Posts Tagged ‘rule of law’

The Rule of Law

March 21, 2010

Michele Bachmann and a group of fellow Republican lawmakers just gave a press conference.  It was about pro-life Dem. Rep. Bart Stupak’s decision to drop his abortion-oriented opposition to the health care bill.

Fine.  There was nothing in the reform bill that allowed any federal money to pay for abortions, and there never was.  But whatever.

But Bachmann, et al., couched their chastisement of Stupak as a defense of the rule of law.  How much they love the rule of law.  How necessary it is to our system.  The effing rule of law.  Specifically, the rule of law as opposed the rule of a man.  From people who couldn’t cheer loudly enough at every radical expansion of executive authority at the expense of the rule of law over the past 8 years, and continue to vigorously support that Bush-Cheney line on extreme executive authority, and the inability of any law to ever limit it.

I don’t know whether this is coming from their stupidity or their dishonesty, but whichever it is, it truly is bottomless.  They could, if any reporter had bothered to ask, have stood there and taken both positions in a single sentence without batting an eye.

I haven’t posted here in a long time, and I’m finding I don’t have the words for how angry this makes me, but I couldn’t just sit here and take it.  So.

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Dick Cheney: Still a Coward

August 31, 2009

When terrorists attacked this country in the first year of his co-presidency with Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney responded just the way they had hoped: he was terrified, he panicked, and he overreacted.  He’s been trying to defend his behavior ever since, upping the ante every time somebody asks him about it.

Why?  Because to admit he did anything wrong leads inevitably to admitting he overreacted because he panicked, and he panicked because he was scared sh*tless.  Since his whole persona (and apparently his self-esteem) is inoperably wrapped around a Tough Guy image like a tumor coiled around a lung, he can never admit to being frightened.  If he has to drag the country down with him to keep his [self-]image, he will; he’s that frightened of looking frightened.

The English language helpfully has a single word for all of that:  “coward,” which is what Cheney is.  The most craven kind of coward possible.  The vainglorious kind that blames others for his cowardice and shifts the consequences of it onto everyone around him, in hope of preserving some appearance of bravery.

There was a time when conservatives would’ve had the least possible patience for someone like Cheney.  But that kind of conservatism is gone.  In its place, we get . . . well, Dick Cheney.

There is no word for how contemptible he is.

Obama = Cheney

July 22, 2009

President Obama continues to be a crushing failure on open government and the rule of law — two issues he campaigned very hard on.

Yet he thinks he can just turn the netroots spigot on again when he needs it.  Did someone remove the man’s brain?  (Or maybe he’ll turn out to be right.  We’ll see.)

How Bush Affects Iran

June 25, 2009

There’s a lot of discussion these days about what the Obama administration will do if the current Iranian regime manages to stay in power by violently suppressing its people.  Will Obama continue to press for diplomatic talks on nuclear weapons?

Spencer Ackerman puts it thus:

Does the administration and its allies then try to link human rights obligations to any nuclear deal, knowing that the regime won’t accept that, and thereby jeopardizing the prospect of keeping Iran free of nuclear weapons? (And that’s presuming that, say, China and Russia will accept that, which they probably won’t.) Or does it hold to its top priority of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and implicitly grant the regime legitimacy? Right now, though, the administration’s construction at least buys it time to judge Iranian intentions — and decide whether a regime willing to so blatantly steal an election is really rational enough to hew to its international obligations.

Why should Iran “hew to its international obligations”?  We didn’t.  The Bush administration flagrantly violated the Geneva Conventions for several years, and continues to defend those violations.  The Obama administration is also violating our international treaty obligations by refusing to investigate those war crimes.

Is that an excuse for what Iran is doing?  Clearly not.  But it does leave us with little, if any, legitimacy to complain about Iran’s international compliance.

This is how high the price is when we act against the rule of law.

Bush 44

June 9, 2009

This strikes me as a good, succinct statement of the crushing failure Pres. Obama has been on rule of law and executive authority issues.*  It does leave out, however, the fact that Obama has apparently also reserved the “right” to have detainees tortured if he feels the need.

So basically, as some advocacy groups who met with him recently informed him, Obama is not noticeably better than Bush.  Word on the street is that Obama bristled when they said that, and said it was “unhelpful” to put him in the same category with Bush.

