Disappointing.

datePosted on 13:54, May 15th, 2013 by Pablo

Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.

I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).

But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.

It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012,  the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).

The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.

While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.

There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.

Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.

The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.

Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.

I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.

Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.

I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.

Hence my disappointment.

 

3 Responses to “Disappointing.”

  1. awbraae on May 15th, 2013 at 17:56

    Its not Obama so much that has disappointed me, or even his administration. D.C is a city built on corruption, and only the most wide eyed idealist could have expected Obama and co to really bring in a new way of doing business.

    No, what has been most disappointing is the mysterious disappearance of the activists and movements that ended up putting Obama in back in 2008. The peace activists who marched against Iraq, where are they now, during the 12th year of the war in Afghanistan? The civil liberties campaigners who repeatedly charged Bush with violating their freedoms through the Patriot Act, who have largely vanished even though the same policies are being followed. The anger that was felt in the wake of bailouts for greedy banks has largely been replaced by passive acceptance of policies that benefit the very wealthy.

    Why aren’t those who were so vocal when Bush was in charge still out protesting, when nothing has really changed? Were those activists just using worthy causes to get their particular politicians into office? If so, that is the greatest betrayal of all.

  2. Charlie on May 15th, 2013 at 23:19

    There is little vibrancy to the left in the States. Some of us have reconciled ourselves to working towards pragmatic solutions to our many problems and dropped the ideological backdrop. Others, especially in the academy, have retreated to multiculturalism and postmodern thought which translates poorly into social agency and isolates the intelligencia from meaningful purpose. The remainder protest and present factual evidence to those for who evidence matters not. The entire political discourse has been moved so far to the right that feeding kids a school lunch or reconfiguring our tax code to fund education at all is now seen as socialist and unfair to the consumptive prerogatives of the haves. I, too, voted for Obama forgetting the power of political institutionalization in hopes of a reformulation of our principles. Rienhold Niebuhr is now sadly more prescient than even he would have imagined.

  3. Pablo on May 16th, 2013 at 09:52

    awbraae and Charlie:

    Very good points in both of your comments. It strikes me that many people “of the Left” in the US have retreated into local politics or community issues as a way of making a difference. The inertial weight of the machine is such that people see their hopes for change continually dashed at the federal level, as politicians from the president on down succumb to the Beltway ethos. So the disenchanted have two options: a retreat from activism entirely, which often is very hard for ideologically-driven people; or a re-focus on the local. A third option is, of course, to get all bitter and twisted in the privacy of their own alienated lives.

    I take some solace in the fact that in the two places that I use as points of reference in the US–Tucson and Delray Beach–my old lefty friends have done the re-focus on local thing. That has also happened with friends located in other places. So not all is lost, because even small change can be incremental.

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