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Obama The Centrist

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January 12, 2009

It was almost one year ago when the conservative National Journal rated Barack Obama as “the most liberal senator in 2007”.  Of course, that was back during the primary season of the 2008 Presidential campaign, when many people believed that the “liberal” moniker should have been enough to sink Obama’s Presidential aspirations.  Now, with the Inaugural just a week away, we are hearing the term “centrist” being used to describe Obama, often with a tone of disappointment.

On Sunday, January 11, David Ignatius wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, entitled:  “Mr. Cool’s Centrist Gamble”.  Mr. Ignatius spelled out how Obama moved toward the political center after his election, beginning with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, to appointing a Cabinet “which is so centrist it almost resembles a government of national unity”:

Since Election Day, he has taken a series of steps to co-opt his opponents and fashion a new governing majority.  It’s an admirable strategy but also a high-risk one, since the “center,” however attractive it may be in principle, is often a nebulous political never-never land.

Obama’s bet is that at a time of national economic crisis, the country truly wants unity.

The President-elect’s appearance on ABC’s January 11 broadcast of This Week with George Stephanopoulos motivated Glenn Greenwald to write on Salon.com that the interview:

. . .  provides the most compelling — and most alarming — evidence yet that all of the “centrist” and “post-partisan” chatter from Obama’s supporters will mean what it typically means:  devotion, first and foremost, to perpetuating rather than challenging how the Washington establishment functions.

Mr. Greenwald (an attorney with a background in constitutional law and civil rights litigation) began his article by taking issue with the characterization by David Ignatius that Obama’s centrist approach is something “new”.  Greenwald pointed out that for a Democratic President to make a post-election move to the center is nothing new and that Bill Clinton had done the same thing:

The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the “non-ideological” center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom (which is why Ignatius, the most conventional of Beltway pundits, is preaching it).  That’s how Democrats earn their Seriousness credentials, and it’s been that way for decades.

Greenwald then focused on a point made by Mr. Obama in response to a question posed by George Stephanopoulos concerning whether the detention facility at Guantanamo will be closed within the first 100 days of the new Presidency.  The President-elect responded that:

It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize and we are going to get it done but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication.  And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it’s true.  And so how to balance creating a process that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo American legal system, by doing it in a way that doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.

The magic words in Obama’s response that caught Glenn Greenwald’s attention were:  “creating a process”.  Why should due process require creation of a new process outside of our court system?  Mr. Greenwald suspects that this “new process” will be one that allows for the admission of evidence (confessions, etc.) obtained by torture.  If what Mr. Obama has in mind is a process that will protect the secrecy of legitimately-classified information, that is one thing.  Nevertheless, I share Mr. Greenwald’s skepticism about the need for an innovative adjudication system for those detained at Guantanamo.

George Stephanopoulos made a point of directing Mr. Obama’s attention to “the most popular question” on the Change.gov website.  It came from Bob Fertik of New York City, who asked:

Will you appoint a special prosecutor ideally Patrick Fitzgerald to independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?

The response given by the President-elect involved a little footwork:

We have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing.

Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of Mr. Obama’s performance on This Week, did not overlook that part of the interview:

Obama didn’t categorically rule out prosecutions — he paid passing lip service to the pretty idea that “nobody is above the law,” implied Eric Holder would have some role in making these decisions, and said “we’re going to be looking at past practices” — but he clearly intended to convey his emphatic view that he opposes “past-looking” investigations.  In the U.S., high political officials aren’t investigated, let alone held accountable, for lawbreaking, and that is rather clearly something Obama has no intention of changing.

Obama’s expressed position on whether to prosecute the crimes of the Bush administration is fairly consistent with what he has been saying all along.  Frank Rich covered this subject in his January 10 New York Times editorial:

The biggest question hovering over all this history, however, concerns the future more than the past.  If we get bogged down in adjudicating every Bush White House wrong, how will we have the energy, time or focus to deal with the all-hands-on-deck crises that this administration’s malfeasance and ineptitude have bequeathed us?  The president-elect himself struck this note last spring.  “If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” Barack Obama said.  “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.”

