in Kulturkampf

The Greenwald Elidings

Glenn Greenwald has only one story to tell, over and over again. It’s titled Obama Hates Peace and Freedom but Ron Paul Loves Them. His latest riff on this theme ran in the Guardian yesterday:

In the last GOP foreign policy debate, the leading candidates found themselves issuing recommendations on the most contentious foreign policy question (Iran) that perfectly tracked what Obama is already doing, while issuing ringing endorsements of the president when asked about one of his most controversial civil liberties assaults (the due-process-free assassination of the American-Yemeni cleric Anwar Awlaki). Indeed, when it comes to the foreign policy and civil liberties values Democrats spent the Bush years claiming to defend, the only candidate in either party now touting them is the libertarian Ron Paul, who vehemently condemns Obama’s policies of drone killings without oversight, covert wars, whistleblower persecutions, and civil liberties assaults in the name of terrorism.

Greenwald actually describes the conundrum of Republican politics quite well for several ‘graffs before reaching this conclusion. The piece is an excellent example of his talent for appealing to the rational, liberal center before he makes the pitch for a crazy idea. If that sounds familiar, it’s what Ron Paul does all the time.

First, let’s dispense with the idea that Republicans love Obama’s Iran policy, because they don’t. The Obama doctrine is actually a kind of cold war containment that is nowhere near hot enough for any Republican who isn’t Ron Paul:

If there’s an area GOP presidential candidates seemed to agree on Saturday night, it’s that President Barack Obama is not doing enough to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Obama’s Iran policy was his “greatest failing,” and did not rule out military action against Iran in a potential Romney administration.


“If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

Mitt Romney warns Obama’s reelection would actually cause Iran to build a nuclear bomb: “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” In the debate to which Greenwald refers, Michele Bachmann raised the chimera of global caliphate. They have the pulse of the Republican Party; Ron Paul does not.

Against them, Greenwald declares Obama a “centrist Republican.” Doctrinally, it is more correct to call President Obama a centrist Democrat, and his cold war with Iran Truman-like. Nevertheless, if Obama seems to be channeling Eisenhower, that is because the Republican Party now belongs to latter-day John Birchers. Islamophobia is the new McCarthyism and caliphate is the new Comintern, but according to Greenwald, all of this is the president’s fault — because he’s a radical centrist!

And the center, he says, might as well be the right because the president has stolen “their” wars from them. Never mind that the war on al-Qaeda was originally theirs to prosecute on Americans, or that the ensuing prosecution of that conflict on al-Qaeda still has overwhelming support from left, right, and center. To get around this problem, Greenwald compounds all wars, and the various issues of those wars, into a single monolith: Iraq is Afghanistan is al-Qaeda in Yemen is Libya is Guantanamo. They’re all the same, even when they’re not.

The linchpin of Greenwald’s story is what he calls “the due-process-free assassination” of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen. That death is supposedly a harbinger of terrible times for American freedom, as all Americans will in future suffer the outrage of due-process-free assassination. Really, I’m not making it up — Greenwald is.

If this sounds like Alex Jones barking about black helicopters in the 1990s, maybe that’s because both Greenwald and Jones are Ron Paul fans. The paranoid narrative informs all three of them. All three tear at the center in order to promote the fringe. Glenn Greenwald is not a mainstream voice; he speaks for a very narrow point of view.

Anwar al-Awlaki, who exhorted jihadis to blow themselves up and kill Americans, was also a fringe figure. Even if ‘all Awlaki did was make videos,’ as many detractors of his killing say, then we must note that making videos is essentially the only thing Osama bin Laden accomplished in the last decade of his life on Earth, either. Neither of them was engaged in free speech.

Some 84% of Americans across partisan lines see the death of Osama bin Laden as a great thing. Greenwald, on the other hand, thinks Osama should have been arrested. By these lights, Anwar al-Awlaki wasn’t cheerleader of an organization actively trying to kill Americans, but a poor misguided little boy who should be protected from the consequences of his own actions. Just like Osama. See how that works?

By these lights, there is no difference between the way Obama and Bush have prosecuted America’s war on al-Qaeda. But in fact the Awlaki case illustrates a stark difference between Obama and Bush: under questioning by the FBI, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab (the Underwear Bomber) immediately gave up crucial information — including the fact he had met with Awlaki. Then he stopped talking, at which point the FBI Mirandized him. As the LA Times reported,

Republican critics in particular have said that the way the arrest was handled illustrated a tilt by the Obama administration toward awarding constitutional rights to terrorism suspects who should be subjected to unimpeded interrogations.

