Tag Archives: obama administration

In the aftermath

Trigger warning: terrorism, abortion, sexism, war, racism, police violence, violence against protesters

In the past couple of months, almost every region in the world has been rocked by a shocking and violent event. When writing about those, it feels like an easy trap to fall into where almost all coverage is about the immediate happenings, and the wake they have left behind is swept under the rug. Here’s a Friday Let-Me-Link-You rundown of some shocking and interesting observations that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

Making abortion a visible part of life

Following the Black Friday shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, many have asked how that might affect the public discussions on abortion and the on-going debates about various new restrictions on access to abortion and other reproductive health services. On Tuesday’s episode of Podcast for America, Rebecca Traister appeared as a guest, and highlighted recent and more long term coverage she has done on how the changing types of participants in public office has begun to alter the way these medical procedures are talked about.

At its core, she noted that not only are more (cisgender) women in prominent political positions, but that they are increasingly women of color and women from more difficult economic backgrounds. Able to raise their personal experiences in debates, they have helped transform abortion in public consciousness from a “dirty” thing “those people” do into a messy thing that many do.

Assad: the greatest threat in Syria?

Just as that shooting in Colorado has brought abortion rights and anti-abortion violence to the fore in the US, the attacks in Paris reignited predominantly Western interests in resolving Syria, as a hypothetical means of preventing further attacks in their part of the world. In light of that, President Obama’s staunchly anti-Assad policy has come under criticism, with a number of political powers all but declaring that they prefer Assad’s dictatorial regime to the violent start-up of Da’esh.

An image put together by the anti-Da’esh and anti-Assad Syria Campaign and shared on Facebook this week by the German activist group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS) clarifies that anti-Assad policies’ roots. As it shows, a vast majority of deaths in Syria have been from Assad’s forces:

deaths assad daesh(From here.)

Like many Obama administration policies, there is a very logical political and moral calculus behind the choice. In this case, all lost lives – Syrian and Western – are understood as tragic, and when tallied up it’s recognized that one of the greatest threats to life in general isn’t necessarily the flashiest or even the ones terrorists deliberately designed to shock.

South Africa Internet Availability: closing the floodgates

Meanwhile, international and local media in South Africa continue to pick apart what exactly happened at an October student protest in Cape Town that caught a lot of attention for its White participants’ attempt to shield protesters of color from the police. The underlying motivations behind the protest highlight familiar problems in higher education throughout the world – that tuition hikes are particularly affecting the poor and Black and particularly poor and Black, that the children of non-academic university staff are no longer guaranteed certain tuition benefits reinforcing class inequalities, and that the campus and curriculum valorize a colonial past.

That said, the history of Apartheid weighs heavily, and gravely concerns the many protesters who were born after the overtly legally-sanctioned racial hierarchy in South Africa was dismantled.

The Washington Post noted recently that this student protest was particularly innovative for South Africa in how it used modern social media to create discussion spaces, organize, and articulate activist goals. More than simply an importation of a global protest model, that also showed a reversal in terms of which parts of South African society could most easily use an online medium in political activity:

Social media has been a growing influence in South African politics for a while: think of how former opposition party leader Helen Zille (of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, or DA) has become known for tweeting from the hip, and landed her in trouble for unguarded remarks. Zille’s twitter dominance of course reflected racial disparities (then still largely skewed to the small white minority) in Internet access and use in South Africa. Not for long, though. Zille and the DA were gradually deposed by the Economic Freedom Front’s (EFF) Twitter smarts (especially that of its young MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and its leader Julius Malema) and what passes for#BlackTwitter in South Africa.

The government of South Africa appears to be rallying against these changes, according to an assessment of proposed legal changes published by Access Now earlier this week. The increasingly diverse twitter landscape in South Africa has motivated the creation of a “a series of new crimes for unlawful activity online” which just on the heels of this major protest would “pose a risk to freedom of expression”.

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The threat of the executive order

If you’re on the Howard Dean-affiliated Democracy for American email list, you’ve probably already seen this image, which they sent out seemingly yesterday to their thousands (if not million plus) of subscribers:

(Literally anything?)