Sometimes the truth hurts, Mr. President.  If you don’t like it, the thing to do is change your behavior, not deny reality; you’re too much like Bush, as it is.

If, upon taking office, you’ve discovered that a virtually unchecked executive branch really is a necessity, come out and say so.  Make your case to congress to have the relevant laws written, repealed, or amended, and the necessary treaties withdrawn from.  Make your case to the American people to have the Constitution amended.

That’s what the rule of law means in a democracy.  You, just like your predecessor, don’t get to just make stuff up.  You don’t get to ignore the rules and you don’t get to change them on your own say-so.  You have to make your case to us and get our approval.

[* The guy making the statement isn’t trying to point out Obama’s failure on these issues.  He’s trying to point out that Bush was right all along.  He gets the facts right but the conclusion wrong.]

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for the Rest of Us

May 22, 2009

That was Pres. Clinton’s compromise on the issue of gays in the military.  Liberal principles say sexual orientation should be irrelevant to military service.  The Pentagon said the idea of poofters in the barracks gave them the heebie-jeebies.  So Clinton’s compromise was to continue the ban on gays in the military, but with the added directive, “Let’s just not talk about it, mmkay?”

Pres. Obama is repeating that story when it comes to Gitmo, torture, and a good many other aspects of Bush/Cheney cowardice: let’s continue their constitutionally outrageous policies, but just not talk about it.

As far as I can tell, Cheney was right in his speech today that Obama, despite having signed an order forbidding torture, also reserved the “right” to order it if he deems the situation sufficiently dire.  When pressed on the question after Cheney’s speech, Obama spokespeople studiously avoided answering it.  So basically Obama’s policy is: very publicly say we forbid torture, very quietly call backsies.

Pres. Obama, of course, has no such “right” to reserve.  Nor did Pres. Bush.  Nor does any president.  The very idea is constitutionally abhorrent.

Pres. Obama can’t even forbid torture.  He has no authority on the topic, whatsoever.  American law has pronounced on the subject.  That’s it.  End of story.  All any president can do is faithfully execute that law.

Unfortunately, having had one president both vociferously claim a right to torture, and vigorously exercise it, and having had multiple congresses lay down and show their belly in response, and now a second president, of the other party, claim exactly the same right, however quietly, that’s no longer true, because the constitutional restraints on the executive have been removed.

That’s how our system works.  We like to think the mere fact that there is a piece of paper called “The Constitution” means all that stuff in it is actually guaranteed.  It isn’t.  No less a constitutional scholar than James Madison knew this perfectly well and said so.  Rights and limits are guaranteed only so long and so far as they are actually observed, every single day and by every generation. The day a right or limit stops being actually observed is the day it ceases to exist, constitution or no constitution.

So when the constitutional limits on the executive are flouted and nobody does anything about it, those provisions of the constitution cease to exist.  Ben Franklin, asked by a Philadelphian what the convention had produced, famously answered, “A republic, if we can keep it.”

We can’t.  We didn’t.

Thanks first to Pres. Bush (and Cheney), and now to Pres. Obama, the president of the United States can snatch any person, including American citizens, off the streets, anywhere, anytime, imprison them indefinitely, in secret and without recourse, and torture them, and nobody can do a damn thing about it.

Such presidential behavior is no longer unconstitutional.  Our two major parties and all 3 branches of government have agreed to this arrangement.  Those provisions of the constitution that limited the power of the executive have been emended by mutual consent.  They’re vestigial organs.  Dead letters.  For you law students in the audience, dicta.

So if your name ever turns up on the wrong list by mistake, God help you.  Nobody else can.

The moment any president ever suspects you of something dangerous, you cease to have legal rights.  At all.  He or she can do anything s/he wants to you, short of killing you (for now, at least).  There are no limits on his or her power over you.  None.  You get no phone call, no presumption of innocence, and no lawyer, who would be superfluous, anyway, since you’ll never see the inside of any courtroom or get to present your side of the story to a jury of your peers or anybody else.  You’ll simply go away.  Silently.  Secretly.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying Pres. Obama or the president after him or the president after that is going to start disappearing people en masse.  I’m saying — presidents Bush and Obama are saying, the congress, and, with some notable exceptions, the courts are saying — any president could disappear as many people as s/he sees fit.  As the Framers understood, once such power exists, it’s just a matter of time before it is exercised; that’s why they did not give anybody that kind of power.

