Archive for January, 2009

John Yoo — a scholar and a war criminal

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Boohoo, boohoo, boohoo, boohoo
I shed a tear for poor John Yoo.
A little torture he thought was fine,
So now he may have to do hard time.

He stretched the law that much we know,
Gave the rule of law an awful blow.
He had to know that his words were wrong,
So will he soon sing a jailhouse song?

No, John Yoo probably won’t end up in jail – although as Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton and others have noted, he should.

I rarely hear Yoo’s name — scholar, professor, torture enabler — without thinking of the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. The famous film featured Spencer Tracy, of course, playing Dan Haywood, an aging judge who was sitting in judgment of Ernst Janning, a patriarch of the German legal system. Janning, a great legal scholar and fundamentally decent man, had tragically sold his soul to the Nazis after they came to power.

At the climax of the movie, the two men exchanged these words:

Ernst Janning: Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it!

Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.

Obviously, as bad as the Bush Administration’s crimes were, they came nowhere close to equaling those of Nazi Germany: nothing here is intended to suggest they were. But, even with that given, the similarities between Yoo’s story and that of the movie’s Ernst Janning are striking. Both feature successful legal scholars who sold their talents (and souls) to the guys in charge, while in the process violating the most basic precepts of their profession, not to mention of human decency.

Yoo’s crime was in writing legal memorandums that provided cover for torture later carried out by the Bush Administration in the name of the United States. Like Ernst Janning’s wrongful court judgments at issue in the movie, Yoo’s torture memos, on their face, probably had the appearance of proper legal process. But they were a fraud. That waterboarding is torture has been settled for decades. The United States has punished people from other countries severely for using it against our people. Anyone with legal training, especially someone who claims to have taken the time to research the point, who would say otherwise, is a liar — and worse still an enabler of evil. 

The fictional Ernst Janning showed signs of deep remorse and shame during the movie. The very real John Yoo, on the other hand — not so much so. His recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, in which he criticized Barack Obama for prohibiting torture, is a veritable testament to his continued defiance of well settled norms of human decency.

Perhaps being put on trial would give Yoo the opportunity for introspection, but, again, most likely that will never happen. And viewed from the standpoint of political logic, forgoing torture prosecutions may make sense. But I’m reminded of something else the Judge Haywood character said near the end of Judgment at Nuremberg. It was immediately after Ernst Janning’s lawyer predicted that all of the defendants Haywood (and the other judges) had sentenced to life imprisonment would be free men in five years that he responded:

“Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic so, what you suggest may very well happen. It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right!”

Two words, Barack: party building

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Bill Clinton was a hell of a politician — at least when it came to Bill Clinton. When it came to building the Democratic Party — well, not so much so.

Democrats entered the Clinton era with huge majorities in both houses of Congress. Two years later they were gone. Clinton doesn’t deserve all the blame, of course, but he has a fair share coming.

He gave the country (or the country gave him, depending on one’s viewpoint) years of strong economic growth. He kept the peace, for the most part. Peace and prosperity — yeah baby, that’s the stuff. Yet, at the end of his eight years, he turned the country over to the worst president in history.

Does Clinton deserve all the blame for that? Of course not. But once again, he does get his share.

Bill Clinton was a political star, but, unfortunately, in many ways a very selfish one. Party building just wasn’t his thing.

Barack Obama seems on the verge, of course, of becoming an even bigger political star — and the early signs were encouraging on his commitment to building a stronger Democratic Party. That was actually one of the primary reasons I supported him for the nomination. And this seeming commitment to party building carried forward to the general election, where his decision to run a more nationally centered campaign than customary — and even more so his decision to go aggressively into states the Democrats had previously written off — did wonders for the Democratic Party.

And that’s a very big deal. I know it isn’t politically correct to say it right now, but the truth is that helping to build a strong Democratic Party — one that can win consistently — is the single biggest contribution Barack Obama can make to achieving positive progressive change in this nation. A single gifted president, even serving for the full eight years, can only do so much to improve this nation. A strong progressively rooted Democratic Party, able to effectively fight the good fight for a generation or more, on the other hand, can change the world.

