners; establishment of secret prisons–so-called “black sites”–for covert and prolonged detention of prisoners; and finally the development of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ so-called EITs, making use of suffocation, battery, close confinement and other measures and their widespread use on detainees held in secret prisons.”

    Danner said Barack Obama deserved praise for ending torture in the first week of his administration, and for this passage in the speech he gave last week when he accepted the Nobel in Oslo:

    “All nations–strong and weak alike–must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.    I–like any head of state–reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.   Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakness–those who don’t….Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.  And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

    On the other hand, so far there has been no renouncement of rendition, and Obama has said repeatedly that when it comes to torture, he wants to “look forward,” not “back.”  Danner called that “a pernicious phrase, and, if held to consistently, would preclude all punishment and prosecution, [because] rendering justice, by definition, implies looking backward.  But the political costs of justice, at least that provided by prosecution, are very great; for we live still in the ‘politics of fear.’”

    The main actor in keeping that fear alive, of course, has been former vice president Dick Cheney, who began his relentless assault on the current administration barely a week after it took office, and continued it by scheduling a speech on terror which he delivered almost simultaneously with one Obama gave on the same subject.  Danner quoted several of Cheney’s core arguments, including these:

 * “If it hadn’t been for what we did—with respect to the…enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees…—then we would have been attacked again. Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US….

 * “I think there’s a high probability of [another] such an attempt. Whether or not they can pull it off depends [on] whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States….”

    Danner called  these “dark admonitions,” which are “both exculpatory, pointing back to what the administration did and justifying it, and minatory, warning about what will happen in the future and laying down a predicate for who will be blamed.”  Partly because of them, “Congress has been reluctant to vote funds for the President’s plan to close Guantanamo, fearful of warning cries that the new president will be ‘putting terrorists in our neighborhoods.’ And we see its effect in the increasing refusal to release photographs and memoranda, and the increasing willingness to take positions similar to the Bush administration when it comes to lawsuits regarding torture and detainee rights.”   

    The decision “that expresses most purely the ambivalence of the Obama Administration…is the decision not to bring criminal investigations against those who have tortured – or rather to do so only in the case of those who have gone beyond the Bush Administration’s immensely wide guidelines.”

    Danner is not opposed to broad prosecutions of those responsible for formulating the Bush administration’s torture policies, but the professor is more practical than polemica– and he sees no possibility of such prosecutions in the current political climate.   Therefore, he argues that the road to justice must run through education, which should take the form of a truth commission, “to investigate what was done in the realm of interrogation, who did it, what it accomplished and, not least, how it hurt the country. For the priority must be not destroying the torturers but destroying the idea of torture.”

    Danner cited poll numbers showing that many more people in America now believe that torture is sometimes necessary than their counterparts in Europe, or Egypt, or most other countries of the world:

    There are many reasons for this – the myth of the ticking bomb, the desire for harsh justice expressed from the American Western to Dirty Harry – but it is clear these attitudes are deep seated and damaging. They represent the stark reality of a society that, post-9/11 – has come to accept torture. It is only through an effort to change those attitudes that we can approach a state of justice.

    So far, there hasn’t even been any broad political pressure to create a truth commission, much less the political will to prosecute those who sanctioned torture.   Under these circumstances, the road back to sanity and justice is likely to be very long indeed.


The President and the Nobel

 Above the Fold

We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

                                         –Martin Luther King Jr., Riverside Church, 1967

“Perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”                              

                                          –President Barack Obama, Oslo, 2009

    Barack Obama gave the best speech he could last week–given the fact that he had decided to expand the war in Afghanistan just ten days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.   He nodded to Gandhi and quoted the speech Martin Luther King gave when  he  accepted the Nobel : “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” 

   Obama added, “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”

    It’s true that presidents do not have the same freedom of action as civil rights leaders.  But it is also true that Martin Luther King’s decision to oppose to the War in Vietnam was one of the best and most important things he ever did–even though it brought him the opprobrium of practically the entire white liberal establishment at the time.

    Just like Lyndon Johnson, Obama has chosen to commit American blood and treasure to a deeply corrupt government which lacks the support of most of his citizens, without any real plan for victory, or even much of a benchmark for success.  And in Obama’s latest speech we also hear another echo of LBJ, who was forever invoking the ghost of appeasement in Europe in the 1930’s as a reason for American adventurism in the 1960’s: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” Obama declared in Oslo.

