Though it went almost unreported, President Obama admitted in a recent interview with Univision that “if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.” As I’ve written about on this blog, and as the fiscal cliff “compromise” once again confirms, the facts of his policies largely back up his claim. The exceptions mostly fall under the heading of “national security”: They are the broad range of foreign and domestic policies that have been wildly successful at making permanent war and authoritarian powers a point of bipartisan consensus. And there is, quite frankly, nothing moderate about them.
It’s ironic, then, that of the two cabinet nominees the administration announced yesterday – Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, to head the CIA and Pentagon, respectively – the one being scrutinized in the corporate media for being “near the fringe” on key issues is not the Bush-era torturer, now lovingly referred to as Obama’s “Assassination Czar”. As recently as 2008, Brennan was passed over for the CIA Director nod amid mock outrage from liberals and progressives, who cited Brennan’s support for torture (other than waterboarding) and extraordinary rendition in the role of Deputy Director during the George W. Bush administration. Well, that was then. Last year, a poll found that among self-identified “liberal Democrats”, 53% approve of continuing indefinite detention at the GTMO facility, and 77% support the administration’s targeted killing program. In fact, support for Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers (6 prosecutions, more than all previous administrations combined) has garnered the envy of Bush officials. As a former aide to Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft told the New York Times, “We would have gotten hammered for it.”
Not only has Obama granted Brennan (and other CIA torturers) immunity for previously controversial crimes, he has also put him in charge of some of the administration’s most radical and barbaric policies – policies like “signature strikes” in Yemen and Pakistan, which allow the administration to order an attack without knowing the identity of the targets, based on patterns of “suspicious behavior”. In those countries as well as in Afghanistan, the administration’s policies include the targeting of funerals and the “double tap”, in which an initial strike is followed by a second missile that targets first responders. After all, it was Brennan who got caught blatantly lying when he claimed that no Pakistani civilians had been killed by drone strikes in a year. In fact, local reports indicate that of the thousands of Pakistanis who have been killed by drones, one in 10-15 victims is a militant, and an NYU/Stanford study reports only 2% are “top militant leaders”. Brennan’s claim is not even true by the administration’s own definition of “militant” as “all military-age males in a strike zone”. But Brennan is not the “controversial” nominee, for a very simple reason: his complicity in war crimes and human rights violations places him squarely in line with the Obama administration and its allies.
The “fringe” pick is Hagel, who stands accused of appeasement of Iran and animosity towards Israel by a coalition of defense and pro-Israel lobbyists, neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, and Zionists like my Senator, Chuck Schumer. From a mainstream, mildly hawkish voting record (without which the nomination would be unthinkable), they’ve singled out Hagel’s (belated) opposition to the war in Iraq, his opposition to military strikes on Iran, and his openness to negotiations with Hamas as evidence that the former Republican Senator is outside of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus and therefore unsuitable for Obama’s cabinet. Hagel’s actual record shows that he consistently voted for every dollar of military aid to Israel, and continued to vote to fund the war in Iraq even after calling it a “blunder”. On Israel-Palestine, he has maintained that the only non-negotiable condition in a peace deal is “Israel’s Jewish identity.” And even if Hagel’s jingoism is found lacking, serious Zionists are happy to admit that his appointment would have little if any bearing on Obama’s “unprecedented pro-Israel credentials”. The fact is that the Hagel controversy has less to do with his actual voting record than with defense contractors’ fear that he’ll carry out his recommendation to reduce military spending to 2007 levels, when the United States had 100,000 troops in Iraq and thousands more in Afghanistan.
While the media and political class spar over the minutiae of non-issues, Obama escalated his assault on the Iranian people at the same time as he signed two bills dutifully passed by bipartisan majorities in this allegedly “do-nothing” Congress. One was this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which, besides renewing the administration’s right to assassinate, imprison, and torture anyone (including Americans) without charge or trial, also barred the transfer of prisoners from GTMO. The other renewed the FISA Amendments Act for another five years, making sure that intelligence agencies can engage in warrantless surveillance of citizens and non-citizens alike. On the Senate floor, Dianne Feinstein dismissed even the basic disclosure amendments proposed by Rand Paul and Democrats Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, and Mark Udall with clichéd fearmongering that would’ve made Dick Cheney proud (and probably did). Glenn Greenwald noted with disgust that “Feinstein insisted that one could support their amendments only if ‘you believe that no one is going to attack us’. She warned that their amendments would cause ‘another 9/11’. She rambled about Najibullah Zazi and his attempt to detonate a bomb on the New York City subway: as though a warrant requirement, let alone disclosure requirements for the eavesdropping program, would have prevented his detection.”
Many young people who, like me, came into some form of political consciousness during the Bush administration recognized this rhetoric as the authoritarian power grab that it was – or so it seemed. What did we learn from those years? For a while it appeared that liberals and progressives were genuinely outraged that our government routinely commits mass murder, violates human rights and civil liberties, and shields those responsible from accountability – all in the name of “security”. The coalition between the Obama administration and conservatives in the leadership of both parties has not only accelerated this process, but normalized and legalized it as well. The Obama era marks the moment when these radical abuses of power were turned from the subjects of controversy into the only game in town. The hypocrisy of the so-called left runs so deep that, not content to merely sit on their hands, they have spent most of the last four years demanding lockstep marching behind the world’s leading active war criminal.
What were the lessons of the Bush era? Were they that we have an obligation as Americans to call the “national security” agenda what it is – empire? To deny legitimacy to the violence of permanent war and a growing police state? Or are those things only wrong when a white Republican from Texas does them, and not when they’re done by a savvy black constitutional lawyer? Like it or not, this is the message we have sent the regime, not just by our support, but by our silence.