Henry Waxman, the California congressman who has been our most tireless inquisitor into Bush scandals, essentially agreed when I spoke to him last week.  Though he remains outraged about both the chicanery used to sell the Iraq war and the administration’s overall abuse of power, he adds:  “I don’t see Congress pursuing it. We’ve got to move on to other issues.”  He would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record.  “We need to depoliticize it,” he says.  “If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s post-partisan world.  The people at the National Journal are probably not the only ones disappointed by Obama’s apparent move to the political center.  It appears as though we will be hearing criticism about the new administration from all directions.  When he disappoints centrists, you can read about it here.

The Biggest Challenge For Hillary

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December 1, 2008

The recent attacks in Mumbai, India focused international attention back to the continuing problem of organized terrorist activity.  As Hillary Clinton is presented to the world as our next Secretary of State, the more sensationalist elements of the media have their focus on terrorism.  Terrorism is highlighted to the exclusion of the other pressing matters to be faced during Secretary Clinton’s upcoming tenure, presiding over that all-important bureaucracy in the neighborhood known as “Foggy Bottom”.  Nevertheless, Secretary Clinton will have several other pressing issues on her agenda  — “leftovers” that have stumped the previous administration for the past eight years.  Among these abandoned, stinking socks on the floor of the Oval Office, the least fragrant involves the situation with Iran.  The Bush years took that bad situation and made it far worse.  A December 1 article in the Tehran Times focused on the remarks of Majlis Speaker, Ali Larijani, about what might lie ahead between the United States and Iran.  While suggesting that the Bush Administration “sabotaged” efforts to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, the article mentioned Larijani’s criticisms of what was described as the Democrats’ Iran containment policy.

A report in the December 1 Los Angeles Times examined the expectations of Arabs and Israelis, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  Discussing various forecasts concerning American strategy towards Iran, the article noted:

Some analysts predict the Obama administration will try instead to broker an Israeli-Syrian accord, aimed at drawing Syria away from Iran’s influence and diminishing Iran as a threat to the Jewish state.

Elizabeth Bumiller’s article in the November 22 New York Times described the “working chemistry” that has developed between Barack Obama and Ms. Clinton.  This chemistry resulted in a softening of Clinton’s position, expressed during the primary season debates, about negotiating with Iran:

But although Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Obama for being willing to sit down and talk to dictators, he has said he would have a lower-level envoy do preparatory work for a meeting with Iran’s leaders first.  Mrs. Clinton has said she favors robust diplomacy with Iran and lower-level contacts as well.

In the November 24 Jerusalem Post, Douglas Bloomfield gave us a refreshing look at how the Obama – Clinton foreign policy team might function:

Hillary’s great challenge will be to remember who IS President, who ISN’T and who WAS.  She will have to focus on rebuilding relationships damaged during the Bush years of “my way or the highway” foreign policy, taking the lead from the man she once described as not ready to be president.

*  *  *

In the Middle East peace process, as in other policy areas, Obama seems intent on charting a pragmatic, centrist course.  While that will disappoint both the Jewish Right and Left, it could prove a welcome change after eight years of the Bush administration’s faith-based foreign policy and not-so-benign neglect of the peace process.

As Inauguration Day approaches, the Bush Administration’s legacy of complete incompetence in nearly all areas is being documented by countless writers around the world.  By invading Iraq, Bush-Cheney helped Iran realize its dreams of hegemony.  Bush’s mishandling of Iran’s rise as a nuclear power became the subject of a thought-provoking opinion piece by David Ignatius in the November 30 Washington Post.  Mr. Ignatius noted that Iran had neither enriched uranium nor the technology to enrich uranium (centrifuges) when Bush took power.  As Bush’s days in the White House wind down, we now see Iran with nearly 4,000 centrifuges and approximately 1,400 pounds of enriched uranium.  The 2006 precondition that Iran halt uranium enrichment before the United States would participate in diplomatic efforts to address this issue, exemplifies the handicapped mindset of the Bush-Cheney regime.  As Mr. Ignatius pointed out:

It’s impossible to say whether Iran’s march toward nuclear-weapons capability could have been stopped by diplomacy.  But there hasn’t yet been a good test.  Because of bitter infighting in the Bush administration, its diplomatic efforts were late in coming and, once launched, have been ineffective.

By the time we finally have a President and a Secretary of State who are capable of taking on the dicey task of negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue, it may be too late.  Hillary Clinton’s biggest challenge in her new job has already been cut out for her by the Bush Administration’s nonfeasance.