A paradox of the modern United States is that it wields unprecedented military power in the world yet its people are constantly kept frightened about unlikely foreign dangers. Its politics, too, are dominated by fear.
The way this plays out most often is that Republicans (aided by the U.S. news media) exaggerate overseas threats and denounce the Democrats for being “soft” on whatever the current “threat” might be: the Reds, the yellow menace, Soviet “beachheads” in Central America, or now Islamic terrorism.
From the Vietnam War to today’s “war on terror,” Democrats have reacted out of fear of getting blamed for not doing enough to “protect” the nation, so they undertake misguided actions to look tough, as Lyndon Johnson did in escalating U.S. troop levels in Vietnam or as Democrats in Congress did in going along with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
In the latest chapter, President Barack Obama is succumbing to the same dynamic as he retreats on his campaign promises to restore the rule of law and to put relations with the Islamic world on a more rational footing.
Fulfilling those promises would require political courage from Obama and the Democrats, a commodity that remains in short supply. And it appears to be beyond hope to expect that the Republicans and their right-wing media allies will ever behave responsibly – when there’s a chance for political gain.
So, in the Age of Obama, the mighty United States again presents itself to the world as “Scaredy-Cat Nation,” terrified about the danger posed by a small number of suspected terrorists who might be transferred, in shackles, from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to super-max prisons on U.S. soil.
All manner of terrifying tales have been imagined about inmates using their one hour a day outside their jail cells to organize breakouts or about terrorist comrades crossing the U.S. border to lay siege to a super-max prison and somehow busting the prisoners out.
Such fantasies, which sound like bad Hollywood movie scripts, have been circulated by prominent Republicans, including Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and FBI Director Robert Mueller, and have been echoed by key Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The American people also are supposed to get very scared that some Guantanamo inmates who were locked up for no good reason – like the 17 Chinese Uighurs who have been imprisoned at Guantanamo for seven years though the Bush administration concluded that they are no threat to the United States – might get relocated to the “land of the free, home of the brave.”
And then there’s the panic over the slim possibility that after a trial, a few suspected terrorists might get acquitted, although in those cases the defendants would almost surely remain locked up pending deportation.
Whatever risks remain are so ephemeral that they are vastly outweighed by other dangers that the United States creates for itself by being perceived as a hypocritical nation that preaches human rights for others but not when Americans feel some remote danger.
If Americans really wanted to reduce the risk of a 9/11 repeat, they could undertake any number of policy changes, from reducing their dependence on Middle Eastern oil to demanding that the Israeli government grants meaningful statehood to the Palestinians.
Instead, the United States has opted for a behavioral pattern that veers from victimhood to bullying, from the tears that followed the 9/11 attacks and the lament “why do they hate us?” to the cheers for George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” bombardment of Iraq and the tough-guy treatment of captives.
On May 21, former Vice President Dick Cheney defended this approach, which relies on force to eradicate perceived threats to the homeland:
“In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States. ...
“When just a single clue that goes unlearned ... one lead that goes unpursued ... can bring on catastrophe - it's no time for splitting differences. There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”
But there is a logical flaw to Cheney’s so-called “one-percent doctrine,” which holds that even if a potential terrorist threat presents only a one-percent possibility it must be treated as a certainty. The flaw is that reacting to unlikely dangers as certainties is almost guaranteed to create even more dangers.
For instance, invading Iraq to eliminate a tiny risk that Saddam Hussein might help al-Qaeda has killed 4,300 American soldiers, spared al-Qaeda’s leadership in their hideouts along the Afghan border, strengthened Iran as a regional power, and spread anti-Americanism across the volatile region, including inside nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In other words, reacting to every hypothetical one-percent threat may sound reassuring to frightened Americans but the policy is almost certain to make the situation more dangerous.
Clearly, many Americans understand this. They know that risk is part of life and intrinsic to a Republic, especially one that operates under a system of laws and cherishes what the Founders called “certain unalienable rights.”
Many such Americans voted for Barack Obama in hopes that this eloquent expert on constitutional law would break the cycle of Republican fear-mongering and Democratic cowering, that he would uphold the nation’s principles and stop exaggerating the dangers.
However, Obama has disappointed many of these supporters. While rhetorically stepping back from some of Bush’s excesses and releasing some important evidence on how the United States officially embraced torture for the first time in the nation’s history, Obama has maintained much of the legal paradigm of Bush’s “war on terror.”
In his speech about terrorism on May 21 – right before Cheney’s – Obama said some of the Guantanamo cases would have to go before revamped Military Commissions that would include a few more safeguards than the Bush/Cheney model but still fall far short of civilian courts.
Obama even proposed a new legal system that would allow for “prolonged detention” of terror suspects without trial. Obama said he wanted to involve Congress and the Judiciary in this process – seeking to distance himself from Bush’s views of unilateral presidential powers.
“In our constitutional system,” Obama said, “prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man.”
However, in truth, prolonged detention has little place at all in the U.S. constitutional system, which includes habeas corpus guarantees against arbitrary imprisonment and the right to fair and open trials.
It’s also unclear why an extreme step like prolonged detention is needed. For combatants captured on the battlefield, the law of war permits their detention as POWs for the duration of a conflict, thus negating the argument about how such situations don’t lend themselves to the collection of evidence.
Rather, Obama’s concept of preventive detention seems aimed at a suspected terrorist who, in Obama’s example, has expertise in explosives and who may have been arrested far from a battlefield.
It’s unclear why, in that situation, evidence couldn’t be collected normally or why witnesses couldn’t be developed to prove the case, even if that might require a plea bargain with one suspect to obtain testimony against another.
Given the absence of a compelling rationale, it appears more likely that Obama is bowing to the power of fear, political fear that he might be blamed by fearful Americans if a jury acquitted some allegedly dangerous terrorist because the evidence was insufficient or because the case was tainted by torture or other government misconduct.
Surely, if an acquittal occurred – even if the defendant was then deported to his country of origin – the Republicans and the right-wing media would stoke fears about this dangerous terrorist let loose to wreak havoc. Without doubt, some Americans would fall under the spell of that fear-mongering.
The New York Times played into that pattern last week by touting a dubious report prepared by Bush’s Pentagon in December 2008, which claimed that one in seven detainees released from Guantanamo “returned” to militant activity. Cheney cited that figure in opposing Obama's promise to close the Guantanamo prison.
However, the evidence in the Pentagon report – details that were buried deep inside the Times article – identified only five released detainees (out of 534) who “have engaged in verifiable terrorist activity or have threatened terrorist acts,” the Times reported. In other words, less than one in 100 of the freed prisoners, not one in seven. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Helps the Bushies, Again.”]
The pressure on Obama to permit “prolonged detentions” also may reflect the Pentagon’s blurring of the lines between militants and media workers. It has become trendy inside U.S. counterinsurgency to lump journalists who criticize American actions with combatants engaging in violent acts.
For example, the U.S. military in Iraq has detained Ibahim Jassam, a Reuters cameraman, since September 2008 despite an Iraqi court order calling for his release and the absence of any formal charges against him.
The U.S. military continues to justify his detention on the basis of undisclosed intelligence that Jassam is a “a high security threat,” said Maj. Neal Fisher, a spokesman for detainee affairs.
Journalists for the Arab TV network al-Jazeera also have been targeted for detention as well as for military attack.
Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj was held at Guantanamo from December 2001 to May 2008 as U.S. interrogators unsuccessfully pressed him to link al-Jazeera to al-Qaeda. [For more on U.S. double standards regarding journalists, see this article by Jeremy Scahill.]
Obama’s proposal for “prolonged detentions” would seem to invite continuation of such prolonged abuses, when the intelligence data is vague or has little direct connection to terrorist acts.
It appears that Obama is signaling to frightened Americans that even if there is no usable evidence against detainees, he will protect the U.S. homeland by keeping the suspects locked up for the foreseeable future anyway.
That would be a victory for Scaredy-Cat Nation, but it would be a defeat for the honorable system that has guided Constitutional America for more than two centuries. Obama’s plan looks to be a cave-in to the cycle of fear that has done so much damage to the Republic.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 28, 2009.