Despite WikiLeaks, Obama Avoids Painful Reckoning With Own Record

Looks like the usual conveyor belts of hyperbole and useless information aren’t the only ones subordinating perhaps the single most significant set of on-the-ground details from the Iraq War to juicy inanities. In a typically hard-hitting piece yesterday on Salon, Glenn Greenwald blasted the New York Times, one of the chosen few news outlets provided advanced access to the latest 400,000 WikiLeaks documents from Iraq, for burying the lede (you know, the parts about rampant detainee abuse by US-trained Iraqi forces, including the “beatings, burnings and lashings [that] surfaced in hundreds of reports”) beneath an innuendo-laden “profile” of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that cites the controversial whistleblower/hacker/international man of mystery’s “erratic and imperious behavior” and “delusional grandeur.”

Greenwald’s analysis of the mainstream media’s ongoing efforts to obfuscate its own culpability for the ongoing Iraq fiasco is mostly correct, I think (you can judge for yourself), but the fixation with the soap opera of Assange’s personal life—his CNN interview Sunday ended prematurely when Assange left the set after it became clear the reporter wasn’t interested in the whole Iraq part of the story—seems to me most opportune for the one party in all of this most surely dreading an open discussion of human rights vis-à-vis the war on terror. That would be the Administration, and yes, I mean this one.

The Pentagon’s response to the latest WikiLeaks document dump was entirely predictable. It reads, in full:

“We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us, and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large. By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us. The only responsible course of action for WikiLeaks at this point is to return the stolen material and expunge it from their Web sites as soon as possible.

“We strongly condemn the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and will not comment on these leaked documents other than to note that ‘significant activities’ reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well chronicled in news stories, books and films, and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past.

“However, it does expose secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information, looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment. This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed.”

Of course, the Administration has to condemn the leak of classified information, as it should. Yet from a president who a) is a constitutional scholar and b) campaigned on rectifying the Bush administration’s woeful human rights record would a, “The WikiLeaks documents raise serious allegations, and the United States is committed to doing whatever necessary to ensure that the American military and its partners conduct themselves in accordance with basic standards of human decency and international law,” be so out of order?

It would be helpful, because it’s not at all clear that this administration is committed to anything close to that. Human rights policy in the war on terror has been the single biggest betrayal of the Obama promise during the president’s first two years in office. Health care reform that doesn’t go far enough, a cap-and-trade deal dead on arrival, a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that just won’t die—I get it. It’s hard to get anything accomplished in Washington. Republicans have no interest in governing. Filibusters suck. Not that the president doesn’t bear plenty of the blame. Still, if I you threw me in a debate with my former Nation colleague Eric Alterman (author of a 17,000 word critique of Obama’s domestic policy record) and told me to defend Obama’s domestic policy record, I’d at least have something to say.

Not on detainee treatment. Because the president’s record there has been completely of his own making. He has maintained the unconscionable Bush-era practice known as extraordinary rendition of sending terror suspects abroad for interrogation to countries known for torturing prisoners. He has authorized a policy of extrajudicial assassinations against American citizens overseas, including an active hit pending against a New Mexico-born cleric in Yemen. Apparently, not even the Bush people dreamed you could actually execute an American citizen on mere suspicion of terrorist activity; they drew the line firmly at indefinite incarceration. And the president awarded the notorious private security contractor Blackwater—whose staggering disregard for human life you can read about here, here and, most poignantly, here—a new $120 million contract for services in Afghanistan this summer.

The president made these choices all by himself. For once, squeamish Blue Dog fecklessness and Jim Bunning as one-man nemesis of majority rule didn’t stand in his way. Lest we forget, this is the president who campaigned on ending these very policies that proliferated under the Bush administration and the pseudo-legal arguments that justified them. The Obama/Biden campaign website decried its predecessor’s use of the State Secrets privilege to preserve these policies. Yet there were Justice Department lawyers in the Ninth Circuit just a few months ago arguing that alleged victims of torture in foreign countries as a result of extraordinary rendition (which Obama also condemned during the campaign) could not sue the CIA, since such lawsuits might reveal, you guessed it, state secrets.