I think Obama knows this: but, to be honest, he’s starting to scare me a little. He played the GOP masterfully during the stimulus bill debate. But there’s a danger in his incessant talk of bipartisanship. It has the effect of putting the GOP — and its response to Obama’s proposals — into the very center of the story, while at the same time marginalizing other Democrats.

Why should anyone care what congressional Democrats have to say about the economy, when the whole storyline has become how the GOP will respond to Obama’s proposals?

Look what’s happening: the Sunday talk shows and cable gabfests are awash in Republicans. Given Democrats are now in control of just about everything in Washington, on first blush, this seems nothing short of astonishing. Yet, the fact it’s occurring is undeniable: television news programs are offering up wall to wall Republicans, but nary a Democrat to be seen. Why?

The now well documented media bias in favor of giving Republicans an inordinate share of the screen time on televison news talk programs is one factor, of course. But something else is also at play. Unquestionably, one big reason Republicans in Congress are getting more than their share of media coverage is because Obama, through his futile quest to win them over, has made them the story, not the Democrats.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the danger this poses. If nothing else, it means that most of the public debate over economics right now is being fought on the GOP’s turf.

I understand the siren song of bipartisanship sounds loudly in the spirit of our new president. And making a public show of reaching out to the GOP is probably good politics — at least for Obama himself. But building a strong Democratic Party is better politics. And it is also an essential element to building a better and more just America over the long haul.

So two words, Barack: party building. Press them to your chest and put them under your pillow at night. Never forget them and never neglect them. Because when all is said and done, they may just represent the single most important inheritance you can give this nation.

In the presence of a (political) master

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

When it was announced that no House Republicans — not a single one — voted for Barack Obama’s stimulus package, I suspect that a lot of liberals felt at least a twinge of “I told you so” impishness. After all, we did tell him so. We warned him from day one: trying to be “post partisan” with this reptilian-brained crop of GOP leaders was doomed from the start: we told him so, we really did.

And, now, having ignored our sage advice, look at the horrible position he finds himself in. I mean, it’s just awful . . . right?

The stimulus bill has now been passed out of the House of Representatives — and looks like a sure bet in the Senate as well. Meanwhile, Obama, whose popularity remains sky high, has made a compelling case — one that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public — that he’s sincere about trying to end partisan gridlock in the nation’s capitol. Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, look like obstructionist twits, all too happy to play political games while Rome is burning.

We did it again, didn’t we? What is this, the second, third, fourth or fiftieth time that many of us have underestimated Barack Obama’s political skills?

He can’t put Hillary away, you’ll remember.

And he is simply too nice to do what it takes to win.

He’s not connecting with working class Americans.

He’ll never get past Reverend Wright.

He’ll never get past Bill Ayers.

He needs to hit Palin harder, she’s taking off like a rocket.

He needs to run more negative ads on McCain.

What do you think folks, did we perhaps misjudge?

Now, one can disagree on policy grounds — and I do — with the compromises Obama made in trying to play nice with the Neanderthals: clearly, for example, way too much of the package was put into tax breaks in a futile attempt to please the bad guys. But viewed in purely political terms, it’s been a virtuoso performance.

The GOP leadership thought they were being, oh so tough, but all that really happened is they got their pockets picked.

The right wing blowhards will offer their own spin, of course. Here, for example, is a British conservative’s take (via Talking Points Memo): “Hollow victory: Republicans deliver slap in the face to Barack Obama.”

Yeah, just keep telling yourself that, guys. In the real world, the GOP got played like kazoo (I know the usual cliché would be to say they were played like a violin, but it just seemed too absurd to compare the Republican Party to something that beautiful).

I thought Ronald Reagan was good at politics.

I thought Bill Clinton was the man.

They were babes in the woods.

The master has arrived: just stand back and watch — and prepare to be astonished.

The Al-Qaedian Candidate

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

I have to say I’m disappointed in Steve King (R-Iowa). If a sitting member of Congress is going to insist on being delusional, the least he can do is to think big in his delusions. King’s suggestion that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay could lead to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed becoming a US citizen is just such a pitifully small delusion, so unworthy of a member of Congress (in so many ways).

