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Ineffectual Opposition Tends to be Ineffectual

[ 66 ] November 15, 2012 |

Greenwald recently cited this post by Jack Goldsmith, claiming that the latter has shown that “an Obama presidency will strengthen these policies far more than a Romney presidency could have.” (This echoes the argument that Henry Farrell made when speculating that withdrawing support from Obama might improve things in the long run.) Here’s the key passage:

One important consequence of President Obama’s re-election will be the further entrenchment, and legitimation, of the basic counterterrorism policies that Obama continued, with tweaks, from the late Bush administration. We will have four more years of a Democratic president presiding over military detention without trial, military commission trials (at least for the 9/11 conspirators, if not for more), broad warrantless surveillance, drone strikes around the globe, and covert war more generally. These policies will of course be scrutinized by the many watchers of the presidency. But they will receive less pushback than they would have received under a republican president. Not only does the public generally trust the former constitutional law professor and civil liberties champion more than a republican president to carry out these policies (this is the Nixon going to China phenomenon). But in addition, many on the left (in Congress and the NGO community, and perhaps the press) who might otherwise be uncomfortable with these policies will give President Obama a freer hand than they would a republican president. The paradoxical bottom line: aggressive counterterrorism policies will, as a general matter, become more entrenched as a result of Obama’s election, compared to a Romney presidency.

Does this argument make any sense? Well, no. The key question here is where exactly the greater “pushback” against a Republican administration is supposed to be coming from. Certainly, as our experience with the Bush administration makes clear, not from Congress, whatever the partisan configuration. Not from a Department of Justice headed by someone likely to be worse than Goldsmith (let alone Holder.) The more Republicans confirmed to the federal courts, the less likely judicial pushback — which is already unlikely — will be.

So Goldsmith seems to mean that there would be a greater degree of pushback from left-wing civil libertarians. I agree that the level of criticism from these quarters would be ramped up under a Romney administration. But since even the greater degree of criticism under Bush was wholly ineffectual, this is neither here nor there. Nobody in a position to stop the policies would engage in any pushback against a Romney administration, so we’d get the same stuff as Obama, with perhaps arguments about the president having greater inherent powers and with more arbitrary detention and torture thrown in (all being supervised by wingnuts in the DOJ and increasing numbers of neoconfederates on the federal courts.) I’m not really seeing the benefits for civil libertarians here.

The argument, essentially, is like saying that Nader throwing the election to Bush was a good thing, because without that we wouldn’t have had the real but ineffectual movement against the Iraq War. Maybe it’s me, but I’d rather skip the middleman and not have the war. Opposition isn’t an end in itself; it’s supposed to effectuate better policies.

Comments (66)

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  1. scott says:

    I don’t think the argument is that hard to understand. Progressives are pulling their punches on things Obama is doing because he’s doing them, not Bush. What was beyond the pale to us if the previous administration did it gets normalized or at least far less controversial based on our partisan/tribal attachments, and opposition to them (whether you regard it as effective or not not) becomes even weaker. Duh.

    • The argument isn’t hard to understand.

      It’s hard to agree with, if you know what you’re talking about.

      Who said it was hard to understand?

    • Patrick says:

      But, like Lemieux said, opposition only matters IF it would effect the outcomes. Weak-hearted opposition that changes nothing is not worse than strident opposition that changes nothing. They are exactly the same.

      • david mizner says:

        But the phrase Goldsmith uses is “more entrenched.” Active opposition from Democrats in Congress (and there was some during the Bush years, though not enough, including from a certain Senator from Illinois)can at least ensure that certain policies remain controversial and therefore changeable. The agitation on detainee policy led to the McCain Amendment (passed during the Bush years), which led to Obama’s EO banning torture.

        With a GOP president, Dems would be more inclined to hold hearings on and otherwise oppose, say, the targeted killing program. Such efforts would be unlikely to change these policies in the short-term, but they would prevent them from becoming fixtures — “permanently entrenched.” And it’s circular: when both parties back certain bad policies, more of the public accepts them, which in turn makes pols more unlikely to change them. That’s what’s happened on Gitmo. At the outset of Obama’s term, most of the country wanted it shut down; but now, with both parties supporting its continued existence, only about a third of the country does.

        Don’t get me wrong: under the best of circumstances, it’s tough to roll back policies that give the president more power, but a situation where both parties support them is the worst circumstances.

        • david mizner says:

          Shorter me: when both parties support policies, they become more deeply entrenched. Not complicated.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            But both parties support the policies whoever is in the White House, so what do you gain from a Romney White House other than worse policies? They were “entrenched” before Obama took office.

