Let’s say that President Barack Obama appointed me as his Karl Rove. My advice: Don’t move on. The best way to tie the opposition on the right into a pretzel is to go after the Bush administration for all of its high crimes and misdemeanors. The radical right will fall back to defend its conduct for the last eight years. It will have less time and energy to battle the current agenda. The administration should embrace Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) Truth Commission, prosecute the Justice Department lawyers for their torture memos, rake the top Pentagon officials over the coals for war crimes in Iraq, and uncover as much dirt as possible on how the Bush administration subverted the constitution, undermined international law, and hijacked America.
Here’s the catch. Obama doesn’t want his own private Karl Rove. Rahm Emanuel may well be foul-mouthed, rude, and not above sending dead fish to his opponents, but he plays by the rules and works both sides of the aisle. He is Mr. Art of the Possible, just like Obama himself. The new president actually believes in bipartisanship — as opposed to simply mouthing the usual clichés about making nice. For Obama, bipartisanship is not just about trying to win votes from Republicans reluctant to provide them or offering cabinet posts to leading conservatives who say yes and then no. It’s about bridging the larger cultural divide in the country.
Obama is no patsy. He has practical reasons for his desire to move on. First of all, he’s sending more U.S. troops in Afghanistan — a poorly thought-out plan, argue Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributors Farrah Hassen and Phyllis Bennis — and any discussion of U.S. war crimes would complicate his mission. Moreover, any investigation of U.S. conduct in Iraq would run up against the uncomfortable truth that a large number of folks in Obama’s party favored the invasion. A Predator strike on the Republican opposition, in other words, would cause collateral damage on the Democrats.
This collective responsibility relates to the second problem: The legal case for war crimes isn’t a slam dunk. Unlike the Nuremberg trials against the Nazis, lawyers can’t make the argument that the government that authorized the invasion of Iraq was an illegitimate one. “The legislature and the courts continued to function according to the constitution, even though the president tried to shield his actions and those of his administration from review,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Robert Pallitto in Prosecuting the Bush Team? “In several instances — authorizing military action against Iraq, detainee treatment, denial of court review to detainees, immunity for warrantless wiretapping — Congress approved presidential actions, thus making it harder to argue that the government wasn’t operating according to valid law.”
Obama might also worry that an in-depth investigation of the Bush team would catalyze rather than confound the opposition. In the 1970s, after the Watergate inquiries and the Church commission investigations into the misdeeds of U.S. foreign policy, the precursors to the neoconservatives launched the Committee on the Present Danger. It mobilized discontent with the perceived America-bashing of the Democrats and produced the long Dark Ages of the 1980s presided over by Ronald Reagan. Handing over Donald Rumsfeld to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, however satisfying, would in fact hand over to the opposition a major tool for mobilizing the Foxified and Rushized masses.
But here’s the larger and ultimately more disturbing reason why Obama wants to put the past behind us. Peace and justice so frequently go hand-in-hand in progressive rhetoric. Alas, peace and justice often find themselves in grave tension. Demands for justice often get short shrift to secure the peace. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission solicited testimony from perpetrators by providing them with amnesty beforehand. In Rwanda, mass murderers received relatively light sentences to put the past behind and promote reconciliation. Anyone working on human rights issues confronts this tension between peace and justice every day. In the most recent example, Hillary Clinton in Beijing promoted better relations between two potential Cold War rivals (a good thing) but also slighted human rights concerns (a bad thing).
The red-blue divide in the United States isn’t exactly apartheid or Hutu vs. Tutsi. Still, the last several elections revealed the immense gap between north and south, relatively educated and relatively undereducated, and white and non-white. A deepening economic crisis only widens that gap. To push through an ambitious, very expensive domestic program and forestall dangerous right-wing populism, Obama aims to promote peace across warring factions. His conciliatory temperament, in this case, intersects with his tactical game plan. Something, however, has to give. And that will be justice.
