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Monday, March 14, 2011

Bradley Manning, and my Biggest Disappointment in Obama (Yet)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Let me make two things clear: first, all things considered, I still think Barack Obama has been, and remains, a pretty decent president--certainly better than his predecessor. Despite the wide philosophical gulf between us, the priorities and aspirations which our respective political philosophies lead us to form overlap enough that I end up sharing a fair number of his partisan goals (the philosopher Charles Taylor called this the distinction between ontology and advocacy). Second, I am not an apologist for all things relating to WikiLeaks--on the contrary, I accept the authority of nations, and therefore (sometimes reluctantly) states; I accept the necessity of military discipline and allegiance; I reject the idea all our problems would be solved if we could all follow Julian Assange into some kind of everything-is-transparent techno-utopia. I'll admit that I have been both gratified and horrified by some of the damaging footage which Wikileaks has revealed, and as someone who would like states to be smaller than they are, and fight fewer wars while they're at it, I suppose there is a part of me that sees Assange's operation--an operation that led Bradley Manning to break his oath and the law and reveal thousands of confidential military documents--on the side of the angels. But only a part. Front Porch Republic's Katherine Dalton expressed the dangerous appeal of Assange's righteous anarchism very well:

Mr. Assange reminds me a bit of John Brown, who a hundred and fifty years after his death also remains a hero to many. Brown, too, had a cause that was much larger than any individual. And so it was inevitable, perhaps, that the first victim of the raid on Harper’s Ferry was a free black man. His name was Hayward Shepherd, but we don’t remember that today. We just call him Collateral Damage.

Depending on how you choose to use your words, Bradley Manning is collateral damage as well. I don't want to pretend the man is some perfect hero, any more than a perfect villain: he seems, by all accounts, to be a confused, passionate, contradictory young man, who wanted to be part of something larger than himself, couldn't find it in the military, so instead found it through the hacker community. Enter Assange, exit Manning--to a maximum security cell, where he, by all accounts, has been treated harshly, inhumanely, even horribly.

Where does President Obama come in? Let Ezra Klein explain it:

Over the weekend, the Obama administration forced the State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley to resign. The reason? He’d told the truth.

You may only hazily remember the name “Bradley Manning.” He’s the young soldier accused of passing thousands and thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. I say “accused” not because his guilt is so doubtful, but because he has not yet stood for trial. At the moment, he is simply incarcerated. And in an apparent act of revenge, his captors are subjecting him to sleep deprivation, prolonged time in isolation and continuous nude spot-checks--conditions that Daniel Ellsberg calls “right out of the manual of the CIA for ‘enhanced interrogation’.”

Asked about Manning’s treatment at a speech in Cambridge recently, Crowley made the obvious points: it’s “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” This made life difficult for the administration, and so Crowley--rather than the officials responsible for putting Crowley and every other administration member into the position of defending Mannin’s treatment--was forced to resign. The message of this is horrendous. “Crowley’s firing will make it even less likely in the future that decent public servants will speak out against such needless sadism,” writes Andrew Sullivan.

The Obama campaign was only three years ago, but it had strong opinions on this sort of thing. “To lead the world, we must lead by example,” Candidate Obama said in October of 2007. “We must be willing to acknowledge our failings, not just trumpet our victories. And when I’m President, we’ll reject torture--without exception or equivocation.” But now we find there is both exception and equivocation--and the administration is purging those within its ranks who publicly say it should be otherwise. This is a moment in which both those who serve in the administration and those who support it need to ask whether the Obama administration is keeping sight of its values now that it holds power. The trade-off between security and moral purity is always more difficult for a president than a candidate, but as we saw in the Bush administration, the pendulum can swing too far towards security, in a way that does little to make us safer and erodes who we are. Crowley’s firing is a sign that that may be happening to the Obama administration.

Ezra's title for his post is, "What would the Obama campaign think of the Obama administration?" It's a good question to ask--and one whose answer is, tragically, becoming more obvious with every day that he allows his administration to take a likely criminal, a man who properly ought to pay the price for taking actions against his word and against the law...and torturing him. Wasn't that supposed to be a big deal, three or four years ago? I, for one, would like it to remain one today. This is not to say that the cause that Manning was fighting for--assuming he even was fighting for a cause, as opposed to lashing out, making trouble, and searching for a place and way where he could make a stand and assert himself--is a good one. WikiLeaks, and all the quasi-anarchist and individualist and radically democratic cosmopolitanism baggage which such a project carries with it, is at the very best, a mixed bag. It is the job of a decent community--and in this case, the relevant community is nation-state of the United States--to sort through the mixed bag, trying to salvage that which is good from that which is not. Torturing (or coming close to it) Bradley Manning, and then firing people who speak their mind about it, is a lousy way to do that sorting. Our president should know that; allowing administrative logic to force his hand, if that is what happened, only proves that he doesn't have the right things on his mind.


