Obama’s Democratic Authoritarianism

He's bad – really bad – on civil liberties

by , May 25, 2009

He’s not closing Guantanamo, he’s continuing the "preventive detention" policy of the Bush administration under a new rubric ("prolonged detention"), he’s on board with military commissions ("reformed," of course) and the denial of habeas corpus – and last, but certainly not least, his supporters in Congress have launched a campaign to give him and his cabinet officials the power to close down the Internet in the name of "national security."

I won’t go on at length about the brazen hypocrisy and general slipperiness exhibited by Obama and his fans when it comes to key civil liberties issues such as these. Jack Goldsmith, former head of George W. Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel, and Rachel Maddow, progressive commentator on MSNBC, have done a superlative job of that. Goldsmith, of course, notes the president’s turn on a dime with obvious approval, arguing that the Bush approach was haphazard and lacked any substantive legal basis, while Maddow is horrified that, instead of abolishing these Bush-era assaults on the Constitution, her former hero is intent on formalizing and "legalizing" them. Go here to see her deliver the kind of stinging rebuke to Obama and his administration that Rush Limbaugh and his fellow radio ranters could never hope to match.

Maddow strikes a powerful blow against Cheneyism-without-Cheney by pointing out that the president’s preventive detention policy – which claims for the U.S. government the right to hold anyone, including American citizens, indefinitely, without trial, without formal charges, and without telling anyone – is worse than anything Bush ever attempted in one important sense. The Bushian effort was secretive and strictly ad hoc; the Obamaites, however, are quite openly constructing what Obama calls "a new legal regime" to preside over this wholesale assault on the Constitution.

At least the Bush crowd had enough remnants of a moral sense to sneak around and try [.pdf] to hide their crimes against liberty and the rule of law. Although they tried to rationalize their actions with after-the-fact legal arguments, the effort seems to me rather halfhearted: they weren’t really all that concerned with legalizing their power grab. They just went ahead and did it, and damn the torpedoes.

The Obamaites, on the other hand, have a different style – but the substance is essentially the same, with the addition of a few minor tweaks and rhetorical flourishes. They want to bureaucratize and institutionalize the horrors of the past eight years and make what used to be unthinkable routine.

This Memorial Day should be devoted to reviving and refreshing the failing memory of the American people, or, at least, those millions who voted for Obama in hopes of a better day. Remember the campaign promises, the soaring rhetoric about "the rule of law" and our "constitutional liberties"? Remember this: "Gitmo. That’s an easy one: close it"? Remember the promise of "change"?

As for this last, well, yes, the Obama administration is indeed carrying out a sea change in the realm of civil liberties, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a continuation of the transformation effected by Team Bush and made possible by the post-9/11 hysteria, in which the leaders of both parties were caught up – and which they continue to stoke for political gain.

Witness Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid‘s assertion that the jailing of terrorist suspects in American prisons somehow represents a threat to this country’s security. Obama himself is not above this: in rationalizing his escalation of the Afghan war and occupation, he continually harks back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as if they justified the decades-long occupation of Afghanistan and surrounding areas envisioned by his favored policy wonks.

The baddies, Obama avers, are "plotting to attack America" from their "safe havens" in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. Which raises the question: So the f**k what? How much of a "safe haven" do they need to "plot," anyway? Answer: A space no bigger than an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, or a small town on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where the 9/11 attacks were plotted and carried out.

The 9/11 attacks provided the neoconservatives with the opportunity they had been waiting for: as the Twin Towers came down, so did the traditional safeguards against tyranny that had been erected over the past 200 years by the Founders and their successors. The neocons, in effect, pulled off a coup d’état: as Bob Woodward has pointed out, their method was to set up "a separate government," with Cheney at its head, that did an end-run around the institutional safeguards built into the system. Bush usurped the constitutional lines of authority that acted as a rein on the unrestrained use of government power. Obama’s "reforms" will make that usurpation permanent.

Change? You bet.


I just have one thing to say about the recent arrest of four losers who were plotting to bomb New York-area synagogues: while the FBI was busy carefully setting up these would-be terrorists-without-a-clue, luring them into an improbable scheme involving Stinger missiles and in effect setting up a government-subsidized terrorist cell, how many al-Qaeda sleeper cells were going about their business undetected?

Now, don’t you feel safer already?

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