Huh. Now if that isn’t a symbol for our times. Not in that executive orders are more common (they aren’t), but that they’ve become necessary for basic political functions. In the 1980s and 1990s (and even the often called dysfunctional Bush years), the United States paid its bills, kept the lights on, and even updated the image of who was working and living in the United States. The legislature had it’s moments of inane or counter-productive behavior (Clinton’s impeachment seems like it shouldn’t be forgotten), but on the hold, governance was shared between a presidency, a congress, a high court, and numerous other functional elements to a political system.

That no longer exists. The threat of a executive order has been one of the sticks shown off in attempt to force congressional action on the debt ceiling, and similar attempts have now been made with regards to policy on indefinite detention, immigration, and now even the minimum wage. In a twisted way, the president has come to rely on (among other persuasion techniques) threatening to do everything himself in order to goad Republicans in Congress into action, which unfortunately only convinces them to dig in their feet harder (the better to oppose his “radical” policies!).

We’ve lost any semblance of a consensus that we as a country are viable in our current form, mostly because of rising conservative alternative theories. The resurfacing popularity among many Republicans of establishing a golden standard, of dismantling the Federal Reserve, of reversing Civil Rights victories, of overturning Roe, and of letting the US default on its debts and watch its federally-insurance banks go belly up in order to cleanse the economic system do not exist in isolation from each other. They tell a story of a long-negotiated political consensus about how the US economy and political system can and should be set up suddenly finding itself under attack in innumerable ways. It is likewise not an accident that secession is suddenly on the table again.

Within the context, it’s not just a useful threat to say that the President will keep those previously agreed-upon systems running. It’s also comforting to the people who would be protected by them. And it becomes unfortunately necessary to note that, comforting or not, executive orders have largely remained an overly polite bully pulpit for Obama, rather than an actual tool used to maintain (or even broaden) basic equalities and freedoms. Detainees are still waiting for their freedom in Guantánamo. Employees of anyone other than government contractors are still waiting for a raise. And the debt ceiling fight is threatening to come back again.

Systems are self-reinforcing, but only to a point. After a while, they need more than just a gentle nudge to keep them going. They need to be invested in and supported. How much longer will “good enough” be good enough?

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State of the Union 2014

As usual, please follow along with my comments on twitter to President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, at 9 pm Eastern / 6 pm Pacific.

There’s been a few hints as to what we can expect tonight, but the most solid are coming from the think tank Demos, which released this informational graphic today (warning it’s large):

Continue reading

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Presidential paradox

TW: indefinite detention, Guantánamo

One of the newer filings from a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Ahmed Adnan Ajam, is honestly quite fascinating, and I recommend reading the Lawfare post about it, even if it’s quite brief.

Personally, I found it particularly enlightening as to the paradox the Obama administration has had to govern through. Elected in part to repair the extensive damage created by the Bush administration, we all expect him to use his presidential powers in something like a sweeping way, considering the widespread problems Bush left behind. That said, allowing the presidency’s powers to expand in the course of that would be to ignore the mechanics of what went wrong during the Bush years. Considering the since-2010 gerrymandered House of Representatives and catastrophically dysfunctional Senate, Obama has needed to, in isolation, stretch the limits of his office in order to shrink the limits of his office. Yeah, it strikes me as an oxymoron too.

(A comparison of Guantánamo detainees suggests that none of them are ever leaving the detention center, from here.)

The greatest disappointment of his governance, I’d have to say, is how he’s negotiated those odd, dual constraints. It’s easy and common to say that Obama is merely an extension of Bush, given his expansion of the drone strikes and continuation of mass surveillance systems, but I think that misses how complex the problem is. His administration appears to be hoping for detainees in Guantánamo to essentially sue Congress on their behalf. He’s fitting both of those oppositional standards, but not in unison on any given issue. His administration seems to have a talent at limiting its powers where the costs of that are high and failing to hold itself back when the impacts are quite large.

That seems to be how repairing Bush’s impact has failed – in that Obama has either overstepped or failed to lift a finger.

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Even if inflation were such a problem…

Brad Delong has put together an excellent summary of the recent economics spat between the now Fox-affiliated pundit Erick Erickson and actual economist Paul Krugman, who lays out a pretty undeniable case that inflation has not been a problem that impacts average people in the United States. After all, there’s charts like this:

(Originally from here.)

