Thursday, May 14, 2009

Politics and Pragmatism

Yesterday was a rough day for me*. My usual weekend off (Mondays and Tuesdays) was negated due to special events at the theatre and an extra maintenance call... so no days off. I was on my eighth of twelve straight days of work which can tend to leave some people tired and moody, so it was a major disappointment to me when I learned that President Obama had decided to reverse his decision and attempt to block the release of the latest detainee abuse photos in a Pentagon case, in which the Pentagon had sided with the ACLU and agreed to release the photos.

The shoot from the hip response would rightly be, "So much for transparency" and that's what I've been hearing from friends, colleagues and what little I've read on the blogosphere. But since I didn't have constant access to The Internets™ yesterday, I was able to formulate some of my own theories on why the President chose to take this action. I've read his statement but haven't heard others' speculation, so forgive me if I'm repeating what has already been said.

Here is President Obama's statement:

Now, let me also say a few words about an issue that I know you asked Robert Gibbs about quite a bit today, and that’s my decision to argue against the release of additional detainee photos.

Understand these photos are associated with closed investigations of the alleged abuse of detainees in our ongoing war effort. And I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib. But they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army Manual; that’s precisely why they were investigated and, I might add, investigated long before I took office. And, where appropriate, sanctions have been applied.

In other words, this is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action. Rather, it has gone through the appropriate and regular processes. And the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken.

It’s therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.

Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.

And, obviously, the thing that is most important in my mind is making sure that we are abiding by the Army Manual and that we are swiftly investigating any -- any instances in which individuals have not acted appropriately and that they are appropriately sanctioned. That’s my aim, and I do not believe that the release of these photos at this time would further that goal.

Now, let me be clear: I am concerned about how the release of these photos would be -- would impact on the safety of our troops. I have made it very clear to all who are within the chain of command, however, of the United States Armed Forces that the abuse of detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated.

I have repeated that since I’ve been in office. Secretary Gates understands that. Admiral Mullen understands that. And that has been communicated across the chain of command.

Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.

All right? Thank you very much, everybody.

Security

As much as I hate that he used the line, "the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger," because it echos what we've heard before from the previous administration, the fact remains that we cannot disprove that statement. It is his opinion, most likely an informed opinion especially after reviewing the photos, that they could be used as a further recruiting tool for extremists and cause inflammatory actions against our troops. I'm not certain about this theory and I'm not happy about it either. But it can't be ruled out. Most of us agree that our continued presence in the Middle East and our imprisonment of detainees without habeas corpus and our treatment of them under the Bush regime has been a recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda. Why not more photos of abuse?

Distractions

Nothing that the President does can be looked at in a vacuum. Every word he utters, every decision he makes has repercussions. Currently, there are congressional hearings on the use of torture techniques and their effectiveness, or lack of, going on. Just yesterday, FBI interrogator Ali Soufan was before a Senate hearing on the use of "harsh interrogation" techniques and how those techniques actually hindered intelligence gathering in his opinion. I think I'd rather watch the 24/7 news cable talking heads discuss that Senate hearing than get inundated with a slide show presentation of five or six released photos in a continuous loop every 15 minutes on MSNBC. Is this part of President Obama's thinking? That the release of these photos would only serve as yet another distraction rather than trying to get at the heart of the matter in terms of torture? I don't know, and neither does anyone else outside the walls of the West Wing.

Apathy

What's the first image that pops into your mind the second you hear "photos of Abu Ghraib"? I think of two particular photos. The hooded man standing on a crate with electrodes on his hands and naked pyramids. That's what it's been reduced to in my mind. So I ask myself what good would it do to release these new photos? You would think that the actions of Abu Ghraib would have been enough for anyone to protest in the streets with pitchforks and torches, but the "outrage" lasted a month, maybe two, and after Donald Rumsfeld attributed it to "a few bad apples," it has been forgotten by the general public. I have no reason to doubt the President when he says, "these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib." We know abuse happened. We know there are factions in the government trying to cover it up. Why do we need to see the photos? Not only would it serve as a distraction to "future investigations of detainee abuse" but would anyone really care?

Priorities

This is the theory I'm going with. Think about the position in which President Obama finds himself. He takes office in the worst recession (bordering on depression) since the Great Depression. We are fighting a war on two fronts. Job losses mount to the tune of 500,000 to 650,000 per month. The stock market declined 6,000 points in a year before his first day in office. Record home foreclosures are creating homelessness and making tent cities commonplace. The banking industry is tanking and he must take over a $700 billion bailout by the Bush administration. The US auto industry is tanking and he must take over a $17 billion bailout by the Bush administration. 48 million Americans have no health insurance.

To stop the bleeding, President Obama begins a Recovery plan to infuse $787 billion into the country to create jobs, including the largest middle class tax cut in US history, and needs all the support he can muster to reform the health insurance industry. Is this the best time to release these photos? It's very possible that they will be released by the courts anyway, so why should we expect President Obama to rock the boat while he's standing on the bow?

More and more details are coming out daily regarding the torture memos and Dick Cheney's deeper involvement than originally thought. Congressional hearings and investigations are coming to a head. I'm just a little too young to remember Watergate first hand, but I do know that investigative reporting and the hearings during Watergate took a long time to get the truth out. My prediction is that within 18 months, the current snowball of scandal will turn into an avalanche. There will be indictments, prosecutions and jail time for some of the big wigs that were involved in Torturegate, as well as the possibility of war crimes committed for starting a war on intentionally false pretenses. That all takes time.

I'm going to expect President Obama to prioritize and try and get something done for the near future. There will be enough independent investigation without Obama looking like he's out for partisan blood. The last thing we need is self sabotage by initializing investigations that will be misconstrued as partisan witch hunts which can derail his agenda by Day 114. I have to give him that time. I voted for change, but I'm realistic enough to know that change doesn't happen overnight... or over 114 nights.
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* My day concluded with the Mets losing an 8-7 game in 12 innings, the Senate voting against the Credit Card bill and my softball game being rained out this morning. *Sigh*

3 comments:

Fraulein said...

I agree with your assessment re: priorities. Can you cross-post this one too? Thanks!

Matt Osborne said...

I'm in complete agreement on this one. Obama is picking his battles wisely.

Besides: the longer the torture debate lasts -- with the help of Cheney and his apologists -- the more solidly torture gets cemented as the foundation of the Bush "legacy."

ZenYenta said...

I think you're right, or at least could be right about much of what you say here. Basically it comes down to that I don't believe for a minute that Obama has some horrible motivation for wanting to keep those photos on ice for a while. I think we've just all gotten so used to completely and totally mistrusting the administration that we've got. While there's a lot to be said for maintaining a degree of skepticism, my position is that this one doesn't warrant outright paranoia.

 
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