Rachel said...

Great article Russell but are you really surprised that Obama said one thing before being elected and then does something different once he is? He has done that all throughout his presidency. I am not trying to make this a debate or slam. Just pointing out a fact. I find it very sad indeed that they would be allowed to treat this young man like they have. It seems he made some very bad and maybe even dishonorable decisions but for his superiors to treat him as they have is so shameful! I am glad that both sides of the political side see this. I really enjoy your blog.

Hector said...

Hi Russell,

While I appreciate your post, and found it (as usual) thoughtful and insightful, I can't let the analogy between Julian Assange and John Brown go unremarked on. I realise this wasn't your analogy, but Katherine Dalton's. Still, I feel the need to comment on it.

Julian Assange is in no way analogous to John Brown, nor is he John Brown's moral equivalent. Let's consider the differences.

1. We all agree that John Brown's cause was quintessentially just- ending slavery. I don't think that Julian Assange's ideal- ending the era of states, of authority, and of law & order- is anywhere near as admirable. In fact, it would be a disaster.
2. John Brown recognized an authority higher than himself- he recognized a natural moral order, and in his specific case, the Christian moral order. Julian Assange recognizes no moral order higher than his own whims.
3. John Brown actually had the courage to actually fight and die for what he believed in. Julian Assange lets other people (like Bradley Manning) take the rap for him, and jets around the world sleeping with Swedish groupies and addressing the Oxford Student Union (where he will no doubt sleep with some more groupies) while Bradley Manning wastes away in an oubliette.
4. John Brown at least confined his violence to actual slaveholders- Julian Assange, by leaking the information all over the world, is almost certainly going to lead to the mass murder of people by terrorists. His actions are much more indiscriminate in their effects than John Brown's.

No, I don't see that Julian Assange is at all comparable to John Brown. Like him or hate him, at least John Brown was a compelling figure of high ideals and worthy of respect. I have very little respect for Julian Assange.

nancydrew said...

I agree with you Russell. I find this so utterly dismaying. The administration, ironically, has decided once again to reinvigorate the young voters who were so important to the electoral victory of 2008. These young people will watch this case and draw a "we-give-up" conclusion. This young man may have been a foolish idealist (lots of early twenty-somethings meet the description) but he was acting mostly as a whistleblower, without portfolio, and not a traitor. His access to this much information, without supervision, makes the Army look stupid. And for the President, to be so cavalier about the circumstances of the detainment and treatment speaks volumes.

BTW, the former Pentagon budget analyst in my household indicates that the real trouble here lies in the various security categories. This stuff was not top-secret--it was confidential, which anyone in these agencies may designate at his desk. Higher security takes more time, (signing off by higher-ups) thus the tendency to put material into the lower security clearance "confidential" rubric. So Manning had access to the mass of "confidential" material. Not "secret", "top secret", "eyes only".

nancydrew said...

I guess what I meant by "it makes the Army look stupid" is that it should certainly have understood that the amount of information designated as "confidential" is very broad and needs much more oversight than it gave to a then twenty-one year old Army private.

Anonymous said...

Dr Fox, I certainly agree with your assessment of Obama and very much share your disappointment in the Administration re the mistreatment of PFC Manning. Even if what he did was misguided and wrong, this is not a civilised way of delivering justice - and that should be an issue which concerns us.

I think one of the biggest pieces of social fallout from the Bush Administration is that they poisoned our expectations of elected officials; it is saddening to me that as a society we have become inured to torture. I'm shocked and disturbed at myself that when I read about this poor young man being abused in prison, my first reaction was one of cynical ennui - and, as one of those twenty-something idealists nancydrew mentioned, I don't think I'm alone.

Thanks for posting this.

- Matthew

nancydrew said...

Also, since you asked. Yes, people do still read blogs. Thanks, and keep writing.

nancydrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nancydrew said...

yes, anonymous. i deleted myself. it was a duplicate.

Geoff B said...

Agreed RAF. Liked the John Brown reference, very appropo.