President Obama’s “Unforced Errors”

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CommonDreams.org

President Obama’s “Unforced Errors”

On January 27, 2010, Rachel Maddow said, “Republicans have been as unanimous as they can be in opposition to every major thing this president has tried to do and they expect to continue to be as best as I can tell, calculating that the political benefit of stopping a president from accomplishing anything is worth a lot more than any risk of being seen as obstructionist.”

Are the Republicans to blame for Obama’s apparent deviation from his campaign promises, as many now claim, or does plain evidence demonstrate that the problem is much deeper, residing within President Obama himself? From economic policy to drug policy to foreign policy and human rights to his policies on the environment, President Obama has repeatedly made unilateral decisions that call this conventional storyline into question.

It has been thoroughly documented that the President is a Constitutional scholar. Yet, President Obama has declared the innocence of those responsible for the national and global financial collapse, despite ongoing investigations, stating, “One of the biggest problems…is that a lot of this stuff wasn’t necessarily illegal, it was just immoral or inappropriate or reckless.” In an attempt to comfort those who suffered the consequences of the perfectly legal misrepresentation and fraud perpetrated by the financial sector, the President reminds us that the members of the financial sector were simply doing their job. Can we really blame them for “looking for ways to make money”? Meanwhile, President Obama has been pressuring U.S. attorneys general to accept a settlement that includes blanket immunity from future prosecution, which is confusing considering the lack of illegal behavior. But the confusion lifts once one sees the revolving door at the White House.

President Obama promised change. Yet, he reserved many of the most important and influential positions for former Clinton officials, the same officials candidate Obama criticized for their role in creating the conditions that would be exploited by all those innocent bankers. The appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council, a position free of the need for Senate confirmation, is incomprehensible. It was Summers, along with Robert Rubin, who encouraged Congress to pass the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, effectively overturning Glass-Steagall. Lawrence Summers, as published in the Wall Street Journal in April 2009, “received about $5.2 million over the past year in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw, and also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from major financial institutions.” Those major financial institutions included J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. Nothing to see here; no conflict of interests.

Destroy the national and global economy, leading to massive unemployment and home foreclosures and you are declared innocent by our president before the conclusion of an investigation, grow and distribute medical marijuana to those who benefit from it, including cancer patients, and to whom it is prescribed by licensed doctors and face the wrath of President Obama. In 2007, Senator Obama stated, “The Justice Department going after sick individuals using this as a palliative instead of going after serious criminals makes no sense.” Apparently, the President has changed his mind. In Rhode Island, Governor Chafee has decided not to move forward with the licensing of three medical marijuana dispensaries or, as Chafee refers to them, “medical marijuana compassion centers.” Why? Because Chafee has received communications from Obama’s Department of Justice that dispensaries “will be potential targets of ‘vigorous’ criminal and civil enforcement efforts by the federal government.”

In April, the President made another foray into the judiciary, announcing his verdict in the case of Bradley Manning, whistleblower and alleged Wikileaks source, claiming that Manning “broke the law.” Manning spent ten months in solitary confinement and was forced to undergo degrading treatment such as forced nudity. The UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture believe solitary confinement alone could amount to violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, both of which the U.S. has ratified. Yet, President Obama stated that Manning’s confinement met “our basic standards.” The President doubled-down on this assessment, forcing PJ Crowley, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, to resign because of his honest assessment that Manning’s conditions of confinement were “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

Despite Manning’s obvious guilt and the just conditions in which he was imprisoned, Obama has refused repeated requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, for private access to Manning. This led Mendez to say, “I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the prevarication of the US government with regard to my attempts to visit Mr. Manning.” That might not sound like much, but in diplomatic-speak that’s a serious tongue-lashing.

Though President Obama chose “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards” when it comes to members of the Bush Administration, who have openly admitted to authorizing torture, and the activities of many on Wall Street, his Department of Justice has waged an unprecedented assault on whistleblowers. Notwithstanding the President’s 2009 expression of esteem for whistleblowers who are “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” the Obama administration has charged five individuals with violating the Espionage Act, more than all previous administrations combined. Take for example Thomas Drake, former senior official with the NSA and decorated veteran of the U.S. military. Drake was accused of espionage, the charge being motivated by his blowing the whistle on illegal NSA activities and mismanagement of billions of dollars.