Here are the Congressman’s own words:

“Let’s just say that, that, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, is brought to the United States to be tried in a federal court in the United States, under a federal judge, and we know what some of those judges do, and on a technicality, such as, let’s just say he wasn’t read his Miranda rights. … He is released into the streets of America. Walks over and steps up into a US embassy and applies for asylum for fear that he can’t go back home cause he spilled the beans on al Qaeda. What happens then if another judge grants him asylum in the United States and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is on a path to citizenship.”

Is that really the best you can do, Steve? Egad, a college kid high on marijuana (it wouldn’t take anything stronger) could come up with a delusion bigger and better than that.

So I’ve decided to help you. What we’re going to do is to enhance your delusion, to make it something worthy of a man of your stature. But this time, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gaining US citizenship won’t be the end of the story, but the very beginning . . .

After becoming an American citizen, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed graduates from law school and goes to work as a community organizer in Chicago, taking time off along the way to write a well received book titled, “Dreams from my Jihad.” Later, he’s elected to the Illinois State Senate, where he becomes known as a consensus builder, tirelessly working to build bridges between jihadists who want to destroy Western civilization and center-right Republicans.

While on his way to a stunning victory in a race for the United States Senate, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed comes into national prominence when he gives the keynote address at one of the major party’s national nominating convention. The speech becomes an instant classic, rocketing him into political stardom. Convention goers are unrestrained in their praise. As one typical delegate is heard to say, “I can not tell you how affected I was by his words. When he started chanting ‘Death to America,’ well, I just thought I was going to cry I was so moved.”

Following up his convention speech triumph with a blockbuster national best seller titled, “The Audacity of Hate,” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s star continues to rise. And just four years later, he’s inaugurated as the first jihadist president in American history (after they amend the constitution to take care of that whole natural born citizen thing).

Upon taking office, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed promptly surrenders the entire armed services of the United States to Al-Qaeda.

And so ends the American Age.   

If only we’d listened to Steve King.

That’s more like it

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Obama won’t compromise on tax cuts

Spiffy — but he’s already “compromised” too much by putting way too much of the money into ineffective (for stimulus) tax relief.

Still, it’s good to know he knows how to tell the GOP no. He’ll need to be doing a lot of that in the coming days/weeks/months/years.

62,000 reasons to tell the GOP to shove it

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

In case you haven’t heard, 62,000 jobs disappeared into the ether yesterday. And not just any sort of jobs: many of them were good jobs — with nary a Wal-Mart greeter, pancake house waitress or maid among those mentioned in the published reports (although, no doubt, many of those sorts of jobs are disappearing too). No, the jobs we lost yesterday sound largely like the sort of employment that can pay for an honest middle class lifestyle, send kids to college and, by the way, keep the economy purring.

62,000 gone in one day — poof, and just like magic they’re no more.

From The New York Times:

Monday’s toll included 20,000 cuts at Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of construction and mining machinery; 8,000 jobs at the wireless provider Sprint Nextel; 7,000 workers at Home Depot, and 8,000 from the expected merger of the pharmaceutical makers Pfizer and Wyeth. The beleaguered automaker General Motors announced that it would cut shifts at plants in Michigan and Ohio, where the downturn has hit hardest, eliminating some 2,000 jobs.

And Texas Instruments said after the market closed on Monday that it would cut 3,400 jobs or 12 percent of its work force through 1,800 layoffs and 1,600 buyouts or retirements.

In Europe, the banking and insurance group ING said it would cut 7,000 jobs; the electronics company Philips, 6,000; and the steel maker Corus, 3,500 worldwide.

“We’re now into the danger zone,” said Brian Bethune, chief United States financial economist at IHS Global Insight. “It really becomes pernicious because the uncertainty increases, corporate confidence is badly battered, and you get these severe measures being taken.”