It’s true that the WikiLeaks documents date back to the Bush era and don’t implicate Obama officials. But if the media ever moved past its stalkerish obsession with Julian Assange, it might force a painful reckoning for this administration with its own abysmal and, it must be said, criminal, record on human rights and detainee treatment. President Obama is known to disdain the shallowness of the mainstream media these days. In this case, he owes it a very big thank you.


A Few Brief Comments

A few brief comments from New Haven, where I’m here for tomorrow’s soccer game against Yale, after a big news day with WikiLeaks releasing some 400,000 secret military documents on Iraq, detailing rampant detainee abuse by US-trained Iraqi forces and significantly higher-than-reported civilian casualties.

At least it seemed like important news to me, but I’m flipping through the channels here and on Fox, Sean Hannity is trashing Nancy Pelosi, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow is trashing homophobic Republicans and on CNN, Larry King is shooting the shit with the cast of “Modern Family.” I might be going out on a limb, but the widespread beatings, burnings and lashings employed by the security forces representing the beacon of democracy and human rights we’ve produced in the center of the Middle East seems the slightly larger story here.

And since I’m at Yale, I’d be remiss not to mention former general and now Yale lecturer Stanley McChrystal’s outraged reaction to the latest WikiLeaks document dump. Said McChrystal: “The decision to leak classified information is something that is illegal, and individuals are making judgments about threats and information they are not qualified to make. There is a level of responsibility toward our people that needs to be balanced with a right or need to know. It’s likely that a leak of that information could cause the death of our own people or some of our allies.”

He’s right, but his indignation might strike me as slightly more compelling if it wasn’t coming from a man whose classified report to the president warning of the disastrous consequences of failing to strictly follow his recommended Afghanistan surge mysteriously leaked to Bob Woodward as President Obama prepared to make his decision on troop levels. Or if McChrystal’s record on detainee treatment from his time in Iraq wasn’t so damn bad.

Philly Loves Obama, But Will State Dems Benefit?

Say what you will about Barack Obama, he knows how to get a crowd going. Back in campaign mode before some 18,000 supporters in a schoolyard in Germantown in northern Philadelphia, the president, alongside Joe Biden and the Pennsylvania Democratic senatorial and gubernatorial candidates, made the Democratic case heading into the November elections, sounding now-familiar midterm themes. “The Republicans drove the car into the ditch,” he declared to rapturous applause, “and now they want the keys back! No! You can’t drive!”

Philadelphia has been good to Obama. He last visited Germantown before the 2008 election, in which he carried Philadelphia by nearly half-a-million votes, roughly three-quarters of his total margin of victory in Pennsylvania. His resounding triumph here marked a fitting capstone on a presidential run resurrected from its Jeremiah Wright-induced death spiral during the primaries by a historic speech on race at the Constitution Center downtown.

The speech turned out to be perhaps the single most important moment in Obama’s entire campaign, and not just because it righted a ship threatening to go under with each replaying of Wright’s infamous, “God damn America!” exclamation. Obama exhibited before the nation the qualities that both endeared him to his base and rendered him acceptable to a broader electorate—a preternatural calmness in the face of chaos; an inclusive message of national unity and redemption; and the confidence to stick to his guns by not disowning Wright, whom he likened to family, while at the same time strongly repudiating the pastor’s comments.

Since that brisk November night when thousands descended upon City Hall to the tune of honking horns and cries of “Yes, we can!” Obama’s star has waned dramatically in the face of persistent near-ten percent unemployment and a failure to deliver on some of his most basic promises like closing Guantanamo. Not only have his approval ratings been stuck in the mid-40s for months now, but disillusionment among Obama’s base has led to an enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters that some pollsters predict could lead to electoral disaster for House and Senate Democrats come November.