            • They were “entrenched” before Obama took office.

              And they’ve become less “entrenched” during his presidency.

              Take military detention. Let’s not forget that the President who actually did put terrorism suspects into military detention – George W. Bush – did so without a shred of Congressional authorization, citing only inherent executive authority, and that the absence of such a fig leaf did nothing to prevent it.

              While the passage of a bill through Congress explicitly authorizing such detentions did not result in a single person being detained. The distinction between a power based on an executive claim and a power based on legislation is only meaningful to the degree that the courts find against that power when based on an executive claim, and that hasn’t happened. Whereas the difference between indefinite military detention actually being used and treated as normal, and it being renounced and, through lack of use, becoming abnormal is quite real and meaningful.

          • Ed says:

            Shorter me: when both parties support policies, they become more deeply entrenched. Not complicated.

            An interesting example being the expansion of the drone wars, which went unmentioned during the foreign policy “debate,” because there’s a de facto consensus on both sides. I read somewhere that Obama deployed more drones in his first year than Bush had in eight. No doubt if Bush had had another four years we’d have seen more action from him on that frnt as well, but Obama’s still the daddy of the drones.

        • but now, with both parties supporting its continued existence, only about a third of the country does.

          Whether the Democratic Party as a whole supports its continued existence is highly debatable, but this article wasn’t about the parties as a whole. It was about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

          It is not debatable whether Barack Obama supports its continued existence; it is know that he does not.

    • mpowell says:

      The argument isn’t hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean it a very good one. In fact, that he is even making this argument does a better job of exemplifying how poorly Glenn Greenwald and his fellow travellers understand politics than anything else I could come up with.

      Protests by themselves mean absolutely nothing and have no effect. Only the people in power can make a change. To get change you have 3 options: 1) change the people in power 2) undermine their gov’s influence with the people who carry out orders 3) violent revolution. That’s it. And 2) and 3) are not on the table. Glenn Greenwald isn’t going to persuade members of the CIA that torture is wrong and he isn’t going to lead a violent revolution. So we are stuck with 1). And what’s worse, we have to consider the kind of candidate we can actually put in power. Obama is what you are going to get.

      Now there is something to your claim regarding partisan attachment changing people’s opinion, but this is not Greenwald’s argument because he is just interested in the protests. If I secretly continue to oppose torture and just don’t talk about it while Obama is president, this doesn’t cut it for him. But now we are talking about national public opinion. And I think you have to be flaming insane to think that public opinion on counter terrorism will be more inclined to move left under a Republican president. First of all, Republican presidents are incompetent and will do things like allow terrorists attacks on US soil to occur (9/11) and get involved in stupid wars (Iraq, Iran to come). The rally around the flag effect with these kinds of events is extremely powerful and pretty clearly moved the public to the right over the 2000-2008 time frame. Secondly, the level of normalization for the general public will be simply higher with the more egregious conduct a Republican administration will engage in. So I don’t think your alternative to Greenwald’s argument is very persuasive either.

      • Marc McKenzie says:

        “…..how poorly Glenn Greenwald and his fellow travellers understand politics than anything else I could come up with.”

        That’s just it, isn’t it? For all their braying and garment-rending, they really know jack-s**t about politics, especially when it comes to the Presidency and the power of the office. Greenwald likes to trumpet about how he’s a Constitutional scholar, but so’s the President, and he certainly seems far more knowledgeable about Constitutional Law than GG.

      • John says:

        I think you’re missing 4) convince the people in power to change their positions through fear of suffering any of 1, 2, or 3. I’m not sure that’s viable, either, but it’s certainly a possible way to change policy.

    • JazzBumpa says:

      This is presumed IOKIYAR in reverse.

      Simple projection, a typical right wing thought (?!?) process.

      JzB

    • Njorl says:

      Progressives are not pulling their punches.

      They don’t have punches.

  2. erik says:

    Maybe it’s me, but I’d rather skip the middleman and not have the war

    Of course, but that’s not on point: the argument is that you’re getting the war either way so better to at least have the opposition.

    As for the argument that your opposition is not effective so it doesn’t matter, you may be right but I’d think of this as more of a long-term thing, movement building, the hard work of shaping public opinion, etc. leading eventually to the possiblity of changing public policy.

    • L2P says:

      And there’s no opposition now? Is Greenwald NOT complaining? Are NGO’s, Congress, and the Press NOT investigating? If things are better (as they are under Obama), we’d expect less opposition from progressives. So what’s the problem?

      I’m not buying the “we want more destruction, pain, and suffering so there will be more opposition to the war” argument. That’s as close to pure evil as we’re going to get.

      • Greenwald was complaining when the Bush administration used a drone to kill a car full of al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen in 2002. I was not.

        He is still complaining about the President using drones to kill al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen today. I still am not.

        What has changed? Some – not most, but some – liberals have moved from my position to his position since Barack Obama came to office.

        This whole line of argument is based on an phony premise.

        • The Lorax says:

          Joe–I’ve been meaning to ask you–what say you about the indefinite detention without trial that continues under Obama?

          I’m not trolling; I really want to know what you think.

          • I think he made his gambit to try to win the issue and start fixing the problem in 2009 when he pushed the KSM trial, and he got his ass kicked, culminating in the Congressional ban on moving those detainees into the federal law enforcement system.

            It didn’t help that the people who should have had his back when made his first move decided that stabbing him the back with cries of “Not good enough!” was a better plan. It’s unlikely they mattered enough to make a difference, though. Unshitting that bed was always going to be steep climb.

            I’m hoping that the upcoming end of the Afghan War will open up another window of opportunity.

            • rea says:

              I might add, with an ongoing war, we accumulate POWS who, in the nature of things, are detained “indefinitely”–e.g., to the end of the war. So the end of the war in Afghanistan is, indeed, a point in time at which large numbers of these detainees ought to be released.

              Unfortuantely, some of the Bush detainees at Guantanamo are going to present long term problems, because other countrys don’t want them, and Congress won’t let them be released here. Unshitting the bed is always problematic.

        • Bart says:

          He’s complaining about the President using drones to kill whoever he damn well pleases.

          • Oh, did John Boehner and Rush Limbaugh die in air strikes?

            You know, if you actually have evidence of someone doing something wrong, you don’t have to do that. An accurate, reality-based, factual description will do the job just fine.

            Your need to invent things serves only to demonstrate the weakness of the case against the actual actions he has taken.

            Sort of like pretending Bradley Manning didn’t have a television.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Of course, but that’s not on point: the argument is that you’re getting the war either way so better to at least have the opposition.

      But you’re not getting the same war. Obama, while pretty terrible on civil liberties, has ended torture and arbitrary detention and appoints better judges.

      It’s like saying that Gore would have invaded Afghanistan and not entirely ended Iraq sanctions — which I think is correct — so therefore you have “war” and might as well have the ineffectual opposition. It doesn’t make sense, even before you consider the countless other ways in which Romney is worse.

  3. But since even the greater degree of criticism under Bush

    What greater degree of criticism under Bush? Have you ever gone back and looked at, say, the Daily Kos archives from the Bush administration?

    There has been a great deal more pushback on things like air strikes against al Qaeda, the Afghan War, and military detention during Obama’s presidency than during Bush’s – including from “the left.”

    • Then again, there are some issues that liberals have given Obama less grief over than they gave Bush. For instance, torture, or the practice of putting terrorism suspects into military detention, like Jose Padilla.

      Now, obviously, the inarguable fact that everyone who isn’t Glenn Greenwald is a disgusting hypocrite is the most likely explanation for the modulation of criticism from the left. No question – we can just take that as a given and move on.

      But might I suggest that the absence of either of those things happening under Barack Obama might play some small, barely noticeable role as well?

  4. L2P says:

    “But in addition, many on the left (in Congress and the NGO community, and perhaps the press) who might otherwise be uncomfortable with these policies will give President Obama a freer hand than they would a republican president.”

    Wait, what?

    The argument is that the press, the press that gave Bush sloppy blow jobs all throughout his administration’s destruction of due process et al, will suddenly start caring that a Republican is back in office?

    And that “Congress and the NGO community,” those guys that let Bush run black ops prisons but won’t let Obama buy toilet paper for an Afghanistan forward fire base without a Congressional Investigating Committee, will suddenly care that a Republican is back in office?

    Where [b]were[/b] these guys the past 15 years? Did they [b]watch[/b] the Global War On Terror from 2002-2008? [b]What The Hell?[/b]

  5. Rick Santorum's Leaky Faucet says:

    The argument that civil rights are more secure under a hypothetical Romney (or any Republican) because uh liberals give Obama a free pass but would be more vigilant under Romney or something, is so fucking facile that it makes me physically ill. As in, so viscerally angry and disgusted I can barely type out a civil response to that argument.

    Because, you know, liberals managed to stop the Patriot Act under Bush…wait… And the fact that Biden had a hand in drafting it I acknowledge, but that has nothing to do with the argument that liberals react stronger to an opposition sort of government. And the war on Iraq, and extraordinary renditions. Man. I guess the only explanation is that Bush was a liberal, because the argument is impeccable.

  6. Jesse Levine says:

    Not only does Goldsmith’s argument make sense, you guys are illustrating it perfectly. Why don’t you just admit you have no real problem with the Obama administration’s prosecution of the battle against terrorists and consequent disregard for the erosion of civil liberties.

    • I’ll do that in exchange for six pancakes.

      Deal?

    • NonyNony says:

      I have problems with it but I do things about it like continue to donate money to the ACLU and other organizations that are actually, you know, fighting these battles for real in court. Where they can be effective. And I also encourage other people to do likewise. And in elections I support the “least bad” candidate on these issues who has a shot of actually getting into office. Who, as it turns out, has happened to be the Democrat in every election we’ve had since 9/11.

      What I do not do is assume that if I just clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will solve my problems for me. I assume that I actually have to do something to get crap done. And that something involves actual effort to enact political and social change wherever possible.

      And it emphatically does not include making sure that the Republican gets elected in some kind of underpants gnomes scenario for getting this stuff off the table. If anything, I’m trying to encourage Republicans to get mad about what is going on as much as folks on the left tend to be.

      • Chatham says:

        “And in elections I support the “least bad” candidate on these issues who has a shot of actually getting into office.”

        Well, part of the problem is that the general election (and even, to a lesser extent, primaries) are defensive in nature. If you’re disappointed about your options, then your focus shouldn’t be on the election.

        Then again, the point of most liberal blogs is to focus on things we have no control over and treat politics like a spectator sport, so meh.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Oh Christ, not the “if you criticize transparently ineffective tactics then you’re secretly a member of the DLC” shit again. I do enjoy it more when it’s made by an Iraq War supporter like Matt Stoller, expelling people well to his left from the left in the name of purism.

  7. Yeah but opposition is such a rock solid means to the grift, that it might as well be an end in and of itself to the grifter.

  8. Sly says:

    I’m not really seeing the benefits for civil libertarians here.

    They assume that more people would join them in their impotence, and that would at least make them feel better even as the outcomes of counterterrorism policy got actually worse.

    And they know damn well it would get worse. It’s just that advocating for more death (of others… this isn’t being advocated by people whose own skin is on the line, and it never is) to make a situation worse before it gets better is so blatantly monstrous that it undermines the thick veneer of sanctimony that they slather over everything they say and write.

    • It’s worth noting the it’s the same logic they apply to healthcare fantasies: we have to sacrifice thousands/millions of uninsured people in the interim so that things can get so bad society has no choice but to accept single payer at some indeterminate future point. It’s incredibly monstrous, and it’s downright infuriating when it’s being presented as the author claiming to be more righteously progressive than me.

      • This is even worse, though.

        At least when tens of millions of Americans were suffering without health care coverage, there actually was an outcry about it.

        As opposed to the public’s opinion about civil liberties and the War on Terror under Bush.

        • Well yeah, that too. I’d say the underlying current to Greenwald’s line of reasoning is something along the lines of “if a Republican is in office, more liberals will agree with me and the grift will be that much bigger!”

          • Warren Terra says:

            Well, when Bush was in office Greenwald certainly did OK out of that PAC he and Jane Hamsher ran – a PAC that spent all of its funds on salaries given to its officers and their friends (though the funds were raised as if the PAC would attempt to help progressive candidates and causes). Unlike some of the other beneficiaries, Greenwald tried to disguise this, by taking his money in the form of payments to a shell company, rather than to himself personally.

      • Marc McKenzie says:

        Yep. Damned right, on this one. It was the same twisted logic I saw from Dave Lindorff, who was against the ACA and even cheered on the Tea Party and hoped that the SC would shut the ACA down. Of course, he never fails to tll his readers about how righteously progressive he is and how Obama’s lower than dirt and is a Repub in disguise.

  9. Ken Houghton says:

    Opposition would certainly be more strident, but–as a New Yorker I know noted–”Me and 100,000 of my closest friends” protested to prevent Operation Iraqi Liberation.

    We saw how well that worked.

  10. Joe says:

    The “tweaks” includes various improvements and stopping future expansion in certain cases (particularly the House proposal in the recent NDAA) while as noted the alternative would be someone worse who might get more forcible opposition because the person is WORSE.

    Not only does the public generally trust the former constitutional law professor and civil liberties champion more than a republican president to carry out these policies (this is the Nixon going to China phenomenon).

    There is a reason why some “generally trust” Obama (and Harold Koh, et. al.) than Bush/Romney: he is better. And, when was Obama this big “civil liberties champion” exactly? When he voted for FISA immunity, supported expanding the “war” on terrorists or expanding the war in Afghanistan?

    He supported some improvements and actually carried some out, some blocked by the tough nature of experience or congressional action.

    He never was going to be a panacea but given the reality of the situation, net he’s better than the alternative.

    • The “tweaks” includes various improvements and stopping future expansion in certain cases (particularly the House proposal in the recent NDAA)

      The most important tweak, of course, was the removal of the “shall” language that would have required the President to place people into military detention, changing it into language that allowed him to continue to exercise his policy of not ever putting a single terrorism suspect into military detention.

      If you call the difference between a law resulting in people being put into military detention, and a law that doesn’t result in people being put into military detention, a “tweak,” while purporting to care about whether or not people are being put into military detention, you are a phony.

    • Marc McKenzie says:

      “He never was going to be a panacea but given the reality of the situation, net he’s better than the alternative.”

      Exactly.

  11. Warren Terra says:

    Wasn’t Jack Goldsmith once in a position to affect these issues? And decided he’d rather resign than stand up for his principles?

    I mean, it’s awfully nice that he regrets having been buddy-buddy with Ashcroft et al, but he talks a pretty good game for someone who was arguably in charge of stopping this stuff, and walked rather quietly away.

    • Murc says:

      talks a pretty good game for someone who was arguably in charge of stopping this stuff

      Jack Goldsmith was the President?

      Without validating anything else he writes, when you’re in the Executive Branch you have two options; comply with existing policy, or resign.

      It’s theoretically possible to stand up for your principles and then be fired, I suppose. There’s some potential for that to happen to me personally a week from today on a much smaller scale; I’ve told my bosses that I’m not working on thanksgiving and they’re welcome to fire me if they disagree. Nixon and his AGs come to mind.

      But that doesn’t usually happen. Most people just quit.

    • Marc says:

      I started to read your sneering link, and very quickly ran into these lines…

      “Executive power increased under Obama. Obama persecuted whistleblowers who threatened to expose his administrations misdeeds. Obama continued the regime of torture and abuse.”

      I think this ranges all the way from objectively false to intentionally misleading.
      But I don’t swallow Greenwald propaganda uncritically, so I suppose if you did do so then you’d find it convincing.

    • T. Paine says:

      Your linked argument is dumber than a bag of wet rocks: Congress blocked Obama from closing Guantanamo, and Congress has to repeal the Patriot Act. I know the difference between the executive and legislative branches of government are hard for schmibertarians, but this really special.

      • Rarely Posts says:

        Dumber than a “bag of wet rocks”? I’ve never heard this one. Is this dumber than a box of rocks, or less dumb?

        In all seriousness, here is how I would rank dumb rock containers:

        1) Least Dumb: bag of wet rocks — this strikes me a potentially useful weapon;
        2) Next Least Dumb: bag of rocks — still a good weapon, but probably noisier (potentially less messy?);
        3) Pretty darn Dumb: box of rocks – the classic;
        4) Dumbest: wet box of rocks — imagining box is cardboard, rocks might all fall straight through.

        Not trying to be critical (seriously). Just want to have an interesting conversation, and your unusual idiom is more promising than arguing with the schmibertarian.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I hate Barack Obama for destroying a civil libertarian majority that has never existed.

  12. Nathan of Perth says:

    Given that the anti-war protest and opposition movement was almost in its entirely completely ineffective (to the point that we really have to revisit the Vietnam War and the conclusions that the protest movement there mattered a damn), I just don’t know what advantage he could possibly hope to derive from this. Substituting a nominal level of control over proceedings with a purely decorative but emotionally satisfying protest movement is just incomprehensible.

    But of course its more morally pure in the latter option, isn’t it? The powerless are almost always more moral, simply because they haven’t had the capacity to be otherwise.

  13. rea says:

    The Republican version of Imperialism kills people by the tens of thousands. Obama’s version kills them by the handful. How anyone can fail to understand what an enormous improvement the latter is over the former is beyond my understanding.

  14. bradP says:

    Its even worse for Obama than we thought. Forget congress, his position is so weak he can’t even get the armed forces to do what he wants:

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/11/dunford/

  15. cpinva says:

    do these dunces actually get paid for writing this drivel? if so, how do i get in on this hackularity?

  16. [...] progressive politics knows this isn’t a strawman.  There really are people who think that it might be worth electing Romney because the much worse policies would be met with more ineffectual opposition — Uncle Sams on [...]

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