Great news, huh? Even more confirmation, as though we needed it, that our economy is going to hell in a roller coaster (the saying “to hell in a hand basket” just doesn’t do it for the current situation, does it?). And what’s the best the Grand Old Party has to offer in response? The short answer, of course, is they ain’t got nothin’ — or at least nothin’ other than a wheelbarrow full of game playing and a cesspool of worn out rhetoric.

If it weren’t for the sheer nostalgia of reliving the greatest hits of GOP lunacy of old, there’d be no reason to pay even the slightest bit of attention to anything they’re saying. Here, for example, is that perfect representative of the Republican mainstream (sad but true) Rush Limbaugh, “patriotically” wishing both Barack Obama and America ill:

Okay, I’ll send you a response, but I don’t need 400 words, I only need four: I hope he fails! See, here’s the point. Everybody thinks it’s outrageous to say. Look, even my staff says, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ Why not? Why is it any different? What’s new? What is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what’s gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here. Why do I want more of it? I don’t care what the drive-by story is. I would be honored if the drive-by media headlined me all day long: ‘Limbaugh says: I Hope Obama Fails.’ Somebody’s gotta say it.”

Clearly, Al Franken was too kind to Rush. Calling him a big fat idiot doesn’t begin to cover it.

Unfortunately, statements regarding the crisis being offered by the GOP’s “far more respectable” elected representatives have been only slightly less absurd. We have, for example, John McCain’s recent call to arms in favor of a GOP “stimulus” proposal based almost entirely on renewing and extending George W. Bush’s disastrous tax cuts.

Ah, yes, a little of the hair of the dog that bit us. George W. Bush’s economic policies (which can be summarized as government of the tax cuts, by the tax cuts and for the tax cuts) helped to drive the economy into the ditch. So what better way to try to dig our way out than to adopt even more of the same?

Jesus. Can someone tell me how the political discourse of this nation became so inane?

And these are the guys Barack Obama wants so desperately to find common ground with? I’ll admit to being a wee bit pre-post-partisan here, but isn’t that sort of like the captain of the Titanic trying to find common ground with the iceberg? 

62,000 jobs disappear in just one day and the best these bozos can come up with is to play political games and rehash long disproved talking points. I don’t know if, as some people are suggesting, modern conservatism is dead, but if this is the best the right wing can offer it sure ought to be.

Something close to 397 percent of Americans currently approve of the job Obama is doing, while the GOP is sitting at approximately a minus 764 percent approval rating.

Mr. President, not only are you sitting in the catbird seat, you just got 62,000 more good reasons to tell the GOP to shove it. I suggest you give it a try. Believe me, it will feel oh so good.

Time for the kick ass part of bipartisanship

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Call us a cynical bunch if you must, but the biggest question most hardcore liberal Democrats have had about Barack Obama’s very public love affair with bipartisanship has been the following: how will he respond when it finally bites him in the ass? And at least in the case of his economic stimulus package, his ass is already starting to look a little red.

There’s no denying that Obama tried; his initial stimulus package seemed designed as much to placate Republicans, as to please Democrats. His hope seemed to be that he could buy a little right wing love by putting way too much of the proposal’s spending into (relatively ineffective as stimulus) tax cuts, instead of public spending.

But congressional Republicans are having none of it. They may not have much actual power left, but that doesn’t seem to have put them in a mood to compromise. Either send up a pure George W. Bush-style tax cut package, they insist, or they’ll vote against the bill.

The major media, speaking right on cue, is spinning this as a test of Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship. I suppose they think that makes for a better story than the truth of Republican obstructionism. To these media “elites” the question now is whether Obama will be a good little post partisan president by giving GOP representatives everything they want, or an evil partisan politician (because he stands by his own principles as well as what might actually work).

So exactly what is it that the GOP wants?

This from The New York Times:

“Right now, given the concerns that we have over the size of this package and all of the spending in this package, we don’t think it’s going to work,” the House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And so if it’s the plan that I see today, put me down in the no column.”

While the plan can potentially pass the Democratic-dominated House without Republican support, it will continue to face opposition when it comes before the Senate, said Senator John McCain of Arizona, speaking on “Fox News Sunday.” At least two Republicans will need to approve the bill for a filibuster-proof majority vote of 60.