But if Obama lets everyone off the hook — the Bush team, the top military brass, Wall Street billionaires — the public will treat his calls for change with pained indifference. Leahy offers a middle course with his Truth Commission: “Rather than vengeance, we need an impartial pursuit of what actually happened and a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past,” he has written. Even if Obama’s domestic revolution doesn’t come with a proper Bastille — a powerful, symbolic renunciation of the past — then let’s at least lay bare the perversions of power. Of course we must all look forward, as the president argues. But as any psychologist will tell you, there’s no true moving on without a serious coming to terms with the past. What applies to patients traumatized by their childhoods applies double strength to countries traumatized by their presidents.
War Crimes Elsewhere
Obama isn’t only forgiving when it comes to U.S. war crimes. He’s willing to look the other way at those of allied countries.
Amnesty International has called for an arms embargo against both Israel and Hamas in the aftermath of the war in Gaza. The Obama administration shows no signs of honoring that call. “The most Obama might do to express his displeasure toward controversial Israeli policies like the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories would be to reject a planned increase in military aid for the next fiscal year and slightly reduce economic aid and/or loan guarantees,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Obama and Israel’s Military: Still Arm-in-Arm. “However, in a notable departure from previous administrations, Obama made no mention of any military aid to Israel in his outline of the FY 2010 budget, announced last week. This notable absence may indicate that pressure from human rights activists and others concerned about massive U.S. military aid to Israel is now strong enough that the White House feels a need to downplay the assistance rather than emphasize it.”
After 20 years of far-right-wing rule, El Salvador appears also to be on the verge of moving on. Later this week, Salvadorans go to the polls, and the frontrunner for the presidency is Mauricio Funes of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). If the left wins, Salvadorans might finally learn the truth of the U.S. role in the civil war of the 1980s. “Washington sent $6 billion in aid to a Salvadoran government whose army and paramilitary death squads were responsible for heinous crimes,” writes FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler in Will the Winds of Change Reach El Salvador? “Some 75,000 people were killed in the country’s civil war during that decade. In 1993, a United Nations-backed Truth Commission determined that the government was responsible for 85% of human rights abuses and that the rebel forces were responsible for 5%, with the remaining 10% undetermined.”
Time for Action
Thousands of young activists descended on Washington at the end of February for the Power Shift conference. Also scheduled was the largest act of civil disobedience on the issue of climate change: a protest in front of the coal-fired power plant on Capitol Hill that provides energy for Congress and other buildings. FPIF contributor Andrée Zaleska was there: “There were about 2,500 of us there, despite freezing weather and heavy snow. It was well organized, with great posters and banners. And it was truly fun.” The crowd and the police were both civil, but there was no disobedience. Read her Postcard from…Capitol Climate Action to find out why.
Here’s a suggestion for the Obama administration: Instead of focusing specifically on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in the Six Party Talks, widen the discussion to address a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone. “Pyongyang might accelerate its own denuclearization if provided with assurances that neither Seoul nor Tokyo would embark on nuclear programs or host the nuclear weapons of other countries — with the proviso that North Korea must first return to the Nonproliferation Treaty,” writes Jon Reinsch in No Nukes in Northeast Asia. “Nothing gives insecure countries like North Korea a greater incentive to pursue nuclear weapons than fear of the nuclear arsenals, potential or actual, of their adversaries.”
Burma is a tough nut to crack. The Bush administration and its predecessors have tried a variety of sanctions. And the military junta has only dug in its heels. Kanbawza Win has a different proposal: Washington and Beijing should hammer out their own bipartisan consensus on Burma. “By teaming up with China, the United States can devise a policy that both respects the democratic opposition and also reaches out to the current Burmese government,” he writes in Dealing with Burma through China. “If the two great powers can resolve their differences over Burma policy, despite different political systems, then they can set an example for the undemocratic Burmese government and the democratic opposition to achieve a compromise that can bring Burma, finally, into the 21st century.”