But those reveal that inflation, or failing that price instability, was a phenomenon for those basic commodities somewhat recently during the 2007-2008 economic crisis. That said, it’s important to locate the important events of that crisis in time, and specifically as beginning under the Bush administration and has at least begun to be resolved under the Obama administration. Recalling the most memorable moments of that crisis, we can see how much they track to the beginning and end of the period of price instability for basic foods:

(The above image with modifications. The red line coincides with the bursting of the US housing bubble, the first obvious indication of the crisis. The green marks the beginning of the associated stock market crash, when the crunch was at its worst. The blue line indicates peak unemployment, after which the average person’s purchasing power at least stopped decreasing.)

There is, of course, a problem here as both of these staples have maintained their high prices in spite of sluggish improvement on unemployment and decades of stagnant wages. There are economic problems within which inflation (or rather, price instability) plays a clear role, but it’s important to remember the causes of that, which seem inseparable from Republican-led banking deregulation and the Bush era’s unbelievable mismanagement. The assignment of these problems to the Obama administration that Erickson recently took part in relies on both inaccurately understanding the nature of the problem but also fudging the context of the problem in a way that obscures solutions to the actual problems.

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The center of the universe

I’ve mostly steered clear of the most recent NSA scandal, not because the issue is unimportant but because so much of the situation remains unclear. More information has started trickling out, however, namely in the form of a recent interview of the source of the leaked information, Edward Snowden, by The Guardian. Unfortunately, the whole of his answers taken together are a bit of puzzler about what his understanding of the situation itself is.

parody map of how the United States views the world with major areas of the world stereotyped to communists, terrorists, kangaroos or similar nonsense
(A pertinent joke about perceptions of the world by US citizens, from here.)

When asked about the important lessons to be learned from his leak, Snowden explained that US intelligence agencies “collect more digital communications from America than we do from the Russians”, implying that part of his moral dilemma with alleged actions by the US government rests with a violation of constitutional, not human rights. This taps into a long history of conservative arguments against the security policies of the Obama administration, which often amounts to not so much disliking their actions as much as worrying that they might be carried out against US citizens.

That said, in response to the question presented as immediately following that, Snowden made clear that his claims deflate the Obama administration’s self-presentation as a unique government that respects online privacy, when in fact “we are in almost every country in the world” electronically speaking, including those we are not at war with (and even sometimes politically allied with). The point he makes, however, seems less focused on our violation of other citizens rights, so much as how this reflects on Obama and his administration.

It’s interesting to see even some of the most dramatic allegations against the Obama-era security apparatus even when published in media based outside of the US, the most pressing concerns are centered around the rights and respected owed to US citizens. The outrage seems to be rooted in the surprise of finding US residents more vulnerable to surveillance that residents of some other countries (many are actually much more likely to have significant data collected on them, Snowden neglected to mention). Likewise, when the international implications are raised, it’s an outcry against the hypocrisy of the Obama administration, not the alleged violations against various people around the world with little or no legal recourse.

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Freedom and Force of Will

TW: war on terror, indefinite detention, indefinite warfare

If you haven’t already, you should peruse over the President’s speech on Thursday, which contained this interesting tidbit after being interrupted by a woman in the audience who wanted him to consider not only releasing the detainees in Guantánamo but provide restitution to them as well for their years lost:

I think that — and I’m going off script, as you might expect here. The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said.  But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.

When that judge sentenced Mr. Reid, the shoe bomber, he went on to point to the American flag that flew in the courtroom.  “That flag,” he said, “will fly there long after this is all forgotten.  That flag still stands for freedom.”

So, America, we’ve faced down dangers far greater than al Qaeda.  By staying true to the values of our founding, and by using our constitutional compass, we have overcome slavery and Civil War and fascism and communism.  In just these last few years as President, I’ve watched the American people bounce back from painful recession, mass shootings, natural disasters like the recent tornados that devastated Oklahoma.  These events were heartbreaking; they shook our communities to the core.  But because of the resilience of the American people, these events could not come close to breaking us.

He elaborated on this point about resiliency before concluding:

Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground.  Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street; a citizen shouting her concerns at a President.

The quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear — that is both our sword and our shield.  And long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world’s memory, alongside the brutal despots, and deranged madmen, and ruthless demagogues who litter history  — the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad.  And that flag will still stand for freedom.

