Friday, May 22, 2009


As Vice President, Dick Cheney avoided the media like the plague; now he can’t make himself available enough. One can only guess what he thinks he is accomplishing. Perhaps he believes he’s performing a public service by defending his (officially, George Bush’s) policies so vociferously; after all, he does have the moral and intellectual shallowness to believe what he says. No doubt too, he’s positioning himself (and his commander-in-chief) for vindication if and when the next big “terrorist” attack comes; he’s shrewd enough to attempt that. Perhaps his motives are more clever still: by casting the “debate” over torture as a dispute about security policy, he could be trying to save himself from prosecution, laying the groundwork for the (spurious) argument that, in the Land of the Free, one does not criminalize policy differences.

Needless to say, in a saner world, there would be no “debate” at all. Cheney has admitted, even boasted, of committing war crimes. A good case could be made as well that he has committed crimes against the peace and crimes against humanity. Along with Rumsfeld and Bush and the rest of them, Cheney should be brought to justice, not taken seriously. End of story!

So far, though, the Obama administration has been taking Cheney seriously, even if only as a foil. Thus the spectacle of back to back speeches on national security and the rule of law: Obama’s delivered yesterday at the National Archives; Cheney’s, moments later, at the American Enterprise Institute. Since, unlike Cheney, Obama is no fool, he must be playing along for a reason. It is instructive to speculate on what that reason might be.

Obama, of late, has become an almost Orwellian figure – talking one way while doing just the opposite. He advocates for transparency, while keeping “the facts” (including pictures of torture victims, each one worth a thousand words) away from public view, just as his predecessor did. He advocates eloquently for the rule of law while reviving military tribunals for erstwhile “enemy combatants,” and even going so far, in his National Archives speech, as to propose indefinite preventive detention (with the window-dressing of judicial review) for “terrorists” who, for one reason or another, cannot be tried within the legal system. Even George W. Bush didn’t go that far!

I will speculate presently on why Obama has taken this turn. What I would point out, first, though, is how having Cheney babble on in the public eye facilitates it. Cheney may have taken upon himself the role of Obama-opponent-in-chief. But, in fact, what he is doing is strengthening Obama’s hand. This would be a welcome result, except that it is becoming increasingly clear that strengthening Obama’s hand is tantamount to facilitating his rightward drift.

There is still enough Obamamania around that Obama can get away with most anything. If only he’d use his “political capital” for good – for instance, by forcing Israel to stop obstructing the two state “solution” that it officially favored – at least, before the advent of the Netanyahu-Lieberman regime in Tel Aviv. But Obama is using it instead to perpetuate Bush administration policies, albeit with name changes and countervailing rhetorical declarations. The degree to which Obama is betraying his supporters’ expectations is remarkable even for those of us who never expected much more from Obama than cosmetic changes (from the Clinton, not the Bush, presidencies). Why so much recent bait and switch?

The main culprits, of course, are the constraints under which our bought and paid for political class operate. But I suspect there is something else going on in addition, something signaled by the excessive, indeed pathological, “bipartisanship” Obama and his minions promote. Notwithstanding the profound fluidity of the present political conjuncture, notwithstanding the fact that there is now more opportunity for real change than has existed for decades, Obama seems to have bought into the proposition that it is well to govern from the center. The jury is still out on how good or bad that idea is; Obama is so impressive and so politically adept that even I cannot bring myself to conclude just yet that it is an unequivocally bad idea, notwithstanding the mounting evidence that it is. Maybe, one hopes, he’s just “faking right.” That’s almost certainly an “illusion” in Freud’s sense, an expression of an unconscious wish. But, whether governing from he center is as bad an idea as the evidence suggests, it is plain that circumstances have shifted the center leftward – at least in domestic affairs. To an extent that would have seemed impossible just a year ago, a progressive role for an affirmative state has come back onto the agenda. But, at the same time, the Cheney-Bush legacy, kept alive by Cheney’s endless speechifying, is moving the center towards the right. By not bringing Cheney and the others to justice, by taking them seriously instead, Obama, wittingly or not, is encouraging this process.

Cheney’s speeches pull the center rightward not because his ideas, such as they are, have any appeal. Outside the twenty percent or so of the population who still think Cheney and Bush governed well, his ideas have no more appeal than they have merit. But, even if hardly anyone takes what Cheney says seriously, the constant reiteration of Bush era lies, half-truths and rationales, legitimated by Obama and echoed in media coverage, frames policy discussions in an unhealthy, indeed disabling, way. The problem, in short, is this: Cheney and Bush did so many wrong things so poorly that doing these same wrong things well has a certain appeal. Thus in the security “debate,” Obama proposes to get it right, where “it” designates more or less Cheney’s and Bush’s policies. The result is that with Obama’s help, those policies, implemented competently and in ways that pay homage (dishonestly) to the rule of law become the centrist position.

How ironic that, despite widespread support for “change we can believe in,” and despite recognition of the need to prosecute Cheney, not legitimate his ideas, this despised and deposed “acting” President continues to influence policy. It is because Obama has unwisely locked himself into a symbiotic relationship with his de facto predecessor. This may work to Obama’s advantage in the short run. But it surely works to the disadvantage of all who truly do respect the rule of law. The Obama-Cheney relation, which has lately come to loom so large on the political scene, is an unhealthy relationship from which nothing good can come.

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