A poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News provided another opportunity to discuss how important civil liberties and national security issues are to liberals. The poll results showed majority support among liberals for President Barack Obama’s handling of “counterterrorism,” including his use of drone strikes and failure to close Guantanamo Bay prison.
Scott Wilson and Jon Cohen, for the Washington Post, concluded the results show Obama’s inability to “change national security policies he criticized as inconsistent with US law and values” would pose little liability in the 2012 Election. He has “little to fear politically for failing to live up to all of those promises,” especially because the poll also showed “attacking Obama’s national security policies…may do GOP challengers more harm than good when many Americans favor a national security that relies more on technology than troops.”
The poll results are as follows: 70 percent of Americans approve of keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open (53 percent of liberals support keeping it open); 83 percent of Americans approve of using drones (77 percent of liberals support drone use). And, 65 percent support drone use when the targets are US citizens (55 percent of liberals approve of targeting US citizens).
Asked what my immediate reaction to the results was by Alyona Minkovski on RT’s “The Alyona Show” last night, I answered, “I think their revolting poll numbers, but I don’t think that they’re entirely surprising, given that back in July 2010 we had the ACLU warning the Obama Administration was in danger of establishing a new normal.” [See the top of this post for video of my interview appearance.]
Obama has prolonged an era where officials, who commit crimes, are shielded from accountability for engaging in warrantless wiretapping, torture, or rendition; state secrets are invoked to prevent transparency; detainees are denied habeas corpus; prisons like Guantanamo and Bagram (along with black prison sites that likely still exist) continue to hold detainees perhaps indefinitely; navy ships hold prisoners that can no longer be sent to Guantanamo because there will be public outrage; the right to target and kill U.S. civilians and bypass due process is asserted; and military commissions or “kangaroo courts” force detainees into Kafkaesque proceedings that make it nearly impossible to not be found guilty.
Worse, in the years since the ACLU warned of a “new normal” being established, President Obama has made legitimate the killing of “terror suspects,” including US citizens, without charge or trial by drones. He has presided over a revolution in military affairs, where Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) each keep a “kill list” of targets to be extra-judicially assassinated.
He also allowed Congress a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that codifies into US law a provision that grants the military the power to indefinitely detain US citizens without charge or trial for whatever reason the government may want to detain a citizen indefinitely. Essentially, what happened to Jose Padilla, a Latino Muslim who was held without charge in complete isolation for three and a half years in a military brig, is now much more legitimate.
Politically and culturally, policies which should be abhorrent to anyone claiming to support the rule of law instead have proper justification to a majority of Americans, including liberals. They subscribe to the fear that there are people from a “far reaching network of violence and hatred,” as Obama said in his inaugural address, that pose “threats” to America. Liberals are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt that they would never have given Bush because he is not seen as a dumb cowboy and they don’t find terrorism to be an “overblown” issue. But, that only partly explains the results.
Glenn Greenwald, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of liberals’ embrace of policies that undermine civil liberties, noted how the results reinforced what he has been warning against all along: how Obama has been able to transform some of the most “right-wing” policies of Bush Administration into policies with broad bipartisan consensus and support.
When one of the two major parties supports a certain policy and the other party pretends to oppose it — as happened with these radical War on Terror policies during the Bush years — then public opinion is divisive on the question, sharply split. But once the policy becomes the hallmark of both political parties, then public opinion becomes robust in support of it. That’s because people assume that if both political parties support a certain policy that it must be wise, and because policies that enjoy the status of bipartisan consensus are removed from the realm of mainstream challenge. That’s what Barack Obama has done to these Bush/Cheney policies: he has, as Jack Goldsmith predicted he would back in 2009, shielded and entrenched them as standard U.S. policy for at least a generation, and (by leading his supporters to embrace these policies as their own) has done so with far more success than any GOP President ever could have dreamed of achieving. [emphasis added]
The salient point here is that President Barack Obama has made it much harder for people concerned with civil liberties to argue against inhumane and repressive “war on terror” policies. His unwillingness to be a transformative leader, which has led to the Guantanamo Bay prison remaining open (including allowing interrogations involving prolonged isolation and sleep deprivation continue), the development of an apparatus for lawlessly launching drone strikes, along with his administration’s “war on whistleblowing”—That all makes it much harder for left-leaning people with moral fortitude and courage to argue against these policies.
