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  Shock Absorbers: Progressives Stunned by Obama Non-Surprises
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Shock Absorbers: Progressives Stunned by Obama Non-Surprises

by Chris Floyd
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
As with the moves to cover up and continue the Bush-Cheney torture system, Obama's multitrillion-dollar giveaway to the rich might be "shocking" in the moral sense; but none of it should come as any surprise.
There is certainly a great deal of slack-jawed shock going around these days, especially in progressive circles, where pundits, commentators, analysts and kibitzers continually find themselves reeling from yet another "inexplicable" move by the Obama Administration to uphold the core principles of their predecessors: enriching the rich, extending the empire, and enhancing the authoritarian power of a thoroughly militarized state.

For example, Glenn Greenwald and Scott Horton at Harper's (among many others) are deeply shocked by Team Obama's draconian maneuvers to quash a court case based on clear, abundant and credible evidence that American security forces -- and their corporate accomplices -- colluded to inflict horrendous tortures on a gulag captive (whose only "crime," it turns out, was reading a satirical magazine article). While Horton struggles to find some small justification for what he sees as an unwise decision, Greenwald is scathing and detailed in denouncing Obama's action, in which the new president seeks to uphold -- and to seize for himself -- some of the most egregious claims of arbitrary, tyrannical power once advanced by George "Unitary Executive" Bush.

It is good to see these worthy gentlemen -- lawyers both -- give us chapter and verse on this act of evil, yet one still must ask: why all the surprise? From the beginning of his presidential campaign to this very day, Obama has always made it perfectly clear -- as another great unitary executive used to say -- that he has no intention whatsoever of dismantling the unbridled powers of the "imperial presidency." He has also made it clear that he would not prosecute Bush and other top government officials who created and supervised blatantly illegal systems of torture, warrantless surveillance and indefinite detention of kidnapped captives, including U.S. citizens, arbitrarily designated "enemy combatants" by -- who else? -- the unitary executive.

(Bush also had many people arbitrarily murdered; but although he openly bragged about this before Congress, on national television, this is a subject that is never, ever raised, anywhere, in any form, however meekly, in the American media and political establishments. Obviously this is a power which our elites believe a president should have, and use, at his own divine discretion. And now Obama can use it too -- but only for noble, progressive ends, of course. )

Since taking office, the torture question has been raised, meekly, with the new president now and again -- but curiously enough, only in the context of possible prosecutions of lower-ranking interrogators, those on the front line of the Bush-Cheney torture regimen. On this issue, Obama and his mouthpieces have made it clear that they don't believe government operatives should have to "look over their shoulders" while carrying out noble national security work ordered by their superiors. The president doesn't think it would be fruitful to pursue such cases -- even though his own attorney general has declared some of the practices used by Bush-Cheney operatives to be torture under U.S. law. Instead, Obama has adopted the "Nuremberg defense" for the Bush-Cheney torturers (who are, of course, Obama's torturers now): they were only "following orders," and so should not be punished. Strangely enough, this logic has never applied to, say, Nazi concentration camp guards -- even if they are as gorgeous as Kate Winslet. But for America's torturers, Hitlerite excuses are good enough.

Well, all right. Even though none of the Bush-Cheney torturers were forced to carry out these crimes -- all were volunteers, including the CIA agents, none were drafted or impressed into this service, and even those under military command were not obliged to obey criminal orders, and thus all of them should be held fully and legally responsible for their actions -- let us grant this pernicious argument for the moment. Let us say, with Obama, that the low-hanging fruit should be absolved of their crimes. We are still left with what the new administration itself says are clear acts of torture, committed at the order of the leadership of the previous administration. Why then should we not prosecute those who gave the criminal orders? Yet this consideration does not enter into the national "debate" at all. It is beyond the pale, relegated to the same limbo that cloaks other unmentionable matters -- such as Israel's nuclear arsenal, which Obama cravenly declined to comment upon in his recent press conference. The result of this little two-step dance -- forgive the grunts, ignore the bosses -- means that no one will be held responsible for clear acts of war crimes committed at the order of the United States government.

