Aug 25th 2009

Torture, Honor and Obama

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Torture is back in the news (good) -- along with renditions (bad) and assorted assassination units (worse). Let's concentrate on what looks positive. The Inspector General of the Justice Department has issued a report recommending that cases involving gross abuses, perhaps including murder, committed by American personnel in Iraq will be reopened. The White House itself demurs, preferring to look ahead (Afghanistan?), not backwards. Still, the probe now will go forward with a green light from Secretary Eric Holder. Reason to celebrate? Hold your applause until the finale.

The Holder investigation will be self-limited -- when it materializes. Obama has made it abundantly clear that he will have no part of a deep probe into torture, rendition, surveillance or anything else associated with the 'war on terror.' What Holder has in mind seemingly is an investigation of those persons (mainly contract workers) who did things outside the 'square' of permissible actions established by the Bush Justice Department guidelines (as drawn in the air by Obama a couple of weeks ago). In other words, a replay of the unconscionable Abu Ghraib travesty when 23 year old Lynndie England was cynically sacrificed to save the skin of the Army brass and their civilian superiors. Except this time the indicted will have competent lawyers in an open civilian court. Let's visualize what they will do with Obama's figurative square in cross-examining Bush era officials: "so, slamming prisoners' heads against walls was allowed, but not unless they wore whiplash collars. Please tell the court why my client's firm grip on Mohammed X's neck was not a reasonable functional equivalent." These courts inescapably will become theatres of the absurd. That is why I doubt that any civil legal proceedings -- in the end -- will actually occur.

As to the future, I find it impossible to comprehend how we can ensure against a repetition of these offenses without knowing precisely what has been done with what effect. And, above all, without holding to account those who initiated and condoned criminal acts. That is something we likely will never know or do given a strong aversion to airing 'dirty linen' by the White House and the Congress. It is worth remembering that some of the worst abuses occurred in the first months of the American occupation of Iraq. The center of operations where torture was institutionalized was Camp Cropper on the outskirts of Baghdad, which opened its doors in May 2003. Its commander was General Stanley McChrystal. This is the same McChrystal who Obama has charged with executing the 'new' American strategy in Afghanistan that aims at winning the hearts and minds of the natives.

