Entering office on the hopes of a majority of Americans so large that race became irrelevant and the political machines of the Republicans could not steal sufficient votes to upset elections as they did in 2000 and 2004, President Obama tried to make good on his pledges to restore Constitutional Law and decency to America at home and abroad. He even pledged to make a government made impenetrably opaque by the neo-fascists of the Bush Administration and their cronies on the U. S. Supreme Court, transparent to the people who are the government in a democracy.
To his credit, in one of President Obama’s first acts he signed an order requiring that the infamous concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay close by the end of 2009. Of course, the neo-fascists immediately launched a campaign using their most familiar weapon: fear. In no time at all Congressmen and women had hysterical constituents calling to oppose housing Osama bin Laden under each of their individual beds.
The fact that the neo-fascists were able to spread fear so effectively highlighted the main failing of the Obama closing order: that in the rush to perform the symbolic act of closing the Guantanamo concentration camp, the President failed to decide where those prisoners would go. Certainly President Obama, during his first days in office, thought that we needed to look at individual prisoners to determine whether they needed to be held at all or not. Still, let it never be said that the American herd will stand around for nuanced explanations when a bunch or drunken cowboys with guns like Rash Lamebrain, Glenn Beck, Steve Doucey and Bill O’Reilly are bent on starting a stampede.
To date, prisoners remain at the shameful concentration camp on American occupied Cuba and the closing date becomes ever more hazy and distant. Reality has pulverized decency, law and good intentions. But the clearest example of the ineffectuality of Constitutional Law, decency and humanity in the face of negotiation is the death of openness in the name of pursuing an effective strategy in the Afghan War. We can call the political calculus, at best, pragmatic but truly it is ruthless and Machiavellian. In our violent society rife with patriosity rather than patriotism, people who stop wars are reviled while those who pursue them, however wrong headed, are exalted. President Obama needs to put an end to the neo-fascists’ imperialist debacle in Iraq. In order to do that he unquestionably must rattle the sabre elsewhere and the logical place to do so is Afghanistan. American militarism requires that he do so. That is one of the ugly truths about our society.
Upon entering office, President Obama inherited a gung-ho military commander in Army General David McKiernan. General McKiernan’s tenure in Afghanistan was much like the disgraceful mismanagement of William Westmoreland in Vietnam forty years ago. His portfolio was the kind of “get the country ‘pacified’ by any means necessary” use of massive force against the Taliban’s guerrilla campaign that resulted in the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was having similarly poor results in the mountains of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, all the information coming to military and civilian experts convinced them that the Afghan people hate the Taliban but hate the random violence and insults from NATO and especially American invaders more. The inescapable conclusion reached by those not blinded by neo-fascist ideology was that a policy that respected the population, confined violence to bad actors like the Taliban and helped build a stable infrastructure one school, road, hospital and town meeting at a time could defeat the Taliban, up-root Al Qaeda, capture bin Laden and stabilize Afghanistan to a point unknown since 1979. General McKiernan was definitely not the person to implement that policy.
So President Obama needed a new general. He knew that. Defense Secretary Gates knew that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff knew that. But that also didn’t mean that General McKiernan was without friends either real or ad hoc. The military wanted some things of its own, chief amongst them continued secrecy for the Abu Ghraib photos that might well reveal complicity of high ranking officers in the abuses of that particular torture chamber. Conversations ensued. Ultimately, the President and Secretary Gates got Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, a policy that will tend to kill fewer Afghan civilians, build friendships within the Afghani population and infrastructure to cement the fragments of tribal areas into something sufficiently like a nation to survive NATO withdrawal. In return, the American High Command got secrecy and probably immunity from their involvement in torture and similar war crimes in violation of American and International Law.
President Obama’s choice was, inherently, one of those uncertain “Lady or the Tiger” problems. If by protecting high military officers on whom he must depend to achieve his goals in Afghanistan he can lower the death toll of civilian Afghanis and build a nation that 250 years of Western interventions had repeatedly destroyed, would it not be worth the cost? If we can trade immunity for war crimes by the American General Staff for the destruction of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, will we not have gotten the better of the bargain?
The short term answer is, yes, of course. A policy that saves innocent lives and achieves several important political and military goals, including an end of bin Laden and his lieutenants is worth the price of continued secrecy for the Abu Ghraib photos.
The long term answer is, of course, no. Immunizing military commanders from the consequences of their war crimes has horrible and destructive consequences for American democracy and Constitutional Law. The continued secrecy of information that may show complicity in war crimes by our general officers is detrimental if not fatal to civilian control of the military and raises genuine fears for the future of our democracy.
There are many times in our history when the fate of our nation has balanced precariously on the willingness of our military to accept the authority of our Constitution over their own will to power. General George Brinton McClellan’s political ambitions might well have meant an end to the Lincoln Administration in 1864 had not Ulysses Grant and George G. Meade demonstrated what a disastrously incompetent military commander McClellan was in the field. The nearly unchecked power of the military in the former Confederacy following the Civil War led President Andrew Johnson to belatedly restore some balance between the President and the military by removing Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War in 1868. That same threat to civilian rule was a factor in the Faustian bargain struck by Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 to end Reconstruction and pass the much maligned Posse Comitatus Act. In 1933-34 Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler exposed a plot for a military coup against Franklin Roosevelt’s government thereby ending a plan that might have put America firmly in the fascist camp as World War II began. And, of course, in the 1980s we had a presidency controlled by the military and conspirators against Constitutional rule like Defense Secretary Caspar Wineberger, Admiral John Poindexter, Colonel Oliver North and neo-fascists Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
The fact is that any President of the United States who is not at least a tacit co-conspirator of our military interests (uniformed and corporate) is its prisoner. He remains its prisoner so long as he is unwilling to assert control over the military and its true masters, the corporate interests. Right now there is a battle going on within our government. Defense Secretary Gates, while a creature of the military-industrial complex, is certainly aware that its wild excesses are themselves a threat to military-corporate hegemony. Thus we have the fight to kill the F-22 fighter plane and other ridiculously unnecessary war toys from the enormously bloated Defense “budget”. Yet the military still holds an armored fist to the throats of civilian authority in America. I hope that President Obama can break that death grip over the next three and a half or seven and a half years. How he loosens that grip or does not do so will, sad to say, determine whether he has a second term in which to loosen it. Further, it will determine whether a successor Democrat can extend the process for another four or eight years. Until he does so, just as surely as the people held in the concentration camp at Guantanamo, I think we can say accurately that President Obama is a military prisoner.