Now, as Obama suggested, it’s not clear where the “off the cuff” remark ends and the rehearsed speech begins again, but he smoothly transitioned back into clearly something larger which he was more prepared for. What he came to deliver was at least in part that message: freedom is expressed through survival. In essence, he wholeheartedly believes that the goals of his government should be to protect immigration, recreation, commerce, and free speech, but that he considers those to be best promoted through this war, which he suggested would last at least another decade.

(Now why does this sound familiar? From here.)

Even quoting Orwell here feels a touch out of place. Obama didn’t actually say the word “peace” but rather framed the issue as basic survival against natural phenomena – terrorism has apparently no more social cause than a tornado. Likewise, survival is not discussed as a “peace” but as tenacity, daring, or even strength. The Obama Administration is often discussed as being quite technocratic, so it makes sense that ignorance would be out, but to then pair strength and war together is to miss the point of the Orwellian exercise. Peace, he hoped, would sell better than either of those two. It’s up to us now to decide if Orwell was right about that.

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Too much death

TW: drone strikes, islamophobia

Let’s talk about drone strikes for a minute. For personal reasons, this is going to be a comparatively brief post. It’s important to note, in any case, that the US Senate is conducting hearings on the drone policies of the (Bush and) Obama administration, which included testimony by a man born and initially raised in a Yemeni village which was struck by a US drone. His testimony is poignant and impacting, so I urge you to give Farea al-Muslimi a listen:

But I think one important thing is to examine how his argument is understood in a wider context. The article that I initially came across which discussed his testimony worryingly focuses on the section where al-Muslimi explained, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.” Naturally enough, that’s the pull quote for a blog focused on the plight of Julian Assange, rather than Private Manning.

It’s important to note that al-Mulimi also explained, “My village was struck by an American drone in an attack that terrified the region’s poorest farmers” and so they now experience “terror [which] they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time.” Does the invalidity of the use of drones rest on its ineffectiveness or on its inhumanity?

(The aftermath of a drone strike in Yemen in September 2012, from here. The Yemeni government claims 13 civilians were killed, while the US government claims it was instead six islamist militants.)

Maybe it’s not enough to view the drone strikes as bad, but instead to criticize the underlying assumptions behind them, with regard to the worth and dignity of the lives of Muslims?

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Is Obama the next Thatcher?

TW: Apartheid South Africa, Pinochet-era Chile, class inequality

Throughout today I’ve been preemptively greeting people with facts about the United Kingdom’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to stave off any eulogizing or other fond memories of her. For instance, did you know she called the African National Congress (the popular movement that eventually toppled the Apartheid government of South Africa) a “typical terrorist organization“? Because after all, the brutally colonial governance of an indigenous population by somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the whole population is such a noble political situation. And maintaining it was key in the battle against communism. Likewise, concerning renowned Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Thatcher explained her support for his regime on the basis that he was “bringing democracy to Chile“. As we all know, nothing says democracy like a coup that killed thousands and forces thousands more the flee the country in terror. But at least the democratically-elected socialist wasn’t in charge of a country in another hemisphere entirely from Britain.

(There’s a reason these sorts of events have been popular for years. From here.)

It’s common for critics to compare her with her US contemporary, former President Ronald Reagan, but I think another comparison might be called for today: that of her and current President Barack Obama. Both of them cracked a glass ceiling, but seem dishearteningly to more represent a new spirit of inclusion and openness than actually embody it. For the past few months, the unemployment rate among Black Americans has averaged twice what it is among White Americans. Obama’s governance doesn’t seem to have made any significant dent in racist hiring and firing practices within the United States. While many major media outlets were narrowly focused on the risk of US-supplied weapons ending up in islamists’ hands, they overlooked the meaning behind that – the Obama administration had continued to supply weapons to undemocratic regimes throughout the Arab world even as the Arab Spring mounted and anti-protester violence grew more endemic.

Most recently, Obama has put forward a plan to switch from standard to “chained” inflation adjustments for social security and similar government assistance programs’ payouts. That this comes now, after years of slowing wage increases mere symbolizes how tidily Obama’s governance has fit into many larger economic trends in the US. He hasn’t been disruptive, but rather a great facilitator… of the same underlying principles in US politics that had been unquestionable to the point of invisibility.

