On Sunday I ran into an old high school acquaintance protesting outside the US consulate in support of Bradley Manning. Manning is currently in a military prison for allegedly supplying Wikileaks, the controversial whistleblower repository website, with documents for its “Iraq War Logs”, “Afghan Diaries”, State Department cables and a video showing an indiscriminate attack by an American Apache helicopter in Iraq. If convicted, Manning will likely spend the remained of his life in prison for releasing the classified material, an outcome that looks very likely for the 23 year old.
The debate over whether Manning’s actions were criminal is an issue I’d prefer to avoid for now. I do believe that Private Manning’s actions were incredibly valuable in shinning a light on two largely under-reported wars, providing the public with important information about the gross stupidity, misconduct, criminality in the way that they have been conducted and the misinformation that domestic audiences have been provided. But my concern is what the treatment of Bradley Manning says about the Obama administration rather than the issues of how to deal with whistleblowers.
I think it is a fair assumption that under any American administration Bradley Manning would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The American military and the public at large would expect it of any sitting president. So, I don’t believe that the fact that Obama is proceeding with charges against Manning are terribly indicative of his administration’s character.
What I do think displays his administration’s character is how Manning has been treated since being placed in detention in May 2010. Under the terms of his detention, Manning has been kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours per day and is denied any interaction with fellow prisoners and guards. His one hour of physical activity, which consists of walking around a drawn circle, ends the moment he stops walking and he is returned to solitary confinement. He has also been placed on suicide watch against his psychiatrists recommendation which has entailed the following:
– he is forced to verbally indicate that he’s “ok” every five minutes, thus denying him sleep
– at night he is stripped of his clothes and forced to do roll-call naked
– he is not provided proper bedding or even a pillow
The mental affects of such treatment have become noticeable. Individuals who have visited Manning have described him as “catatonic” at times.
The treatment of Manning is reminiscent of the sadistic administering of al Qaeda suspects and Iraqi insurgents at Guantanomo Bay and Abu Ghraib that originated in the Bush White House – the practice of which was highly criticized by candidate Obama and suspended upon his ascension to the presidency in January 2009.
What then can we make of the continuation of comparable practices during Obama’s administration, against a US citizen no less? While it is unlikely that Obama himself ordered the cruel treatment of Manning, his recent firing of State Department spokesman PJ Crowley for speaking out against what he termed the “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid” methods used to punish the young private speaks volumes about his support for the practice.
Consider also that it is alleged that an individual in the Justice Department put Bank of America in touch with a private company to attack Wikileaks and Wikileaks “supporters”, in particular Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald. If true this sounds more like George W. Bush (or even Richard Nixon) than Hope & Change.
Here are some additional areas where we’ve seen Obama display the more conservative aspect of his character:
– doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan
– conducting an unauthorized air war across the border in Pakistan
– the suspension and then resumption of extra-constitutional military trials for al Qaeda and Taliban suspects
– the decision that terror suspects who are not tried or are acquitted can still be detained indefinitely
– authorized the assassination of US citizens suspected of involvement in al Qaeda (this is primarily targeted at Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen)
– launched a war in Libya without consulting Congress
This is a damning list and one that most Obama supporters wouldn’t have expected to see the President’s name attached to back in November 2008.
Of course expectations back then were not consistent with the reality of the choices Obama was going to have to make as president. At the time, most anticipated a tangible shift in American politics – some welcomed it, some dreaded it. I remember the day after he was elected thinking, “this man is going to be too pragmatic for the idealists and too idealistic for the pragmatics, he needs to pick a side or risk collapse”. Compromise with the left and the center of the Democratic Party seemed impossible – both would be disappointed. I assumed he’d choose the left, and pay a heavy price for it from a rejuvenated Republican Party in 2010 and beyond…
BUT, what I didn’t count on was the Republicans responding to their resounding defeats in 2006 and 2008 with the decision that they weren’t conservative enough. They embraced their base in a big way through the guise of the “independent” Tea Party and used its ability to mobilize the vote in 2010 to bring about a resounding defeat for Democrats. They won the battle, but they may have lost the war.
The Republican’s hard move to the right has allowed Obama to embrace his pragmatic side and capture the independents alienated by the irrational, flat tax loving, bible thumping, immigration hating, constitution fetishizing, and isolationist wing dominating the Republican Party. Obama has moved straight to the centre of the American political spectrum.
The thing is, based on the list of transgressions above, the center seems to have moved noticeably to the right. In relation to the Guantanamo detainees we shouldn’t be asking “Well, who can we convict in a military court and who should have no opportunity to ever see the light of day?” With regard to assassinating American citizens the first question shouldn’t be: “Do we need to have some pretense to actually capturing them?” And with Bradley Manning it shouldn’t be a question of, “How far can we push him before it’s considered torture?” These are terrible starting points for debates we should not be having.
It’s naive to think that the USA did not have any lapses in the past in enforcing its own Bill of Rights. Not everything was perfect until George W. Bush came along. There were abuses, sometimes on a massive scale (for example, being a Japanese-American in the early 1940s was dicey). But what we are seeing is a complete paradigm shift. Since September 11 the American executive has been less concerned with enforcing the laws than how they can get around them. The Bill of Rights, separation of powers, executive authority, the basic components of the US Constitution have been treated as pesky nuisances. And Obama is no exception.
Fundamentally, I still believe that Obama is a good man. But what he believes in his heart does not matter if his actions contradict it. Obama’s dash to the center has left his moral values in its wake. So long as he is more concerned with getting re-elected rather than executing his duties “to faithfully uphold the constitution”, there will be little difference between him and his fundamentally flawed predecessor.
What I wonder is if the left has become so politically dead that it cannot challenge Obama on this? Will it ever be a factor again? If I were Bradley Manning, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it.