Senator McCain, who lost the presidential election to Mr. Obama in November, said that he planned to vote no unless the bill were changed.

So what sort of proposal will McCain and his defeated brethren support? From the same Times article:

“We need to make tax cuts permanent, and we need to make a commitment that there’ll be no new taxes,” Mr. McCain said. “We need to cut payroll taxes. We need to cut business taxes.”

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Let’s extend and even expand Bush’s tax giveaways to the rich. I mean, that’s worked out real well for us so far, hasn’t it?

There’s no mystery about what’s going on here, of course. The GOP smells blood. What Obama intended as an extended hand they took as evidence of a weak spine: they’re starting to think — or at least to hope — they can push him around, at least a little. For what it’s worth, I strongly suspect they’re wrong. Underestimating Barack Obama’s political skill has generally proven to be a mistake. But Obama’s the only person who can prove it, and the way he can prove it, of course, is by pushing a strong stimulus package, reflecting Democratic Party values, through Congress.

The message would be unmistakable: if Republicans want to participate in the formation of future legislation in good faith, his door is open. But pure obstructionism will not be tolerated.

And all he has to do is to say the word. As he himself said, he won the election. And you can forget about the filibuster. There’s no way the GOP would use it to kill the stimulus bill. If they did, they would own the resulting economic carnage lock, stock and barrel, and they know it.

Obama’s path seems clear enough. The time has come for the kick ass part of bipartisanship.

Pleased as punch about George Mitchell

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Speaking as someone who has expressed some disappointment over the people Barack Obama has been appointing to handle the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I have to say the selection of George Mitchell as special envoy strikes me as pitch perfect. To begin with, his selection seems to offer real hope of a return to a more evenhanded approach to the region — filling the role of an honest broker in the peace process.

Then, of course, there’s the simple matter of Mitchell’s competence as a peace maker, as irrefutably demonstrated by his successful completion of his last Mission Impossible — brokering a deal in Northern Ireland.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of Mitchell’s appointment is that the prestige that comes from his Northern Ireland success means that his appointment, in and of itself, sends a strong message to the world that Obama is serious about seeking a resolution to the Middle Eastern conflict.

Team Bush needs a little perspective

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

It seems that members of George W. Bush’s inner circle are seriously miffed at Barack Obama. They think his inaugural speech was ungracious to the ex-pres — and they have a point. Obama did, in fact, land a few punches on Bush’s disreputable mug during the speech, although I doubt he was the intended target. In truth, there was simply no way for Obama to strike the right note, in terms of assuring the world that real change is coming, without knocking Bush a little, at least by implication.

Besides, Team Bush needs a little perspective. It isn’t having people insult them that they should be worried about. It’s having people indict them.

My God, we’re America again

Friday, January 23rd, 2009


Wow a second time.

Barack Obama becomes president and — just like that — good things start to happen: actually, not just good things, profound and honorable things. No more Guantanamo, at least eventually. No more torture. No more excessive governmental secrecy.

A revolution brought about by the political courage and decency of one man, and, yes, of the nation that elected him.

If you think I’m overstating things, consider this: Obama appears to have even (partially) won over (the excellent) Glenn Greenwald, a man who’s had very little positive to say about anything that’s happened since the Obama transition began. As Greenwald says, “Obama deserves real praise for devoting the first few days of his presidency to these vital steps — and doing so without there being much of a political benefit and with some real political risk.”

We’ve become America again, or at least we’ve moved measurably closer to becoming the sort of America we’ve so often advertised ourselves to be: an America that actually tries to live up to the standards it preaches to others.

Now, to be sure, Greenwald offers no shortage of provisos and warnings, emphasizing the need for continued vigilance. I couldn’t agree more. Obama will undoubtedly still find ways to break progressive hearts — it goes with the territory. The progressive community needs to keep him honest, up to and including giving him absolute hell where appropriate.

But come what may, we know one thing with absolute certainty now (we were pretty sure of it before, but now we’re sure): the good guys are back in charge.

And Lord does that feel good.