However, there should be no misconceptions. Liberals may not really be supportive of keeping Guantanamo open or that they do not support holding Bush Administration officials accountable for torture (which I realize wasn’t even a poll question) because they think either should continue in a democratic and free society. They may be showing support because they are weak and timid. They probably do not see Obama as someone capable of closing Guantanamo or prosecuting officials that committed war crimes so it becomes difficult for them to advocate for these moral (and legal) objectives.
The absence of true opposition to these policies from those in the Democratic Party leads liberals, who were opposed under Bush, to slowly become acceptable with it because they convince themselves Obama is trying his hardest and would do more if Republicans were not so obstructive. This explains why support for Guantanamo Bay is higher than it was under Bush in 2003. (Of course, that presumes that Obama ever put his Administration in a politically untenable situation that ultimately led him to have to cave because there was absolutely no way to close the prison or prosecute Bush Administration officials.)
Bipartisan consensus is further entrenched, but it is further entrenched because of the gutless political mindset, which many liberals operate under. They may not necessarily support all of the policies, which those concerned with civil liberties condemn, but they appear to support them because they are focused on expediency—what agenda items can be advanced in the rotten political environment in Washington, DC.
The two-party system in America plays a key role. When neither a Democratic or Republican candidate is taking up certain issues because they have bipartisan consensus, liberals do not have the fortitude to push them into debates. When the incumbent candidate refuses to open up conversation on important issues, liberals are hesitant to run primary challengers that will put the issues on the table. Do not even broach the subject of supporting third party candidates during elections so that pressure can be put on politicians. They will lash out at you in such a way that you might think you just betrayed a military oath.
This is why it was appropriate for the Advocacy Center for Equality & Democracy to rhetorically pose these questions yesterday:
As a citizen and a voter in our democracy, is your role to blindly follow your leader, or to use your political power (your vote) to promote and protect your values? Are your values your own, or do you let your political party define them for you?
Too many liberals let what political leaders think is impossible set the boundaries for the values or principles they routinely promote in conversations with others on social media, comments threads and, more generally, the Internet.
This is why civil liberties are scarcely ever a primary issue for liberals. This is why it is appropriate for Chris Hedges to conclude in his book, Death of the Liberal Class, “Liberals who say they are the champions of basic civil liberties do not challenge politicians who take those civil liberties from them.” This is also why the late American sociologist C. Wright Mills’ words, which he wrote in The Power Elite, still carry resonance today:
It is much safer to celebrate civil liberties than to defend them; it is much safer to defend them as a formal right than to use them in a politically effective way…It is easier still to defend someone else’s right to have used them years ago than to have something yourself to say now and to say it now forcibly.
All of which suggests that the biggest take away from the poll results is confirmation or affirmation that these liberals will not be on the vanguard of any push to restore civil liberties. They will wait in the wings until others have shown great moral courage and made great sacrifice. They will let marginalized communities fight these battles on their own, sometimes paying them lip service. Then, when it becomes fashionable to speak out, they will offer some semblance of a defense of civil liberties—at least, until another political figurehead comes along to tamp down their concern.
I suppose the results may also partially explain why liberals would be so incensed about the war on reproductive rights for women and persisting policies of racial injustice in America. I suppose that is why they are able to vociferously fight for LGBT rights for people. Those current battles are tied to struggles that began decades ago. The struggle to defend habeas corpus, oppose torture, halt pervasive surveillance and stop drone use really are 21st Century struggles. They are fights against gross injustices that have proliferated since billowing clouds of ash blew through the streets of New York on 9/11. And, these injustices may have been problems for communities, like Muslims, under President Bill Clinton, but they became more intense after politicians began to exploit the visceral imagery of airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers.