The Republican Party takes its role as the opposition with the same seriousness a white, gun-toting suburbanite protects his or her colonial home. Two weeks ago, a certain talk radio host criticized President Obama for not responding boisterously enough about the Somali pirate hostage crisis. Before launching into an incomprehensible—and incomprehensibly long and sarcastic—monologue about how the pirates couldn't be Muslim because Obama claims we're not at war with Islam (“I suppose they could be a rogue band—a very, very, very tiny, small infinitesimal minority of Islam. But we're not at war with Islam. The president said so. So the Somali pirates—I mean, the story is that they're Muslims, but that can't be, because we're not at war with them. My guess is it's the Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews committing piracy in the open seas off Somalia over there, there's no question in my mind”), Rush Limbaugh claimed that the reason there has been a resurgence of piracy of late is “because idiots like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama think pirates and terrorists—and this is terrorism—are criminals, not enemies.”
Never mind that the recent piracy scourge began during the last administration, but if Limbaugh believes that piracy is terrorism and that we're indeed at war with Islam, then why, after Obama approved an operation in which U.S. snipers shot down three of the hijackers and thusly rescued the U.S. hostage, did he say this: “You know what we have learned about the Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers that were wiped out at the order of Barack Obama, you know what we learned about them? They were teenagers. The Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers who took a U.S. merchant captain hostage for five days were inexperienced youths…Now, just imagine the hue and cry had a Republican president ordered the shooting of black teenagers on the high seas”? Yes, the bloated face of the Fringe Party is also, fittingly, the bloated face of hypocrisy.
Subtler, though no less duplicitous, is the daily assessments of Bill O'Reilly, a man who bases the quality of his network's coverage on the number of viewers who saw it. On The O'Reilly Factor last night, Fox News White House Correspondent Jim Angle chided Obama for deeming waterboarding “too harsh,” but ordering air strikes on terrorists “in their homes, presumably with their wives and children.” When asked by O'Reilly about “some” people—read: “us”—who think Obama is “making a big deal out of [waterboarding],” Angle said: “One could argue that waterboarding isn't nearly as bad as being blown up.” He actually said that. Out loud. I suppose he deserves some credit for his transparent attempt to dress it up so that he could later claim that he wasn't the “one” who was arguing that insidious point.
Partisan spin is expected from these political hacks. But if there was ever any question about who was running the country for the last eight years, the recent flood of criticism about the fledgling Obama administration from senior members of the Bush team, and the relative silence of Bush himself, should leave no doubt. “You should not exaggerate and lie like this when you are the vice president of the United States,” Karl Rove said without a hint of irony in regard to an anecdote recalled by Vice President Joe Biden. (Rove's hypocrisy deserves a piece in and of itself—and it's already been written.)
And speaking of vice presidential liars, Dick Cheney has at least exhibited the virtue of consistency by claiming that Obama is putting the country at risk by, among other things, halting the previous administration's torture program. For that, Obama has been praised by both the left and the right. But his disinterest in prosecuting the C.I.A. operatives who committed the crime of torture and those in the Bush administration who sanctioned those acts, though consistent, has angered many of his supporters. Unlike Republicans, who acquiesced to George W. Bush's every war-mongering, Constitution-dismantling, executive power-grabbing whim, it seems that Democrats are unwilling to sit idly by and blindly support a president who seeks to obstruct justice in the name of politics.
Starting a witch hunt at the C.I.A. could result in the kind of mass exodus of seasoned intelligence officers that weakened the agency during the Clinton administration. Obama understandably doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of his Democratic predecessor, and the announcement last week that his administration has no intention of seeking prosecutions of C.I.A. employees who carried out policies ordered by Bush and Cheney is further evidence of that. But Obama's disinterest in pursuing justice extends to even operatives who went beyond what was authorized in the recently released memos regarding those “aggressive interrogation techniques,” the top Bush officials who composed those memos, and presumably Bush and Cheney themselves.
Over the weekend, Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC that the president believes that those who devised the torture policies should not be prosecuted. This kind of stance is not simply disappointing or embarrassing, it's downright lawless. The message continues to be that the United States can do whatever it wants, that we can ignore international laws and treaties. More specifically, it signals that the country's politicos and their minions will not be upheld to the same standards of justice as ordinary citizens. As lefty Glenn Greenwald so nonpartisan-ly put it: “Perhaps it's time to begin a FREE BERNIE MADOFF campaign based on Obama's oh-so-moving decree that this is a time for reflection, not retribution, and that we must look forward, not backwards.”
This “look forward, not backward” mantra has become as disturbingly pervasive as any of Bush's asinine slogans, with Emanuel, increasingly inept White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and a chorus of others in Washington employing it ad nauseam. But before I join the ranks of those on the left crying foul, I'd like to examine, briefly, the possibility that Obama is attempting the ultimate have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too political move. In the current issue of Newsweek, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas cite sources inside the Department of Justice who suggest that Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, is still considering investigating the issue of torture, while Democrats in Congress, specifically head of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy, still want a commission to examine the abuses. As president, Obama has an obligation to focus on the country's most pressing issues—the economy, health care, those pesky wars—and to keep the intelligence community on his side, and that's exactly what he's doing. Presidents aren't prosecutors, and, unless you're George W. Bush, the executive office doesn't run the DOJ. That means it's your move, Mr. Holder.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.