Last month, two well-known Americans — former president Barack Obama, and whistleblower Chelsea Manning — were supposed to visit Canada. But while Obama was welcomed like a hero, Manning — who was prosecuted by the Obama administration for leaking materials that included evidence of American atrocities — was banned.
Two weeks ago, Canadian border officials prohibited Manning from entering the country: a decision that Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he was unlikely to “interfere” with.
Obama, in contrast, was eagerly embraced when he arrived in Toronto to deliver a speech last Friday. He was greeted by throngs of admirers and acclaimed by media commentators, whose only disappointment was that Obama was not more forthcoming in criticizing his successor.
The celebration of Obama as the antithesis to Donald Trump ignores the continuities between them. Trump’s presidency is dangerous because of Obama’s policies, which expanded presidential powers to use violence without constraint or scrutiny — including through his administration’s treatment of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning.
As president, Obama claimed the authority to engage in covert wars without congressional authorization, bypassing legal provisions meant to prevent the president from initiating military action without the approval of Congress.
Obama used the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2001 — which permitted action against Al Qaeda in the wake of 9-11 — as legal authority to wage war against an ever-expanding list of terrorist organizations.
For example, Obama used the AUMF to justify the campaign against Daesh (also known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, even though Daesh publicly split from Al Qaeda in 2014. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped more than 26,000 bombs on seven different countries.
Obama’s manipulation of the AUMF transmuted it into a license for open-ended aggression: hazardous in the hands of any president, potentially catastrophic in the hands of Donald Trump. As president, Obama increased the use of drones outside official theaters of war, raining death on thousands of people, including unknown scores of civilians. At the same time, his government successfully fought to preclude judges from reviewing drone killings, keeping the use of lethal force behind a wall of secrecy and unaccountability.
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In 2013, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused the Obama administration of possibly committing war crimes in Pakistan and Yemen — but the victims of U.S. drones have received no justice, or even an acknowledgement that they have been wronged.
As president, Obama condemned and discontinued Bush-era policies of torture — but refused to criminally prosecute those responsible (as required by international law), setting a precedent of impunity for torturers. Under Obama, the only official punished in connection with the U.S. torture program was John Kiriakou: the ex-CIA employee who blew the whistle on it.
Indeed, as president, Obama prosecuted more than twice as many whistleblowers as all previous administrations combined — stifling a vital source of information about state practices shrouded in a veil of secrecy. “[The Obama administration] is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David Sanger, veteran Washington correspondent for the New York Times, in 2013.
One of the whistleblowers attacked during Obama’s presidency was Chelsea Manning, a veteran of the war in Iraq whose leaks exposed American war crimes. Most infamously, video footage showed soldiers gunning down Iraqi civilians from an Apache helicopter in Baghdad, and then referring to the casualties as “dead bastards.”
None of the documents that Manning publicized were top secret; the Defense Secretary at the time, Robert Gates, acknowledged that while the leaks were “embarrassing,” the alarmism over their impact was “significantly overwrought.” And yet, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, and subjected to treatment the UN described as “cruel and inhuman.”
Obama commuted Manning’s sentence earlier this year. But as director of the Courage Foundation Sarah Harrison observed, the commutation “will not make good the harm done on Obama’s watch. Chelsea’s conviction … set a terrible precedent that is left entirely intact … Who knows what Donald Trump will do with this precedent, and these powers, that Obama has left him?”
In his speech last week in Toronto, Barack Obama hailed those who work to “pull [the arc of the moral universe] in the direction of justice.” But as president, Obama not only failed to pull with the champions of justice; he often punished them.
This is how an apparently liberal, progressive leader laid the groundwork for a menace like Trump: an important lesson for Canadians to heed.