The Bush administration executed a search warrant of Drake’s home in 2007. By the time President Bush left office, no indictment was forthcoming. Yet, 2 ½ years later, Obama’s DOJ decided to move forward with the case. Judge Richard Bennett lambasted the DOJ, stating, “That’s four years of hell that a citizen goes through. It was not proper. It doesn’t pass the smell test…I don’t think that deterrence should include an American citizen waiting two and a half years after their home is searched to find out if they’re going to be indicted or not. I find that unconscionable. Unconscionable.” This case was dead until President Obama decided to resuscitate it. Fortunately, Judge Bennett had the wisdom to put it back down.

Perhaps President Obama’s record on human rights is stronger abroad. If we were to judge him on his words alone, the answer would be a resounding ‘yes’. In May, the President threw his support behind the Arab Spring’s demand for the fulfillment of their rights, stating that “every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.” He continued, “And now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.” Obama’s support for human rights, of course, all depends on whether we need the cooperation of an oppressive government in allowing the U.S. to assassinate its own citizens, including teenagers, within the oppressive regime’s territory. Remember, indefinite detention bad, targeted assassinations and summary executions good.

And let us not forget all of the innocent victims of our human-guided robot warfare. In a 2010 speech, Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman stated, “We also support the fight against terror. However, we do not accept that this fight against terror be carried out at the expense of innocent civilians….This is what happened exactly in 2009 in December, when tens of women and children were killed in Majalah, in Abyan. They were killed by U.S. drone airplanes, with a shameful coordination with the Yemeni government.” Karman provides just one example of an ever growing list of deaths that continue to soak this country’s hands in blood.

As witnessed in Yemen, as well as Bahrain, President Obama wasn’t actually talking about all movements for more responsive government and more rights. In Bahrain, dozens have been killed, many more injured, and even more arrested and fired from their jobs for participating in the Arab Spring, not to mention the arrest of medics who provided care for injured protesters, but their movement happens to be in the wrong country. Instead of Security Council resolutions condemning Bahrain, the government awaits a $53 million weapons contract with the U.S. Republicans had nothing to do with this, President Obama could have chosen a different path, but didn’t.

It could be that Obama’s policies on Yemen and Bahrain are but bad apples. It could be, but isn’t. The President is currently pressuring Congress to waive restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan was designated by Freedom House as one of the nine “Worst of the Worst” countries in the world in terms of political rights and civil liberties. In the report it states, “Having silenced nearly all critics and perceived opponents of the regime—including independent journalists, rights activists, and political opponents—in 2010, the state went after individuals who spoke about or showed aspects of the country that the government felt damaged Uzbekistan’s image both domestically and abroad.” To the people of Uzbekistan, I am sorry that President Obama sees our war in Afghanistan as more important than supporting your inalienable rights.

I would be remiss if I omitted the very real dangers faced by union leaders and labor activists in Colombia, the lucky recipient of a free trade agreement facilitated by, you guessed it, President Obama. In 2008, according to Amnesty International, “Year after year, Colombia has symbolised the most serious and consistent abuses of this human right [to form and join trade unions]…So far this year, some 22 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia, a significant increase on the number killed in the same period last year.”

Thank goodness for the President’s record on the environment. Otherwise, this would all be bad news. President Obama, he who was going to facilitate “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” stated in North Carolina on Monday that the Republican plan for this country means “dirtier air, dirtier water.” Yet the President, from his own volition, continued use of BP’s low estimates of the rate of the spill in the Gulf, despite both the Wikileaks revelation that the administration was fully aware of similar manipulation by BP in Azerbaijan and the findings by research scientists that the flow was significantly higher than official estimates. In May 2010, NPR conducted an analysis of the flow rate. Steven Wereley, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, concluded the rate of the spill was 70,000 barrels a day, while the President continued to propagate the rate being 5,000 barrels a day. There is also the President’s unilateral decision not to change the smog standards, as recommended by the EPA, from 75 parts per billion measured over eight hours to 70 parts per billion. In other words, it is the President’s plan that means dirtier air.

Blaming the Republicans for all of President Obama’s failed policies and weak compromises is a failure to understand reality. That the Republicans have not bargained in good faith is something I fully recognize, but I also recognize the need to objectively assess the policies of this president. Failure to do so leads to the partisan trap, one in which members of both sides of the partisan divide vehemently defend the indefensible and use terms like ‘pragmatic’ to do so. Lucky for us, the only thing that stands in the way of the indefensible Keystone XL pipeline is President Barack Obama. As stated by James Hansen, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the President’s next unforced error, approval of the pipeline, would mean “game over” for the long-term health of this planet.

Jeffrey Bachman

Jeff Bachman is a professor of human rights at American University in Washington, with a focus in state responsibility for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_bachman

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