Thursday, December 31, 2009

In Retrospect, Were We Paranoid about Bush?

I planned this post even before the Underpants Bomber struck, but that attack makes the matter all the more timely.

In light of "death panels" talk and all the hysterical, frenzied paranoia about Obama, and in light of the recent spate of terrorist plots, one of which came uncomfortably close to fruition, and with the perspective of distance, were we paranoid about George Bush? Was our side just as guilty then as the Teabaggers are today? To what extend did we exaggerate the threat he posed to freedom? To what extent were his actions reasonable policy disputes, or necessary responses to terrorism? And to what extent is the Obama Administration the same as its predecessor?

I'll start with the obvious. There were, in fact, some paranoid Bush haters. The Truthers were the most extreme example, followed by people who thought he wanted to cancel the 2008 election and proclaim himself President for Life. Also on the list of obviously paranoid were people who were sure Diebold voting machines were rigged to make a Democratic victory impossible, people who thought he would start detaining political opponents, and people who thought opponents would be shipped off to GTMO.

But there were other, more reasonable fears that people had, some confirmed, some refuted, and some still uncertain. One fear I confess to having that was proven false was the fear that he would treat a Republican victory in the 2008 election as a matter of national security and resort to Nixonian dirty tricks. Didn't happen. Another was the fear that he would pardon everyone in his Administration before leaving office. That didn't happen either, probably because he had assurances from Obama that there would be no prosecutions. (Could such assurances have something to do with why he did not resort to dirty tricks in the election? Or am I just being paranoid again?)

I divide the concerns of Bush opponents into several categories, and analyze them, as opponents saw them at the time, in hindsight, and in comparison with the Obama Administration.

Fear mongering and warmongering. It's really hard to know to what extent the Bush Administration saw itself as doing what was necessary for the protection of the American people, and to what extent it merely exploited fears for partisan advantage. Certainly scheduling a vote on the invasion of Iraq for right before the 2002 Congressional election -- and demonizing Democrats for any hesitation sounds a lot like exploiting fears for partisan advantage. Tom Ridge has more or less admitted that the Administration manipulated alert levels for partisan advantage. And I see no reason to doubt either that the Administration manipulated intelligence to justify the Iraq War, or that it scheduled the vote before elections as a means of political pressure. And not only Bush, but Republicans in general have been using fear of terrorism (and fear in general) as their favorite technique to win elections and continue to do so to this day. Obama, by contrast, does not fear monger, but he does a lot manipulating behind the scenes to get his way. [Hope to find link later]. Pick your poison.

Treating the federal government as a patronage organization. This is one of those areas where we have a lot of suspicions, but no proof. There is some evidence when going into the 2006, running scared and facing major losses, the Bush Administration used, or attempted to use, a variety of federal agencies as patronage organizations to advance Republican prospects. There is also evidence that US Attorney David Iglesias was fired for declining to use his office to advance Republican electoral fortunes. However, the reasons for the other US Attorney firings remains unclear, as does the extent to which the federal government in general, and the Justice Department in particular, was corrupted to serve as a patronage organization. File this under undetermined. As for the Obama Administration, I do not know if they want to stoop to such measures. But given Republicans' intense opposition and eagerness to jump on them for any misstep, it seems safe to assume that it would not be able to get away with it. Partisan divisiveness has its advantages.

Indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, and torture. Bush critics were absolutely right to condemn these. We may, however, have made a mistake in how we attacked them. Criticizing this as a civil rights or constitutional issue allowed the retort that civil rights and constitutional rights do not apply to non-citizens outside the United States. Legally, this is accurate. Treating this as a matter of civil rights and constitutional liberty also creates the impression that US citizens tremble in fear of GTMO and torture, which Bush supporters could indignantly (and correctly) deny. Quite correctly, they could point out that the right of ordinary Americans to due process of law was not in danger, that Bush never committed any civil liberties violations comparable to, say, Woodrow Wilson's Palmer Raids in WWI, the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, or COINTELPRO during the Cold War. All of this was true, and to the extent Bush opponents claimed otherwise, they could fairly be accused of paranoia.*

But these policies, nonetheless, fully deserved our condemnation, even though they posed no domestic danger. The proper criticism was not that these violated civil or constitutional rights, but that they violated universal human rights. It was pure paranoia to suggest that US citizens were in danger of losing their freedom to such methods, or to fear monger about them. But it was entirely appropriate to point out that the Bush Administration's use of torture (and torture-lite), its lack of regard for innocence or guilt, and its absurdly rigged procedures for determining detention were, indeed, the stuff of dictators, and to be angry about it. There is an old jibe that a liberal is someone whose immediate interests are not at stake. Let's turn that insult into a boast that a liberal is someone whose immediate interests are not at stake who cares anyhow.

These are policies the Obama Administrations appears fully committed to ending. It also appears fully committed to covering up the crimes of its predecessor. This is certainly unfortunate, as learning more about the crimes of the Bush Administration, particularly against innocent people, might finally convince many people that they were actual crimes. But given the degree of Republican obstructionism, the hysteria they are whipping up, and the lack of political upside to protecting Scary Brown People, I thing he does deserve some credit here.

Executive powers. One of the most alarming things about the Bush Administration was its insistence, in effect, that the President was exempt from all laws, so long as he said "national security" first. Whenever Bush considered any law unduly restrictive of his power, he simply said, "national security" and broke it. Congress, confronted with his actions, invariably retrospectively legalized them. Once he got what he wanted, Bush backed off of his more extreme claims to be exempt from laws. Unsurprisingly, Obama, having been given so much power by Congress, shows no inclination to give it back.

Some people, like "Anonymous Liberal" argue that this is a significant improvement over Bush-era lawlessness. As s/he puts it, "What was once illegal is now legal. So what we're now debating are proposals to change or amend existing law to make it better. We're working within the democratic framework to try to effect policy change, which is how things are supposed to work. Three years ago we were debating whether the law even had to be followed." I find this argument unconvincing. What the Bush Administration has proven is that if the President breaks the law, Congress, instead of reigning him in, will change the law to validate his actions. A more dangerous or subversive position is hard to imagine.

Data mining. Although the Bush detention and torture policies are better described as human rights than civil rights issues, many of his policies raised legitimate civil rights concerns. These included his warrantless surveillance, national security letters, searches for patterns in phone calls and e-mails, tip hotlines, terrorism watch list, no-fly list, Total Information Awareness, and so forth. Though they diverge in detail, all of these policies fit under the broad rubric of data mining. It is these policies that the Obama Administration gives every sign of intending to keep in unmodified form.
Because these are the Bush era policies that pose the greatest civil liberties (as opposed to human rights) concern, because they are the ones that Obama appears to have adopted lock, stock and barrel, because so little is known about them so far, and because they are the policies most likely to be stepped up in the wake of the latest terrorist attack, these policies deserve a post of their own. Coming up.
*There do, however, appear to have been some CONINTEPRO-like activities on the state level, at least in Maryland.

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Blogger Roger Moore said...

Treating this as a matter of civil rights and constitutional liberty also creates the impression that US citizens tremble in fear of GTMO and torture, which Bush supporters could indignantly (and correctly) deny.

How about Vincente Padilla? He was an American citizen arrested in the United States, but the Bush administration claimed that they could treat him exactly like somebody captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan just by designating him an enemy combatant. He wound up being detained without charges and tortured. It's hard to see that as anything but an attack on the Bill of Rights.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...

The Bush Administration's treatment of Jose Padilla (a citizen), or of Saleh Ali al-Marri (a legal resident) deserves our strongest condemnation as contrary to the Bill of Rights. But it's still a far cry from a danger to the general public.

12:31 PM  

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