As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Self-Entangling Giant

White House officials are trying to prepare the ground for the fact that they're not going to close Guantanamo on time. I believe Obama boasted in his UN address that he announced the closure of Gitmo.

Senior administration officials told The Associated Press that difficulties in completing the lengthy review of detainee files and resolving thorny legal and logistical questions mean the president's self-imposed January deadline may slip. Obama remains as committed to closing the facility as he was when, as one of his first acts in office, he pledged to shut it down, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to more freely discuss the sensitive issue. They said the White House still was hoping to meet the deadline through a stepped-up effort.

The prison in Cuba was created by former President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a landing spot for suspected al-Qaida, Taliban and foreign fighters captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But it has since become a lightning rod of anti-U.S. criticism around the globe. There are approximately 225 detainees still being held at the prison.

People may give a little slack if we're talking months, but of course we won't see the closure of American prisons holding suspects indefinitely. Bagram is still open, and the White House is trying to run some B.S. military commission-like trial to give the illusion habeas rights, which fall far short of that goal. They haven't set the rules for military trials at Guantanamo, or found a location for the prisoners they want to keep, or host countries that will take the ones who can be let go. And they want to use Bush-era theories about the authorization of military force against Al Qaeda giving them authority to use preventive detention and hold suspects without charges. This may be a small victory because they are not setting preventive detention into statutory authority through Congress, but it remains the case that this Administration still wants to hold suspects without charges, is doing so at Bagram and is dragging their feet on closing Guantanamo.

This leads to a more general point: when it comes to uprooting ("changing") the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties -- the issue which generated as much opposition to the last presidency as anything else -- the Obama administration has proven rather conclusively that tiny and cosmetic adjustments are the most it is willing to do. They love announcing new policies that cast the appearance of change but which have no effect whatsoever on presidential powers. With great fanfare, they announced the closing of CIA black sites -- at a time when none was operating. They trumpeted the President's order that no interrogation tactics outside of the Army Field Manual could be used -- at a time when approval for such tactics had been withdrawn. They repudiated the most extreme elements of the Bush/Addington/Yoo "inherent power" theories -- while maintaining alternative justifications to enable the same exact policies to proceed exactly as is. They flamboyantly touted the closing of Guantanamo -- while aggressively defending the right to abduct people from around the world and then imprison them with no due process at Bagram. Their "changes" exist solely in theory -- which isn't to say that they are all irrelevant, but it is to say that they change nothing in practice: i.e., in reality.

Greenwald references this Gary Wills article in forwarding the argument that a country in a near-permanent state of war will always assert these kind of expansive powers for reasons of national security :

That is just one of the hundreds of holdings in the empire created by the National Security State. A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments. He becomes the prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the bomb, a modern president cannot not use the huge powers at his disposal. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.

The White House has replaced the leadership dealing with Guantanamo closure, and maybe they'll regroup and get the place closed in short order. But the permanent national security society, and the political momentum behind it, will resist real transformation in this area.

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