I was desperately hoping to be wrong last week. I was delighted and surprised that I was indeed mistaken about President Obama being unlikely to pardon army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. My cynicism in the previous column was a challenge to the president, almost an act of reverse psychology. Wonder of wonders, Manning will be free in May. This high note for Obama to end his presidency on infuriated authoritarians of all stripes, most of whom seem to be situated at National Review these days. Predictably, William Kristol pet David French was most angry. He, a man who more or less decided God wanted him to go fight in Iraq, thought Manning was getting off easy with her original sentence of 35 years, and that death would have been the only truly appropriate punishment.
The Barack Obama who ordered drone assassinations of American citizens, including – allegedly by mistake – that of a 16-year-old, and who went after whistleblowers with particular enthusiasm seems like a strange man to have passed out this mercy after Manning spent seven years behind bars. However, if you’ll pardon the attempted psychoanalyzing, as an act of the Obama who likes to think of himself as a man of the people, and a civil libertarian, and someone who did drugs, and got away with it, while others weren’t so lucky, well, it’s not as surprising. And it’s not as radical a move as some people might be interpreting it.
The president explained himself in his final press conference on Tuesday. The majority of the occasion was a puffy salute from him to the White House Press Corp, and vice versa. However, a few real questions were asked of Obama, and the first was about Chelsea Manning. In his answer, Obama demonstrated that there is a sweet spot of moderation that he, and often his supporters, believe it is possible to stand in. Edward Snowden will not be coming home soon, because he ran away after revealing the truth. He revealed what the Obama administration had done, as opposed to what George W. Bush’s wars looked like. And he didn’t face his "justice."
Obama said that he decided on clemency for Manning for various reasons, that "due process was carried out; that she took responsibility for her crime; that the sentence that she received was very disproportional – disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received; and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute and not pardon, her sentence."
There you have it, the man who might not have invaded Iraq himself, but broke Libya, and stayed in Afghanistan (and went back to Iraq). The man who spent his capital on a health care law that is flawed, and now in danger, and who set a precedent on drone warfare, and killing Americans that we will all regret sooner or later. And a man who finally, when he had almost nothing left to lose, decided to grant clemency to more than 1700 people who were either imprisoned, or suffering under the weight of a criminal record.
Not the savior or the villain that he was supposed to be, for every moment of Obama’s presidency in which he acknowledged that the US wasn’t perfect, when he even admitted specific past instances of bad behavior such as America’s part in the 1953 coup in Iran, there was a signature drone strike, or an innocent person spied upon. In many ways, he should get credit because he could have done worse with the grotesquely muscled executive power he was handed by the Bush Administration. In other ways, he should be filed squarely away with the leaders who talked a good game, and who did terrible things anyway. (Ronald Reagan’s "government is the problem" rhetoric combined with his militarization of the war on drugs is one such example out of many.)
This was a president who didn’t close Gitmo. He significantly reduced its population, but it’s open eight years later as he frantically tries to get as many people out as possible before Donald Trump takes his place in the oval office. More importantly, perhaps, Obama took no steps to prevent future indefinite detainment of prisoners without charge or trial. In fact, barring acts such as his clemencies, almost everything good Obama has done can be undone by the next guy. In that way, Obama assures the continued existence of executive power. His good moments, sure as the pardoning of Manning, were still at his majesty’s pleasure. And she didn’t get away easy, no matter what the hawks screech. Seven years mostly in solitary changes you in concrete ways. It is only because of America’s warped criminal justice system, and its perma-war state of mind that that time sounds like a light punishment to the bloodthirsty.
Certain writers at Antiwar have more optimism about a President Trump on foreign policy than I do, but nobody has any reason to think Trump will be pruning the NSA’s budget or powers. Obama and the White House Press Corp both seem entirely unconcerned with the surveillance system they just left in the hands of a man who the majority of the population dislikes, and who has said very little about the importance of the Fourth Amendment. Clemency for Manning was one of the last acts of a man who probably does truly think she has suffered enough, but also realized that she had suffered enough that granting her a reprieve wouldn’t kill his reputation, or make him seem a radical. If you want to be particularly cynical, you might argue that Obama did it so that his war on whistleblowers would become a much hazier memory. He wanted to leave the Americans who didn’t already think he was a communist Muslim on day one with a good taste in their mouths.
Obama on civil liberties was a smart slacker – a leader who thought that stated good intentions, and some last-minute cramming was enough to get him an "A" on the assignment. He doesn’t get one. He saved some lives, most likely Manning’s, but he cost many more. The best we can hope for from a president is that they occasionally choose to use their enormous power to do right. When they do wrong, when they go to war when they feel like it, or let people rot in prison, or allow intelligence agencies to spy on anyone, or anything else a president may do, that’s the status quo. Obama had his quality moments, but they were about his choices as a leader, not about putting up any safeguards to prevent Trump from doing whatever he wants, good, or bad, or catastrophic.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com. She has also written for VICE, Playboy.com, the Washington Post.com, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is www.thestagblog.com. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.