The administration’s policy is that all terrorism suspects go through the civilian judicial system, unlike during the George W. Bush administration. So at some point authorities had to read Abdulmutallab his rights.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general in Alabama, said in an interview that President Obama’s policy of taking terrorism suspects to court rather than military tribunals was carried over from political promises he made on the campaign trail.

“His policy got driven by the campaign,” Sessions said. “Now he gets elected and reality keeps intruding. Sometimes you just have to take your lumps and reverse your decision.”

Of course, the FBI succeeded in getting Abdul Mutallab to cooperate after he was processed into a federal detention facility. Upon providing valuable intelligence, the Underwear Bomber pleaded guilty. The government’s case against him included Abdul Mutallab’s admission that Awlaki had directed his attack.

That is not at all how the Bushies did things, and not at all how the Cheney apologists would see them done. Better, they would say, that we fly Abdul Mutallab bound and hooded to a black hole in Cuba for waterboarding.

Greenwald would actually agree with how the Underwear Bomber was handled, yet cannot bring himself to say so. None of this ever happened in Glenn Greenwald’s world — it is all elided. He blithely reports that “former Bush officials, including Dick Cheney, have taken to lavishing Obama with public praise for continuing his predecessor’s once-controversial terrorism polices,” by which he only means drone strikes.

In fact, the Cheney apology machine has consistently attacked the Obama administration’s efforts to bring detainees to justice in federal courts. The recent flap over the National Defense Authorization Act was all about Cheneyites in the Senate Armed Services Committee trying to take away the president’s authority to do just that — but Greenwald elides all this from his story, too.

Instead, he imagines the FBI should have used the information provided by Abdul Mutallab to arrest Anwar al-Awlaki in the lawless, tribal hills of Yemen. Arrests! Trials! Justice! Never mind that the FBI simply doesn’t have the resources, much less the jurisdiction, to accomplish that task.

The military does, but the Pentagon also has an institutional memory of how such operations have turned out before. Hundreds of Somalis and nineteen Americans were killed in the Blackhawk Down incident. The Battle of Fallujah, America’s bloodiest combat experience since Vietnam, began as a capture-or-kill operation. Surely these are not attractive alternatives, even to Greenwald?

Osama bin Laden is perhaps the best argument against this idea. Not only were there risks to the Americans on the ground in Operation Geronimo, a Blackhawk helicopter refitted in a secretive new stealth design was actually lost. What the Salon writer calls tyranny, then, is actually risk aversion. To a president — any president — a drone-mounted Hellfire is the least bad choice for what to do about Anwar al-Awlaki.

Obama’s detractors on the libertarian fringe use polemical phrases like “targeted killing” to transform this utilitarian choice into an assault on civil liberties. There are plenty of fair-minded people who hear this and agree a troublesome precedent has been set. Yet I object, as the phrase “civil liberties” loses much of its meaning by Greenwald’s usage.

Remember, Greenwald says Citizens United is good for civil liberties. But what he means by those two words is very different from what most of us have in mind when we say them. The president has been consistently supportive of voting rights, for example, but that is elided from the Greenwald definition of “civil liberties;” he also elides the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Fair Sentencing Act, the overturn of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the president’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the US Commission on Civil Rights, etcetera.

Contrast that to Greenwald’s treatment of Ron Paul’s record. In his op-ed, Greenwald makes no mention of the congressman’s racist newsletters, his public stance on the Civil Rights Act, his attempt to strip Iranian students of federal financial aid, his evident homophobia, his numerous assaults on abortion rights, his desire to repeal the “Moter Voter” Act, his attacks on the 14th Amendment, etcetera. I regard his stance on the gold standard as a repeal of economic rights — one that William Jennings Bryan would abhor as a cross of gold.

In Greenwald’s story, not one of the issues in those previous two ‘graffs — not even the fight over voter ID bills that would disenfranchise millions of African Americans — count as civil liberties issues, but the supposed right of an American citizen to be free from harm while directing harm to other Americans does.

It doesn’t matter who is in power. Obama and Bush are “the same” the way Al Gore and Bush were “the same.” Glenn Greenwald’s narrative of power is anarcho-Randian, and therefore very popular on the internet. In his story, power is always the enemy of freedom, can never be used to protect or promote freedom, and therefore its use is never, ever warranted.

Thus Greenwald also elides the UN Security Council resolution on Libya from his story. Ron Paul would elide the United States from the United Nations. We used to call that view “fringe,” but in today’s Republican field it might be a centrist position. Surely that, too, would be Obama’s fault? See, I already know how this story ends.

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