Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Obama's failed presidency

At Harper's, David Bromwich reflects on the failed Obama presidency, something that started even as his presidency did. Case in point: the failure to close Guantanamo in the face of opposition.
To declare the argument over in the midst of a debate is to confess that you are lacking in resources. This defect, a failure to prepare for attacks and a corresponding timidity in self-defense, showed up in a capital instance in 2009. Obama had vowed to order the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay as soon as he became president. He did give the order. But as time passed and the prison didn’t close of its own volition, the issue lost a good deal of attraction for him. The lawyer Obama had put in charge of the closure, Greg Craig, was sacked a few months into the job (on the advice, it is said, of Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel). Guantánamo had turned into baggage the president didn’t want to carry into the midterm elections. But the change of stance was not merely politic. For Obama, it seemed, a result that failed to materialize after a command had issued from his pen was sapped of its luster.
Yet as recently as March of this year, Obama spoke as if the continued existence of the prison were an accident that bore no relation to his own default. “I thought we had enough consensus where we could do it in a more deliberate fashion,” he said. “But the politics of it got tough, and people got scared by the rhetoric around it. Once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it’s not who we are as a country and it’s used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists.” One may notice a characteristic evasion built in to the grammar of these sentences. “The politics” (abstract noun) “got tough” (nobody can say why) “and people” (all the people?) “got scared” (by whom and with what inevitability?). Adverse circumstances “set in” (impossible to avoid because impossible to define). In short, once the wrong ideas were planted, the president could scarcely have done otherwise.
The crucial phrase is “the path of least resistance.” In March 2015, in the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession. It is one thing to know about yourself that in the gravest matters you follow the path of least resistance. It is another thing to say so in public. Obama was affirming that for him there could not possibly be a question of following the path of courageous resistance. He might regret it six years later, but politics set in, and he had to leave Guantánamo open — a symbol of oppression that (by his own account) tarnished the fame of America in the eyes of the world.
It wasn't just Guantanamo:
 In responding to the opportunities of his first years in office, Obama displayed the political equivalent of dead nerve endings. When the news broke in March 2009 that executives in AIG’s financial-products division would be receiving huge bonuses while the federal government paid to keep the insurance firm afloat, Obama condemned the bonuses. He also summoned to the White House the CEOs of fifteen big banks. “My administration,” Obama told them, as Ron Suskind reported in Confidence Men, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” But the president went on to say that “I’m not out there to go after you. I’m protecting you.” Obama was signaling that he had no intention of asking them for any dramatic sacrifice. After an embarrassed reconsideration, he announced several months later that he had no use for “fat cats.” But even that safe-sounding disclaimer was turned upside down by his pride in his acquaintance with Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs, and Jamie Dimon, of JPMorgan Chase: “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.” His attempt to correct the abuses of Wall Street by bringing Wall Street into the White House might have passed for prudence if the correctives had been more radical and been explained with a surer touch. But it was Obama’s choice to put Lawrence Summers at the head of his economic team.
And then there was the continuing disaster of Afghanistan:
In foreign policy, Afghanistan was the first order of business in Obama’s presidency. His options must have appeared exceedingly narrow. During the campaign, he had followed a middle path on America’s wars. He said that Iraq was the wrong war and that Afghanistan was the right one: Bush’s error had been to take his eye off the deeper danger. By early spring of 2009, Obama knew that his judgment — though it earned him praise from the media — had simply been wrong. The U.S. effort in Afghanistan was a shambles, and nobody without a vested interest in the war was saying otherwise.
Two incidents might have been seized on by a leader with an eye for a political opening. The first arrived in the form of diplomatic cables sent to the State Department in early November 2009 by Karl W. Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan and, before that, the senior commander of U.S. forces there. Eikenberry’s length of service and battlefield experience made him a more widely trusted witness on Afghanistan than General David Petraeus; his cables said that the war could not be won outside the parts of the country already held by U.S. forces. No more troops ought to be added. Eikenberry recommended, instead, the appointment of a commission to investigate the state of the country. Any reasonably adroit politician would have made use of these documents and this moment. With a more-in-sorrow explanation, such a leader could have announced that the findings, from our most reliable observer on the ground, compelled a reappraisal altogether different from the policy that had been anticipated in 2008. Though Obama had his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton; his secretary of defense, Robert Gates; and the chairman of the joint chiefs, Michael Mullen, arrayed against him, he also had opponents of escalation, including Vice President Biden and others, at the heart of his policy team. He chose to do nothing with the cables. A lifeline was tossed to him and he treated it as an embarrassment.
Nor did he take advantage of the opportunity the assassination of Bin Laden afforded him:
 But Obama made no such gesture. He held on to his December 2009 plan, which had called for an immediate escalation in Afghanistan to be followed by de-escalation on a clock arbitrarily set eighteen months in advance. The days after the killing saw the White House inflating and deflating its accounts of what happened in Abbottabad, while Obama himself paid a visit to SEAL Team 6. A truth about the uses of time in politics — as Machiavelli taught indelibly — is that the occasion for turning fortune your way is unlikely to occur on schedule. The delay in withdrawing from Afghanistan was decisive and fatal, and it is now a certainty that we will have a substantial military presence in that country at the end of Obama’s second term.
Bromwich explains this and other failings (health care!) by pointing both to Obama's personal predilection to avoid conflict, but more significantly, the the functioning of the embedded and entrenched bureaucracy and its mindset: the deep state:
 However one reads the evidence, there can be no doubt that Obama’s stance toward the NSA, the CIA, and the intelligence community at large has been the most feckless and unaccountable element of his presidency. Indeed, his gradual adoption of so much of Cheney’s design for a state of permanent emergency should prompt us to reconsider the importance of the Deep State — an entity that is real but difficult to define, about which the writings of James Risen, Mike Lofgren, Dana Priest, William Arkin, Michael Glennon, and others have warned us over the past several years. There is a sense — commonly felt but rarely reflected upon by the American public — in which at critical moments a figure like John Brennan or Victoria Nuland may matter more than the president himself. There could be no surer confirmation of that fact than the frequent inconsequence of the president’s words, or, to put it another way, the embarrassing frequency with which his words are contradicted by subsequent events.
Bureaucracy, by its nature, is impersonal. It lacks an easily traceable collective will. But when a bureaucracy has grown big enough, the sum of its actions may obstruct any attempt by an individual, no matter how powerful and well placed, to counteract its overall drift. The size of our security state may be roughly gauged by the 854,000 Americans who enjoy top-secret security clearances, according to the estimate published by Priest and Arkin in the Washington Post in 2010. The same authors reported that nearly 2,000 private companies and 1,300 government organizations were employed in the fields of counterterrorism, intelligence gathering, mass surveillance, and homeland security.
When Obama entered the White House, it was imperative for him to rid the system of the people who would work against him. Often they would be people far back in the layers of the bureaucracy; and where removal or transfer was impossible, he had to watch them carefully. But in his first six years, there was no sign of an initiative by Obama to reduce the powers that were likeliest to thwart his projects from inside the government. On the contrary, his presumption seems to have been that all the disparate forces of our political moment would flow through him, and that the most discordant tendencies would be improved and elevated by this contact as they continued on their way.
---a presumption that has been falsified again and again. The function of the deep state is to continue, to retain power, to expand power. Elected officials simply wave to the masses as the locomotive roars down the tracks on autopilot settings programed and tweaked by others. Folks at DKos and elsehwere get pissed off when they are reminded that it really doesn't matter who gets to sit and wave at the front of the locomative.But they delude themselves by shutting their eyes to the evidence.

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