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Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."    
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "May, a decent and honest woman, was far outdistanced by her successor and his colleagues in the Trump sycophancy stakes. In January 2017, Johnson’s senior fellow Brexiteer and principal ministerial fixer, Michael Gove (a former journalist with The Times newspaper), conducted an interview with then President-elect Trump that plumbed new depths of oleaginous toadyism. Gove wallowed in Trump’s endorsement of Brexit. It subsequently came to light that Gove’s then-employer, Rupert Murdoch, was in the room while the interview took place. And why not? The owner of Fox News as well as The Times was entitled to keep an eye on his two protégés."
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Does anyone really think that the vast majority of Republican legislators who could not bring themselves to object to the attempted coup at the Capitol — or any of the other outrageous antics Trump has unleashed on America for the past four years — will suddenly experience sleepless nights and pangs of conscience now that he is gone? Au contraire. This band of spineless, morally bankrupt congresspeople and senators are far more likely to follow Trump and carry Trumpism into the 2024 presidential election." ..... "A recent survey of Europeans revealed that the majority believe that America’s political system is hopelessly broken, that President Biden will be unable to halt its decline on the world stage, and that China will become the world’s leading power within a decade. What if they are right? America’s Trump-inspired death spiral has practically ensured any real recovery will likely take decades — and multiple terms with a Democratic president and Congress at the helm — to achieve."
Jan 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want ​stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them."
Jan 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Trump intentionally and directly incited the insurrection of January 6. But he does not bear sole responsibility. Every one of his enablers, and the enablers of his enablers, is guilty. Fox Corp’s hidden backers, especially those who are so fond of touting their piety, must now ask themselves, as the Gospel of Mark instructs: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? "
Jan 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "What’s astonishing is that the bottom 50% reduced their borrowing over roughly the same period, but their debt servicing costs increased. Over this time, smaller corporations saw their profit margins dip consistently into negative territory. The decades-long fall in interest rates appears to be the only thing that has kept smaller corporations afloat. Smaller corporations thus appear to be caught in a vicious circle. The fact that their debt-servicing burdens have increased sharply despite deleveraging and falling interest rates points toward rapidly deteriorating financial fortunes. This is reaffirmed by the severe losses registered in their negative profit margins."
Jan 11th 2021
EXTRACT: " The answer can’t be to pretend that the crisis is now over or to believe that the way forward can be found by simply impeaching the President or using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. That will not do. January 6th had antecedents. And more than one man has responsibility for what happened."
Jan 10th 2021
EXTRACTS: ”Not everyone who mobbed the Capitol on 1/6 was a terrorist, but there were many terrorists among them. Some people came armed, or with ties for taking congressional representatives and senators hostage. Some were desperately looking for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi in order to assassinate them….” …… ”Although the Capitol police had a major failure when they did not stop the breach of the building by the mob, they were remarkably successful at spiriting the politicians down to the basement and its tunnels that led to nearby offices.” ….. “The goal of the Trump-inspired insurrection was to stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president. Trump moved on several levels to accomplish that goal. He conspired with senators to have them object to the Arizona and Pennsylvania vote counts. In fact, he was trying to convince senators to join this effort by telephone even after the Capitol had been breached and senators were being escorted to the basement, according to Mike Lee. He also tried to disrupt the proceedings by encouraging the breach of the Capitol by a flashmob and by cadres. He may have stopped security forces from being deployed, as part of his coup, to ensure that the insurrection was not stopped prematurely.” …… “Significant blows have been dealt to the Trump terrorist network in the past two days, but the vast well of support it has built up among less violent supporters, and among media enablers like Fox, Breitbart and Newsmax, will make it very difficult to root out.”
Jan 10th 2021
EXTRACTS:"Trumpism may survive under a different leader. This is what a politician like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is hoping. His attempt to pander to Trump’s voter base by sabotaging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is a play for a future presidential run. But Cruz lacks the vulgar charisma of Trump. He is a highly-educated cynic, a ruthless political operator, but not someone who can easily inspire the masses."....... "More than most of his colleagues in the demagogue business, Trump is a creature of show business. His great success was not in real estate; he was in fact a terrible businessman, blundering from one failure to another. What made him was a television show. That is what boosted his brand, which he has used with a truly mammoth talent for self-promotion. Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, or Marco Rubio – all Republican senators with ambitions to follow in Trump’s footsteps – don’t even come close." ........ "And Trump’s followers will lose their messiah. Without Trump’s bizarre but effective grip on the party, Republicans may well face a period of vicious infighting, which could conceivably tear their party apart. If so, they richly deserve it."
Jan 9th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The world needs an America it can believe in. America needs to invest real time, energy, and resources in re-establishing the pre-eminence of truth and trust. It took generations to build it but just four years to destroy it." ..... "If it can happen in America, it can certainly happen anywhere else. America must now prove to the world that it can pick itself up, dust itself off, and get and stay on a path so many people in the world aspire to be. It will take a Herculean effort on the part of Mr. Biden and the Democrats to do so. If they fail to do so, it is arguable whether America can ever again claim to be exceptional."
Jan 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Congress has a right, but not a duty, to impeach. Sometimes, lawmakers might simply tolerate certain presidential misdeeds, having concluded that the costs of pursuing further action would outweigh the benefits. But this is not one of those times. ... Just as the act of punishing a public official sends a message about a polity’s moral commitments, so, too, does a failure to punish when it is warranted. By voting to acquit Trump last year, after the House of Representatives impeached him over the Ukraine scandal, Senate Republicans signaled that they were sticking with a career criminal, come what may. Trump enablers like Senator Susan Collins of Maine hoped that those proceedings would teach Trump a lesson. And so they did: Trump learned that there were no consequences for illegally coercing others into doing him favors and rigging elections on his behalf. ............ Plenty, like Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, have bet their political fortunes on genuflecting to America’s burgeoning far-right movement. But others might now be looking for a way out of the Trumpian maw. The storming of the Capitol demonstrated that you cannot have QAnon à la carte; neither Trump nor his Republican collaborators can control the forces they have unleashed. The revolution always devours its own children, and sometimes their fathers, too. If Republicans fail to de-Trumpify fully and immediately, they will learn that for themselves – but not before things get much, much worse."