Besides, if you’re one of the unlucky ones who does get disappeared, the fact that it’s not happening en masse is going to be cold comfort.

But let’s not talk about it.  There.  You feel better already, right?

Update (5/22/09): TPM picks up on the same Obama dodge.

A Total Lack of Judgment

April 29, 2009

MSNBC made a big deal last night about NBC anchor Brian Williams breaking his rule against expressing opinions in order to vent his outrage at the Air Force One flyover of lower Manhattan.

I don’t watch Brian Williams, so I don’t know if he really does make a point of consistently refusing to express opinions.  Let’s assume he does.

The man evinces a total lack of judgment.

From 2003-2008, the president of the United States both claimed and exercised the authority to secretly imprison American citizens without charge or trial, forbid them access to an attorney, forbid them contact with their families, keep them indefinitely, and torture them.  Brian Williams didn’t think this was worth breaking his rule and expressing some outrage.

An airplane flies over lower Manhattan one afternoon, spooking locals, and Brian Williams flies into a righteous rage.

If the media want to know why people no longer watch their newscasts or buy the newspapers, they need look no further than this.  As journalists, they absolutely, positively suck.  They have lost all perspective on what’s an important, national story and what’s a small, local, but sensational one.

Should someone have told New Yorkers Air Force One would be flying low over Manhattan?  Yes.  Is the fact that they didn’t and it alarmed some local residents a national news story?  No, it plainly isn’t.  It has exactly zero effect on anybody outside New York City.  The event didn’t impact our lives, it has no ramifications beyond the specific time and place that it happened, and knowing about it doesn’t prepare us for anything or better inform us in any meaningful or relevant way.  Ladies and gentlemen of the press: outside New York, this is not news.  Not even remotely.

But NBC’s flagship news man not only considers it a vital national news story, he thinks it’s so important he’s willing to sacrifice his apparently much vaunted objectivity to express outrage about it.

When the president of the United States explicitly both claimed and exercised the authority to secretly imprison American citizens without charge or trial, forbid them access to an attorney, forbid them contact with their families, keep them indefinitely, and torture them, Brian Williams and Charles Gibson and Katie Couric barely reported it at all.

One of the seminal moments in the history of American journalism was when Walter Cronkite took a moment at the end of a newscast to express his personal opinion on something.  That something was the Vietnam War.

Another was when Edward R. Murrow decided to take a point of view on something.  That something was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s abuses of power.

Maybe Brian Williams expressing outrage about a plane flying over lower Manhattan one afternoon will become a seminal moment in the history of American journalism.  But if it does, it will be as exemplar, laid alongside his yawning at a president’s years-long claim to be utterly above the law, of why American journalism died.

Williams should send Michele Bachmann a thank you note.  Without her, he would be today’s Deep Stupid.

Like I was saying…

April 28, 2009

Apropos of two of my recent posts, a new Gallup poll finds 51% of Americans want the torture of detainees investigated, and 55% of Americans approve of the torture they’ve heard about so far.

So, like I was saying:

  1. The people who did it and now are trying to evade responsibility for it really don’t have much to fear from the American people knowing what they did.
  2. Investigating, even prosecuting, these people would not re-establish the rule of law in this country.

On the Other Hand

April 25, 2009

What good would it do to prosecute people for torture?

People like me favor it because we think it’s essential for the restoration of the rule of law.

But let’s say people are investigated, indicted, and even convicted of torture.  So what?  They will still be heroes to conservatives, and martyrs, besides.  The next Republican president will pardon them on the very first day of his (or Sarah’s) administration.  And on the second day, s/he will put some of them right back into government offices.

Am I just being pessimistic?  No.  Movement conservatism has a long track record on this.  This is what they do with their felons and shady characters.  See: Liddy, Gordon; Colson, Charles; North, Oliver; Libby, Scooter; Abrams, Elliot; Poindexter, John; Negroponte, John.  All of them used their government offices to break the law, but all of them did it in pursuit of conservative goals, so all is forgiven.  Liddy, Colson, and North are all heroes; Libby is a martyr, but he’ll become a full-fledged hero if he chooses to be.  Abrams, Poindexter, and Negroponte were put right back into office.  Abrams and Negroponte twice each.  (The Bush family just can’t quit them.)