Yet in the seemingly endless lines that snaked their way from the gates of the schoolyard through Germantown’s narrow side streets, the despair that’s gripped much of the left was hardly in evidence. Despite the long wait and unseasonable heat, spirits were high and attitudes toward Obama’s shortcomings forgiving. One older man with a scraggly white beard, who’d come down for the rally from New York, sympathized with the president’s political difficulties passing health care reform. “I’m sure it would’ve been a better bill if he could’ve written it himself,” he observed. A few college students in front of me joked about Obama’s graying hair. “He’s just trying to run America. No big deal.”

Meanwhile, Obama paraphernalia was everywhere—2008 campaign hats, T-shirts with an “ed” inserted at the end of “health care reform” and even an “Obama 2012” button. There was no question who the star of the show was. As always in this sports-crazed city, Phillies and Eagles gear featured prominently, but in the battle for apparel supremacy, the president no doubt had the edge on this day.

With Congressman Joe Sestak and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato lagging in the polls behind their Republican opponents for senator and governor, respectively, one might have expected the object of the president’s star power to be bolstering their fledgling candidacies. But the focus, as the rally began, remained squarely on the president. The high-powered lineup of speakers, including Congressmen Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah, Governor Ed Rendell, Senator Bob Casey and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, took turns expressing support for President Obama and decrying Republican obstructionism. Not one mentioned either Sestak or Onorato by name. Another speaker, a local field organizer, called on the crowd to visit and commit to “electing strong Democratic allies for Barack Obama.” I was certain the words “like Joe Sestak and Dan Onorato” would follow, but alas, they didn’t.

After Mayor Nutter’s widely-booed comments (on account of his tiff with former Mayor John Street), Sestak and then Onorato spoke for a combined three minutes, at most. Sestak vowed to “make sure the election of two years ago doesn’t go wasted.” Onorato, introduced as Joe Biden, called for renewed investments in education, declaring, “We owe this agenda to the President of the United States.” For a candidate already struggling with name recognition, the botched intro couldn’t have helped. When I mentioned Onorato’s remarks to a rally attendee at the train station afterwards, he looked at me quizzically and replied, “Onorato spoke?”

Once the full litany of state Democrats had been trotted out (minus Arlen Specter, who was present, but did not speak), Obama took the handoff from Biden and did his thing, sending the crowd home happy. But it was far from clear whether this Obamafest had done anything to help the Democratic allies his visit was presumably meant to boost. Philly still loves Obama, but whether Democrats will reap the benefits this election cycle remains heavily in doubt.

How Many Illegals Can You Find on a Lou Dobbs Property? Hint: It’s More than Zero.

Kudos to my summer employer The Nation for its smackdown of the holier-than-thou anti-immigrant demagogue Lou Dobbs. In a piece called “Lou Dobbs, American Hypocrite” running in this week’s issue, Isabel Macdonald reveals that “Dobbs has relied for years on undocumented labor for the upkeep of his multimillion-dollar estates and the horses he keeps for his 22-year-old daughter, Hillary, a champion show jumper.” For the article, Macdonald interviewed no fewer than five undocumented immigrants that have worked on Dobbs’ properties, either landscaping or grooming the horses ridden by Dobbs’ daughter, a showjumping champion who has won over one million dollars in prize money.

After years of watching Dobbs lionize himself as a heroic, one-man bulwark against illegal immigration, vilifying anyone who so much as associated with illegal immigrants while recklessly casting aspersion about immigrant-carried diseases and immigrant-perpetrated violence, it was more than a little satisfying to watch this self-appointed guardian of all that is good and American fall on his sword in his recently-concluded appearance on MSNBC alongside Macdonald. Dobbs didn’t dispute Macdonald’s reporting, conceding that illegal immigrant might have been employed by contractors he hired to tend his property and horses, instead resorting to the usual attacks against the lefty, activist, attention-hungry Nation for daring to expose his remarkable hypocrisy.

When Dobbs did decide to actually defend himself, he treated the possibility that he’d employed undocumented workers as no big deal, par for the course for a rich landowner like himself. Besides, no one has accused him of breaking any laws, he pointed out, as if he was now somehow vindicated.