Jan 2nd 2021
EXTRACTS: "Barack Obama had his flaws as a president, but he always exuded an air of dignity and refinement. Few presidents in history have his gift for English prose. Obama is not only a stylish writer, but a discerning reader. His behavior in office was always impeccable, and he and his wife, Michelle, are the model of a highly civilized couple .... And that is precisely what some of his opponents could never abide. Racists hated the very idea of being governed by a black man. But the fact that he was such a well-educated and cultivated black man made his ascent to the highest office even more intolerable ........ Trump had to erase the image of high civilization that Obama represented. He had to drag it down to his own level. "
Dec 29th 2020
EXTRACTS: "American capitalism is not serving most Americans. While educated elites live longer and more prosperous lives, less-educated Americans – two-thirds of the population – are dying younger and struggling physically, economically, and socially. This growing divide between those with a four-year college degree and those without one is at the heart of our recent book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. The rise in deaths that we describe is concentrated almost entirely among those without a bachelor’s degree, a qualification that also tends to divide people in terms of employment, remuneration, morbidity, marriage, and social esteem – all keys to a good life ....... The US economy has long been experiencing large-scale disruption, owing to changes in production techniques (especially automation) and, to a lesser extent, globalization. The inevitable disturbances to employment, especially among less-educated workers who are most vulnerable to them, have been made vastly worse by the inadequacy of social safety nets and an absurdly expensive health-care system. Because that system is financed largely by employer-based insurance, which varies little with earnings, it places the greatest burden on the least skilled, who are priced out of good jobs."
Dec 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "For the sake of comparison, it is worth remembering just how disastrous the 2000-15 period was for US incomes. Whereas the median real (inflation-adjusted) household income in 2000 was $62,500, in 2011 it was a mere $57,000. Only in 2016, President Barack Obama’s last year in office, did the median real household income clear its 2000 peak. And only during the first three years of the Trump presidency did incomes continue growing strongly enough to surpass the previous high tide. In 2019, the median household income was closing in on $69,000, more than 20% above the post-Great Recession nadir, and 10% above the previous Clinton-era peak ............What explains these trends? For starters, between 2001 and 2016, the US government did not emphasize the need to achieve a high-pressure economy that eliminates the economy’s demand shortfall, which is what it takes to deliver large wage increases for typical workers. In 2010, when the Obama administration began its pivot to austerity, it de-prioritized restoring employment to normal levels in the interest of pursuing spending cuts and fiscal consolidation ...........the siren song of austerity can today be heard once again. A growing chorus of commentators is insisting that near-zero interest rates are unnatural, and that the deficit needs to be cut substantially ...........Back in 2012, Lawrence H. Summers, fresh from a stint as Director of the US National Economic Council, and I tried to warn policymakers about the error of this line of thinking. We failed, ........ "
Dec 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "The longer-term consequences of the COVID-19 cycle are likely to be more severe. While mass vaccination points to an end to the pandemic itself (one hopes by late 2021), it does not provide immunity against lasting economic damage. Recent research on the impact of 19 major pandemics dating back to the fourteenth century – each with death counts in excess of 100,000 – highlights the long shadow of the economic carnage. Real rates of return on “safe” European assets – a measure of the interplay between aggregate supply and demand – were found to be depressed for several decades following these earlier horrific outbreaks."
Dec 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "US President-elect Joe Biden’s economic-policy agenda differs markedly from that of President Donald Trump. But Biden’s ability to enact his proposals will depend on three factors: the final composition of the Senate; his ability to learn from past successes and failures (not least the historically anemic Obama-era recovery); and whether the US economy can avoid a growth-sapping shock."
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACTS: "As is evident by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, many of America’s allies now question some fundamental tenets of American commitment and leadership. China’s willingness and ability to step in and take up some of the slack that has resulted says as much about Washington’s self-imposed weakness as it does about Beijing’s fundamental strength..........Regardless of what overtures the Biden administration makes and which objecrtives it is able to achieve in its first year, the carnage left in the wake of Trump’s exit will take many years – perhaps decades – to reverse..........Many of the world’s people never believed that the outrages that occurred during Trump’s tenure were even possible in America. Trump has proven that it is not only possible, but that it could happen again, as it is widely presumed that Trump will run again in 2024 and again win the Republican nomination for president. That is, perhaps, the most enduring legacy of the Trump era, which makes the debate about whether the world is better off with American or Chinese leadership less easily dismissed."
Dec 15th 2020
EXTRACT: ".....strikingly, exit polls suggest that Trump actually gained support from all of the demographic groups that he had maligned, insulted, and harmed, garnering more black, Hispanic, and Muslim votes than he did in 2016. Asian-Americans also pivoted to Trump, voting for him by a larger margin than they did for him in 2016. And Trump won around 55% of white women in 2020. In two consecutive elections, the majority of white women chose a blatant misogynist over a female presidential or vice-presidential candidate........ Trump’s trade war with China, moreover, had a devastating impact on rural America. But that didn’t stop him from winning Iowa and other farm states by a healthy margin. Likewise, some first-generation Chinese immigrants (with PhDs and Ivy League credentials) are fervent Trump supporters, despite his malicious labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus.”......... The common foundation supporting this vast Trumpian tent of rural whites, Latinos in Texas, Chinese-American entrepreneurs, white suburban women, and a small but growing share of black men is a deep-seated notion of authority – a more primordial disposition than ethnic tribalism, religious affiliation, and sexual identity. These voters worship power and the powerful, and identify with all exercises of power by their chosen leader."
Dec 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2014, almost one-half of Iranians felt their country “should have the right to a nuclear weapon because it is a major nation.” After the framework agreement was announced in 2015 support for that proposition dropped to 20%. Following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, the percentage of Iranians who felt they had a right to a nuclear weapon because they are a major nation rose again to 40%. "