I wonder if we’ll remember Obama the way many Brits are remembering Thatcher today: as being remarkable merely as a symbol that their group could occasionally have access to controlling a destructive political system. Will both be remembered as history’s tokens?

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But why a talking filibuster?

TW: drone strikes

This week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) engaged in the first talking filibuster in quite a long time over the nomination of John Brennan to CIA director (from his current position as Counter-Terrorism Adviser). Quite a few people have raised serious issues in response to yesterday’s events – one important thing to call attention to here is that Paul is showboating on the issue rather than shaping policy.

What precipitated this all was a simply letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Rand Paul who wanted to know what the Obama Administration considered to be the legality of a very specific time of drone warfare: against US citizens in the United States. Holder’s response is complex if brief – while he essentially claimed the President only had that power in emergencies (why is that argument so familiar?), it still prompted quite a bit shock from both more liberal and conservative voices in the US. In reply to that explanation, Paul filibustered, in an unusually public way, the nomination of John Brennan.

The problem with that response is that it’s not actually tailored to Brennan’s actual statements on the issue. While he is enthusiastically supportive of the US’s right to incorporate drone warfare into the larger war on terror and assorted invasions and occupations that has entailed, he’s also explicitly said that it should be understood as part of the military’s arsenal, not the intelligence community’s. He’s called for transparency. His departure from the Bush administration actually heralded the expansion of the drone program. In short, if he were installed in the position he’s been nominated to, he would reduce the CIA’s freedom to use of drone strikes. In a very real sense, blocking him from that position at best distracts from more substantive opposition to the secretive, CIA-driven use of drones that Paul has presented himself as focused on. At worst, it actually detracts from it.

In fact, this very public opposition to a specific potential use of drones says quite a bit about the form of Paul’s political approach. Unlike Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), he hasn’t been instrumental in actually challenging the policies that have permitted the secretive use of drones against people of varying nationalities in locations outside of the United States. Instead, he’s finding flaws in the Obama Administration’s wording with regards to strikes that they’ve essentially declared unacceptable.

Naturally enough, with the appearance of a second letter from Holder clarifying that no, seriously, drone strikes against US citizens in the US are exceptional circumstances that cannot be said to be part of the President’s explicit powers, and Paul has folded. His opposition was very vocal and very public, but it was also a flash in the pan.

(A visual depiction of senatorial filibusters from this exploration of the word’s etymology.)

What this wasn’t was a challenge to the core components of drone policy (primarily, that in its current form, it’s a legitimate use of violence against non-US-citizens). It wasn’t a demand for specific changes. It wasn’t an expansion of protections current afforded to US citizens in their own country, but a check that those privileges would be maintained. This wasn’t a revolutionary speech against power, but a speech making certain that a counterrevolution isn’t needed among conservatives.

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The advantage of waiting until Friday

TW: nativism, indefinite detention

Yes, the sequester is stupid nonsense that Congress not only accidentally inflicted on itself but the entirety of the United States, but that’s not the whole story. Over the past week, fear of the automatic cuts to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) budget have prompted that agency to release several hundred immigrants who would otherwise be detained indefinitely.

(Above is a photo taken during a raid of a home in Santa Ana, California. ICE is an organization that quite literally raids homes, which you can read about in more depth here.)

Likewise, if the sequester were to take place, Israel would receive less aid for security and military uses from the United States, which has contributed to the various human rights abuses that I mentioned yesterday. Of course, the sequester is mind-boggling in its capacity to devastate the US economy, in large part because it treats those cuts – to our nativist security forces and an undemocratic regime – as equivalent to the same proportions of the federal funding for education, transportation, and health services. There’s a bit of dark humor in that the party claiming to speak for morality provided a proposal for debt reduction that is willfully morally blind.

That being said, several hundred families are sleeping sounder tonight because of it. There’s a human benefit to waiting to the last minute to resolve it, and the results are momentarily enriching the lives of some of the most marginalized people in this country. The trick will be in preventing the other shoe from falling, which among other things will require the US Congress and President Obama to find the will to prevent the sequester from doing more harm than good.

