The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tape Delay

The Associated Press now reports the musical quartet I loved so much at Tuesday’s Presidential Inauguration was actually pre-recorded. The musicians had wanted, indeed demanded, playing live but found in practice it was too cold to keep their instruments properly in tune. They played Tuesday without amplification and substituted a tape made two days earlier over the loudspeakers and TV feeds.

Luckily, the performance did not suffer from tape delay, causing the players’ actions to appear out-of-sync with their sound. Still, the bottom line is what we appeared to see/hear, as conveyed to us by the media, was a bit more polished and perfect than what was actually transpiring on the podium. Those skeptical over the phenomenon of Obama worship may now find the quartet’s performance as symbolic of the day as I previously did, in light of this subsequent revelation.

And rightfully so.

No matter how much one may like and admire Obama and no matter how much hope one possesses regarding his Presidency, it is important to remember that he is just a man and a politician at that – prone to the same flaws, mistakes, weaknesses, and scheming associated with all politics and the human condition in general.

Thus, I must regard with a skeptical eye the gushing analysis of Dana Priest in the Washington Post this morning that the Executive Orders signed by Obama yesterday represent “an end to the ‘war on terror’ as President George W. Bush had defined it.” According to Priest, it represented “a swift and sudden end to an era that was slowly drawing to a close anyway.”

To be precise, President Obama signed three Orders that will shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within one year, prohibit the CIA from using torture during interrogations, close secret CIA foreign prisons, end “extraordinary renditions” that transfer detainees to countries allowing torture for interrogations, and nullify every Bush Administration legal opinion justifying the use of torture.

Combined with his promise to review the military tribunals currently in place to judge detainees suspected of terrorism, these represent good first steps at a return to the rule of law and greater respect for civil liberties trod underfoot since September 11 in the name of homeland security.

However, anyone thinking this signifies a clean and complete break from abuses, potential and actual, put in place by the Bush Administration needs to think again.

The fact is that Obama raised as many howls from the American Civil Liberties Union over the content of the Orders as he did from conservative Republicans. The ACLU complains the measures contain ambiguities and unnecessary equivocations that could hold up trying detainees and releasing those held without just cause.

For their part, Republicans grumble that too many of those already released from Guantanamo have already returned to violent anti-American pursuits. However, their greatest hostility is reserved for the fear of Guantanamo inmates being moved to prisons located on U.S. soil, in a classic example of “not in my backyard” hypocrisy.

Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan and Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri have been very loudly protesting that certain high-level Gitmo detainees, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Mohammed al-Qahtani, should never be released and criticizing Obama’s orders as wholly failing to address such matters.

Their concerns are valid but a double-edged sword for them. Susan Crawford, the Pentagon’s senior official on the military commissions, recently ruled al-Qahtani ineligible for prosecution because the government’s past permissiveness resulted in its obtaining too much of the evidence against al-Qahtani through illegal use of torture.

Obama officials have also been guilty of hypocrisy. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, nominee for Director of National Intelligence, pledged before a Senate panel yesterday never to allow torture on his watch but then refused to tell Senators whether he believed waterboarding was a form of torture, much in the manner of his Bush-era predecessors. White House Counsel Greg Craig was equally evasive on this topic when questioned.

What is more, despite yet another Obama Executive Order to increase transparency in government requests for access to information, the White House press corps bristled yesterday over the Administration’s decision to limit access by press corps’ photographers to some evens as well as its request not to use the names of officials giving a background briefing.

A little less adoration from the press for Obama is also a positive trend. While Obama may prefer an extended media honeymoon, he has demonstrated ability in the past to withstand criticism from it that his predecessor in the Oval Office never exhibited. Obama officials playing coy with the press is very different type of offense from Bush officials summoning Washington Post editors to the White House and strongly pressuring them to keep secret the existence of a secret CIA prison network, as detailed in Priest’s article.

Obama’s election opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, applauded Guantanamo’s closing but noted Obama had failed to address the fate of detainees. Yet he also seemed willing to work with Democrats on formulating a workable plan and had sharp words for Republican peers becoming increasingly combative over other Obama campaign initiatives.

“I remind all my colleagues – We had an election. I think the message the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together and get to work.”

That is good advice for Obama friends and foes alike. Politics means compromise and consensus. This means the President will not be able to make good on all of his campaign promises and even the ones he does enact will probably not look exactly as promised and take longer to realize than many might hope.

In the case of torture and detention, columnist Eugene Robinson suggests an investigation into the full excesses and possible illegal acts committed during the Bush years. His emphasis is not on prosecution, however. Rather, it is to bring to light what happened as an example for all to see, understand, and remember that terrible wrongs can happen even in an open, democratic society.

Democrats need to the lesson just as much as Republicans do. The surest way to repeat the mistake of the Bush years is to assume they cannot happen now that Bush is no longer at the helm and one of their own stands in his place.

Unquestioning hero worship, although all too common, has never become Americans well. Indeed, high expectations and a subsequent backlash of disappointment from some of his supporters is the thing that could hurt Obama in the long term far more than ongoing skepticism from his critics.

We should all exercise great reticence and vigilance regarding the Executive Orders signed yesterday because they are obviously flawed. However, our optimism over them is not totally misplaced because their very flaws testify to them as real attempts to correct real problems.

It is only realistic to understand and accept the Obama’s Administrations actions will never completely synchronize with the President’s lofty rhetoric, no matter how elegantly he expresses it. However, a little tape delay may be in order before jumping from this to the conclusion that Obama is doomed to failure and his supporters to ultimate disappointment as a result.

1 comment:

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