    It is Obama, rather than his critics, who has misread the historical lessons of Vietnam.   Here, I believe, we are paying a serious price for having elected a president who is too young to have any adult memories of Vietnam.

    Naturally, Obama tried hard to put the best face on America’s infatuation with war:
“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.  The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans.  We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will.  We have done so out of enlightened self-interest – because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”

    Obama also said, “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.”   That’s true, but our closest friends also include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and many other governments which are famously contemptuous of the rights of their citizens.

    But the biggest part of recent American history Obama needed to ignore to portray us as democracy’s defender is our shameful role as chief arms merchant to the world.   Not since Jimmy Carter was president has anyone made even a cursory effort to restrain American arms makers from selling their most expensive weapons to many of the poorest nations in the world.

    Only once in the last thirty years did the world pay any attention to the consequences of the fervent competition among the developed nations to sell every tank and missile and airplane they can to the undeveloped ones.   That occurred after Saddam Hussein’s remarkably quick and successful invasion of Kuwait.

    As one historian has noted:
    Observers were initially struck by the speed and brazenness of the invasion, which could only be viewed as a willful violation of international law. But another aspect of the invasion also sparked international attention: the fact that Iraqi forces were equipped with very large numbers of sophisticated weapons that had been obtained from foreign suppliers. During the previous eight years Iraq had spent an estimated $43 billion on imported weapons, giving it the most modern and powerful arsenal of any nation in the developing world. Many of these arms were supplied by the Soviet Union (long Iraq’s major supplier), but others were acquired from France and other Western countries. This led to widespread charges that the major suppliers bore some degree of responsibility for Iraq’s aggressive behavior, in that they had provided the means for mounting the 1990 invasion.

    In the aftermath of Kuwait, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met twice in 1991 and pledged to develop new controls on the international arms trade.  But before the next scheduled meeting of the group of five took place in 1992, to formalize the restrictions, the first president Bush decided sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan.  A furious China withdrew from the negotiations, which gave everyone else an excuse to boycott them–and they have never been revived since.

    During the administration of the second President Bush, foreign arms sales exploded–from $12 billion in 2005 to $32 billion in 2008.  As Eric Lipton noted  in a fine story in The New York Times last year,

    The United States has long been the top arms supplier to the world. In the past several years, however, the list of nations that rely on the United States as a primary source of major weapons systems has greatly expanded. Among the recent additions are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Georgia, India, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan, according to sales data through the end of last month provided by the Department of Defense. Cumulatively, these countries signed $870 million worth of arms deals with the United States from 2001 to 2004. For the past four fiscal years, that total has been $13.8 billion.  In many cases, these sales represent a cultural shift, as nations like Romania, Poland and Morocco, which have long relied on Russian-made MIG-17 fighter jets, are now buying new F-16s, built by Lockheed Martin.

    This is just the tip of the military-industrial complex Obama confronts as president, and he has gotten practically no pressure from anyone to confront it head on.

    The key moment in the Afghanistan debate occurred in London at the end of September when General Stanley McChrystal rejected the possibility of scaling back the American war effort there.   This was a clear act of insubordination, which, in another time and place, would have led to the general’s firing. 

   That, of course, is the way Harry Truman dealt with General Douglas MacArthur when he ignored the president’s wishes during the Korean War.

    But this time no one ever thought McChrystal would be fired.   Justin Feldman, the wisest political analyst I know, observed that if Defense Secretary Robert Gates had responded to the London speech the way he should have–by firing McChrystal–Obama would at least have had the option of rejecting his demand for tens of thousands of additional troops.   “Obama was boxed in politically as a new president,” Feldman said.   “He has too much on his plate–and if Gates wouldn’t fire McChrystal, Obama couldn’t afford to have Gates and McChrystal bail out on him.”

    So instead of the dramatic change so many of us hoped for when we cast our ballots for president 13 months ago, when it comes to war and peace, it seems we will mostly continue to see more of the same.



Leo Siqueira of Brazil’s canal da imprensa interviews FCP about Obama here.