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CAS won the case

If you’ve been following either changes in copyright enforcement in the US or internet slacktivism over the past few years, you’ve probably got a steady stew of acronyms already memorized. If you were early to the party you probably heard about COICA, and everyone heard about SOPA, and likewise PIPA is fairly well known, but I think there’s sadly been little awareness of the CAS, or Copyright Alert System which is now being effectively implemented by several major media companies this week. I say implemented by companies, because, even as the explanations of the policy by its proponents admit, the initial enforcement is to be carried out by copyright holders:

You heard that right, in terms of copyright enforcement the heavy lifting will still get done by the government (and consequently on their bill), but the detection of violations and the initial judicial process has been farmed out to media companies. I’m concerned about the impacts of that directly in terms of a potential witchhunt for violators getting out of hand, but more broadly, isn’t this effectively the government privatizing enforcement? We’ve seen the impacts of those sorts of policies in the past decades assorted crimes committed by (warning- sexual assault) military contractors and private prison industry.

You wouldn't steal a car - from the famous anti-piracy ads used a few years ago
(Like this advertisement campaign, CAS is presented as an educational campaign. Unlike those ads, it has the ability to punish those accused of piracy though. From here.)

If I need say more, there’s already an article over at Reason that admits that this system will undermine the presumption of innocence by requiring those accused of illegal file sharing on peer-to-peer networks to present evidence to avoid punitive measures (such as slowing or restricting their home internet access). Of course their in favor of it the system in any case, because when civil liberties and free markets compete, Reason seems to strongly favor the latter, but not without at least in this case admitting at least that major flaw in the system.

In any case, if you wish to express your distaste for this, the most I can do is recommend the current petition to the Obama administration on the policy. Even if this isn’t one the acronyms that you’ve heard of, it’s going to do almost precisely the same thing as the ones you’d recognize.

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Maddow nailed it

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you know I’m not going to avoid pointing out worrisome statements even from journalists or media personalities that I happen to think do some good for us all. That’s a rule for myself – not even Rachel Maddow is above criticism. But her piece from earlier this week on the discrepancy between the sort of questions asked of the Obama administration by average citizens and members of the media is pretty much flawless.

(Her piece comes after the White House Press Corps complaining about their lack of access to the President to question him over his meeting with former competitive golfer, Tiger Woods. Photo from here.)

Watch the whole thing – it’s a few seconds longer than five minutes, but it’s an incredible and even revolutionary point packed into there. In short, the average citizen doesn’t have the resources to do journalism, but we have to at least approximate it when actual journalists have transformed into stenographers and gossips.

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Obama and the office of the president

TW: indefinite detention, suspension of constitutional rights, violence against protesters

Today is President’s Day, which is a federal holiday in the US used to commemorate President Washington and President Lincoln, who are often recalled as the man who saved us from dictatorship twice over (from the UK and from himself) and the man who prevented the dissolution of the United States into smaller, weaker states during the Civil War. Though they might have done such remarkable feats which many residents of the US benefit from to this day, we often don’t like talking about what resources they had at their disposal to do so.

This, of course, is particularly noticeable today, on the day that we inevitably laud both of those prior presidents and inadvertently contrast our lofty depictions of them with the all too fallible reality the Obama administration has given us. Just a few days earlier, it was reported that those how have been indefinitely detained in Guantánamo in opposition to almost every major judicial policy laid out in the US constitution are now being subject to warrantless searches while in court. Sadly, there’s an argument to be made that warrants wouldn’t be necessary, since their jail cells were being searched, rather than their homes – nevermind that they’ve been forced to live in those cells for years now. The legal procedures are so broken, it’s hard to even sort out how many judicial norms are being broken at once.

(An unnamed Guantánamo detainee sleeps in his cell in 2008. Cells like this were targeted for searches while their usual occupants were at court hearings. Image from here.)

There’s little attention paid to how Washington personally led American troops in the successful putting down of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, which resulted in one protester being shot and another repeatedly stabbed. In a judicial decision both of those deaths were deemed accidental but that’s a difficult explanation to swallow, particularly in the case involving multiple stab wounds. It seems quite important to admit that the first presidency of the United States under our modern constitution was marred by agents of the state killing protesters with impunity.

Likewise, whether you ultimately swallow Lincoln’s argument that habeas corpus needed to be suspended since an insurrection was happening and many citizens of the United States were no longer operating as citizens of that country, you have to admit he suspended the right to a trial and the necessity for the state to have legal charges before detaining a person. Many of the same legal rights that have been broken time and again by the Bush and Obama administrations were outright erased from the legal system for a few years under Lincoln.