Just as conservatism can never fail, only be failed, there is no such thing as a crime committed in pursuit of conservatism, only crimes committed in violation of it.

Conservative = right.  Right = legal.  Therefore, conservative = legal.

It doesn’t matter what the statutes say and you don’t need no steenking court ruling.  You just need the raw power to do it.  Legislatures and judges are irrelevant because laws are irrelevant.  Aside from a quadrennial “accountability moment,” democratic processes, votes, and voters are irrelevant.  There is only what’s right and the power to do it.

What’s conservative is what’s right.  Just do it.

As long as 30% of the American public and one of our 2 major political parties think that way, we don’t have the rule of law, regardless of what Obama does in this or any other case; we only have accountability moments.  The rule of law doesn’t work that way: if it doesn’t apply at all times and to all persons, it doesn’t exist at all.

So maybe Obama is smart not to invest his energy and political capital in temporarily restoring an illusion. A Bush insider famously bragged that they didn’t acknowledge the facts, they made the facts.  Maybe the thing for Obama to do, then,  is make as many progressive facts as possible, by any means possible, for as long as he can hang onto power.   There is no law, there is only power.  Use it while you’ve got it.

That’s the “on the other hand” to my argument for holding these people accountable under the law.  God bless America.

(Oh, and let me go ahead and make this prediction: if the GOP regains control of the House during his administration, Obama will be impeached.  Not convicted, but he will be impeached.)

Spooks On Strike

April 23, 2009

There’s been a fair bit of discussion in the news and blogosphere, lately, about President Obama’s need to thread the needle on the torture issue.  On the one hand, there are the demands of the rule of law and of an open society.  On the other hand, he can’t afford to make the CIA mad at him.

I don’t get it.

Point the First

If the CIA’s morale depends on being able to do this kind of stuff without consequences, the proper presidential response isn’t to continue letting them do this stuff or shielding them from the consequences.  The proper presidential response is to clean house at Langley, because we’ve apparently got a lot of sociopaths and small children working there.

Point the Second

If, as it seems, some in the CIA are actually issuing grumbled threats to the White House that if agents who tortured prisoners are investigated, they (the grumbly CIA) will resent it and therefore stop doing their jobs well (or, you know, not start doing their jobs well), the proper presidential response is to clean house at Langley.  Your chief intelligence agency is not the place you want a bunch of people who put personal pique above duty and country.

I keep hearing CIA agents described as heroes.  Been hearing it ever since 9/11.  They sure don’t sound like heroes.  Heroes don’t sit by and let their country be damaged because they don’t like a policy.  A hero does one of two things: sucks it up and keeps doing his job, or turns in his resignation.  To do neither — to just resign in place — is not heroic.  It’s cowardice.

Point the Third, Being Partially Repetitive of Point the Second

If, as it seems, some in the CIA are actually issuing grumbled threats to the White House that if agents who tortured prisoners are investigated, they (the grumbly CIA) will resent it and therefore stop doing their jobs well (or, you know, not start doing their jobs well), the proper presidential response is to clean house at Langley.  The CIA does not issue threats to the president.  The CIA has long had far too much independence, setting and executing its own policy.  It’s gone to their heads.

Point the Fourth, Being Partially Repetitive of Points the Second and Third

If, as it seems, some in the CIA are actually issuing grumbled threats to the White House that if agents who tortured prisoners are investigated, they (the grumbly CIA) will resent it and therefore stop doing their jobs well (or, you know, not start doing their jobs well), the proper presidential response is to clean house at Langley.

As that last parenthetical indicates, and Yglesias pointed out in the linked post, above, these people aren’t exactly in a strong bargaining position.  They’re not very good at what they do.  I know, I know, we never hear about the successes because they’re classified.  Here’s the problem with that argument: they’ve never been very good at what they do.  Tim Weiner’s book did a pretty convincing job of demonstrating, based on the declassified records and internal reviews of the CIA’s Cold War operations, that the CIA has never been a competent intelligence agency when it comes to field operations.  Basically, only two of their major Cold War operations succeeded — overthrowing the democratically elected and highly popular Mossadeqh government in Iran and replacing it with the Shah (how’d that work out?), and overthrowing the government of Guatemala (see Weiner’s book or Yglesias’s post for details on how well that one worked out).

In short, if these people are disgruntled, let them quit.  It’s no great loss.