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

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS
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 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 own 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.

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