In short, the constitutional norms and legal precedents of the United States’ constitution have been uniquely damaged over the past thirteen years, but those violations are by no means a break from an otherwise smooth political history, particularly when the lives of Black Americans, women, and other systemically disenfranchised groups are considered. While it might seem topical to contrast the modern situation with what’s often imagined to have been the United States of  Lincoln’s and Washington’s time, there’s less of a contrast there than we might want to admit.

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Drones are cheaper – I mean, save lives

TW: drone strikes

Apparently I wasn’t the only one that noticed President Obama’s understated reference to drone strikes during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, as Professor Lisa Hajjar provided an excellent analysis of the issue over at Al Jazeera. There’s a number of different issues that she covers, but I think one of the cores of Hajjar’s argument is that while the security improvement for US soldiers is obvious, the ostensible reduction in civilian casualties is little more than hypothetical. She explains-

What distinguishes drones from other killing technologies employed in war is that drones are unmanned. For proponents of drone warfare, that is their greatest advantage. They also tout that drones are highly accurate, precision weapons capable of taking out targets and nothing else. That contention, while popular in the halls of power in Washington, manifests as the disputable claim that civilian casualties are rare.” (link and emphasis in original)

She’s written this as a direct retort to how the initial concern driving the switch to drone strikes is presented as reducing the risks to US personnel. She quotes Obama from Tuesday, who said, in the talking-about-drones-without-saying-drones section of the address:

We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

Part of the problem with that argument is the way it prioritizes the safety of US service members to the eclipsing of the safety of civilian non-combatants in the assorted countries whose skies the United States evidently now patrols. Hajjar excellently breaks apart that whole argument, and I recommend that anyone interested in the use and impact of drone strikes should read her analysis. That being said, that argument that this is for the troops, is honestly quite the distraction.

It’s been part of the conversation, but less obviously that drones are, from a certain economic perspective, much cheaper than the use of ground troops and other alternatives. The reasons for that are complex, from the fact that nation-wide occupation requires far more people to be involved (and hence, paid) to the almost nonexistent risk of US service members who pilot drones to become injured on the job compared with actual soldiers on the ground (and thus, the injured compensated in addition to the training and fielding of a replacement).

In fact, the Democrats have long touted the use of drones, since the Clinton era actually, because of that politically useful combination of benefiting service members while cutting costs. As far back as in his 2003 book, now Senator Al Franken defended Clinton’s military spending and policies, explaining, that his administration had “invested so heavily” in these new technologies which collectively could be “called Network Centric Warfare” and which Clinton “brought to fruition”. He treated that as (in addition to the end of the Cold War) the explanation for why the Clinton era had seen militaries with fewer high-cost military investments. Franken explained, that for a typical drone strike “take a look at how many tanks were involved: 0. Ships: 0.”

Franken went on to compare on the same page the purportedly “$100,000 each” missiles typically used during the first Gulf War with the missiles used by the Clinton administration as part of their new military strategy which were typically a fifth of that cost. The overall message was thrift, and any additional security for US troops as a result of using drones was pretty much incidental.

(A US drone that crashed in Djibouti before reaching the US base there, in 2011. Fortunately, no one was harmed by its crash into a vacant lot. From here.)

To his credit, Franken does mention the use of drones and related technologies as having benefited the troops, but in the context of having given them “a foundation in ‘stability support ops'”. He specifies that that means avoiding the worst impacts from paramilitary forces and similar combatants in asymmetrical warfare, but he doesn’t exactly explain the causality. Presumably, training in how to dispose of non-state combatants while in the Balkans proved useful to our troops who needed to dispose of non-state combatants in Afghanistan and later Iraq (and subsequently throughout the world). A decade ago, this technology was already impacting warfare, but no one felt the need to present it in terms of preventing casualties among our troops – instead it was merely efficient and cost effective.

The ramifications of drones in terms of our troops security seems to have been invisible until it started to be pointed out that it had a clear impact on the safety of civilian non-combatants throughout the world. Why could we only perceive of that ethical benefit only after the technology’s major ethical failings were made apparent?

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