And indeed no one has. Nor, given the inherent murkiness and secrecy that shrouds any case involving “illegals,” do we know if Dobbs was aware of his workers’ legal status, although for a man so concerned about the alien menace to American society that the topic led just about every one of his nightly broadcasts at CNN, you’d think he would have taken slightly more interest in the hiring practices of his landscaper, who was after all operating in an industry where roughly a quarter of all workers are undocumented.

Ultimately, as much as I’ve enjoyed following my colleagues’ excited tweets while watching Dobbs’ painful efforts to explain how his “possible” hiring of illegal immigrants through his landscaper or horse grooming service (?) squares with his claim earlier today that he never “directly or indirectly” hired any undocumented workers, there’s a larger point here, which The Nation’s accompanying editorial this week nicely lays out. Dobbs’ “I don’t know, I don’t care, shame on The Nation for besmirching my good name over a few lousy illegals” act on TV made two things abundantly clear. First, illegal immigrants are not the scary, drug-pushing, axe-wielding criminals his heroic alter ego would have you believe. And second, whether we like it or not, undocumented workers are part of – and an integral part of – the American economy and American society (not that I consider Lou Dobbs’ showjumping horse ventures integral to anything, but you get the point). In Lou Dobbs’ fantasy TV/radio world, the discovery of illegal immigrants working on his property (well, not his – someone else’s obviously) property would be a headline story, but in the real world it’s just a hatchet job by The Nation.

So, there it was that we witnessed a patriotic hero’s tragic fall from grace, although I can’t say I’m moved to despair. But if nothing more comes of this than the usual substanceless rhetoric that has left upwards of 20 million people living in the shadows of American society, then that will be a real tragedy.


This story originally appeared in Ilanga: Newsletter of the African Studies Center.

“Ayyy Ballack!” the cries rang out as the ball arrived at my feet. I didn’t quite see the resemblance between myself and the hulking, six-foot-four star of the German national soccer team, but I figured it was an improvement over my first designation upon joining the pickup game: “White guy.” We played on the cricket field at Wits University in Johannesburg, the adjacent soccer stadium hosting a training session for South Africa’s Bafana Bafana as they prepared for the World Cup. Between the two sets of players on campus that evening there was a total of two white guys—me and Matt Booth, the towering center-back over on the next field.

I was at Wits for the last two weeks of May, nominally to do research for my history thesis, but I travel few places without finding a game. Usually, my initial effort to communicate my intentions involves some awkward combination of hand signals and disjointed, loudly-spoken English phrases—something along the lines of, “Me…Play…With you?” In South Africa, normal English did the job just fine, although I soon became lost amid the lightning-paced chorus of Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, English and a few other local languages. Only when I got the ball and an open teammate belted out “Ballaaack!!”did I momentarily understand the message.

It seems to me that there are two surefire ways to make yourself at home in a new culture. You can be extremely proactive about getting to know people. Or you can play soccer. Not being the biggest extrovert, I tend to rely on the latter approach. After my first game in South Africa, one of my teammates studied me for a second before observing, with evident surprise, “You’re a good player, Ballack.” I wasn’t sure if his surprise owed to my being a white person playing what remains in South Africa an overwhelmingly black sport or my appearance that night from seemingly nowhere. Either way, I was greeted enthusiastically the next day by cries of, “Hey Ballack, what’s up brother?”

In the two weeks that followed, I played almost every night and quickly became friends with the other players. They ranged from university students to street kids from the local neighborhood, who’d moved to Jo’burg from Limpopo for a shot at playing pro, but they all welcomed me with open arms. They wanted to know how I liked South Africa and how it compared to America. They told me where to go and where not to go; how they felt about politics, race relations and the upcoming World Cup; and perhaps most importantly, how to shake hands like a cool South African young person.

I met a lot of extraordinary people during my too-brief stay, but when I heard TV commentators during the World Cup marvel at the spirit and hospitality of their South African hosts, I thought first back to those guys on the cricket field, who for two weeks in May took a kid called Ballack and made him a full-fledged member of their nightly ritual.