Instead of prosecuting the instigators of these capital crimes, Obama has praised the torturer-in-chief, Bush, for "his service to our country." He has retained the services of many Bush minions, including some who are in charge of the unconstitutional kangaroo court system of "military commissions" for tortured captives held in the American gulag. He has made a great show of "banning torture" -- the same kind of great show that Bush periodically made -- while continuing the practice of "harsh interrogation techniques" countenanced by the Pentagon: a series of layered "techniques" of physical torment and psychological persecution that are themselves a system of torture. And his designated CIA chief, Leon Panetta, has testified, under oath, that he will "not hesitate" to urge Obama to go beyond the Pentagon tortures if necessary, while also retaining the practice of kidnapping people and depositing them in the torture chambers of foreign countries without any charges or legal processes whatsoever.

So again, we ask: what is "shocking" in Obama's intervention to kill a torture case in both an American and a British court? By his own words and deeds, Obama has made clear that not only will he not prosecute his predecessors for their egregious abuse of power, he intends to retain full rights to use those abusive powers himself.


Meanwhile, on the economic front, Robert Scheer is shocked -- shocked! -- to find Obama kowtowing to the robber barons of Wall Street in the latest "bailout" plan. He is shocked that the favorite candidate of Wall Street is now committing trillions of dollars of public money to save Wall Street from its own fraud, crime, greed and stupidity. Yet as Scheer himself rightly notes:

What an insipid anticlimax! Rising to “a challenge more complex than our financial system has ever faced,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner promised on Tuesday to give trillions more to the very folks who profited from that malignant complexity. For all the brave talk about transparency and accountability in the banking bailout, he gave the swindlers who got us into this mess yet another blank check to buy up the “toxic assets” they gleefully created...

The New York Times got it right: “... the plan largely repeats the Bush administration’s approach of deferring to many of the same companies and executives who had peddled risky loans and investments at the heart of the crisis. ...” Geithner and White House economic czar Lawrence Summers won out over David Axelrod and other Obama advisers more loyal to the wishes of grass-roots voters; “... as intended by Mr. Geithner, the plan stops short of intruding too significantly into bankers’ affairs even as they come onto the public dole.”

The word dole is usually applied heartlessly to welfare mothers sustained in their dire poverty by meager government handouts, not to the top bankers now ripping off the taxpayers. But as opposed to welfare mothers, who must survive stringent monitoring, the bankers will be largely self-monitoring. No wonder that welfare rolls, because of onerous eligibility rules, are not rising commensurate to the degree of misery out there. There is no such tough love for bankers.

It is difficult to understand how anyone could expect anything else from a president who put people like Geithner and Summers in charge of economic policy. Yet, incredibly, Scheer writes:

Believe it or not, I fully expected this morning to write a cheerleading column hailing Geithner’s reversal of course. Surely the man who as head of the New York Fed sat idly by while the Wall Street giants he was supposed to be monitoring imploded would have learned the error of his ways. Otherwise why would Obama have appointed him?

Obama appointed him because he expected Geithner to continue the bailout policies of the Bush Administration, of course. Scheer seems to forget that it was Obama himself who was instrumental in getting the first bailout/giveaway bill passed, dramatically coming back to Washington to lobby and cajole reluctant Democrats into backing the Bush boondoggle.

This is not ancient history. It only happened a few months ago. It was on the front page of all the papers; it was even on the tee-vee. I'm sure Robert Scheer heard about it. Yet he is shocked that Obama is now going to continue -- and exacerbate -- the worst of Bush's fat-cat rescue plan, while, as Scheer notes, millions of ordinary people lose their jobs and homes.

Scheer ends on an ominous -- if completely impotent -- note:

If like me you still get those chatty e-mails from the Obama campaign, it is time to remind them that we voted for the caring community organizer from the streets of Chicago and not some hack carrying water for the predators of Wall Street.

Like a previous president from Illinois -- who turned a brief period of youthful rail-splitting into an enduring PR legend while he himself became a prosperous railroad lawyer -- it looks like Obama will feast on his liberal cred as a "caring community organizer" for years to come. But whatever he may have been in those distant callow days of youth, he ran for president quite openly as a "hack carrying water for the predators of Wall Street," as we noted here long ago, following up on the diligent reporting of many others. (Such as Pam Martens, Mike Whitney and Arthur Silber. For examples, see here, here, and here.)

As with the moves to cover up and continue the Bush-Cheney torture system, Obama's multitrillion-dollar giveaway to the rich might be "shocking" in the moral sense; but none of it should come as any surprise.

Chris Floyd at his deskChris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at

This column is republished here with the permission of the author.

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This story was published on February 11, 2009.


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