[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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  1. Russell,

    I absolutely agree that Manning should not be tortured in this manner. Instead, he should be treated in the manner prescribed under the UCMJ – tried, and punished by death for espionage, spying, and aiding the enemy.

    That, at least, would be to treat Manning with desert commensurate with the crime. In my opinion, torture is far worse than death, and jurisprudentially, no crime that Manning has committed is there a sentence of torture.

  2. “The enemy” in this case being Julian Assange? Or “the terrorists,” against whom we have not declared war but who will, of course, win, if we don’t chop off the man’s head?

  3. If I had thought any of Sarah Palin’s criticisms of Barak Obama on the matter of civil liberties were true criticisms, I would have been tempted to vote for Obama. (I was tempted to vote for Palin, too, but finally decided I couldn’t accept her views on civil liberties.) But I was pretty sure Obama was lying and that he would become President Bush the 4th. And I said so at the time, repeatedly, though not in this forum. In particular, I was pretty sure Obama would not give up any of the authority that Bush had arrogated to the presidential office on matters of national security, warrantless wiretaps, treatment of combatants, etc. Leftists love power and do not relinquish it. Doesn’t happen. So none of this surprises me.

  4. The Marines deprived me of sleep for five years, too, and I understand that’s different, but it’s difficult not to roll my eyes when those on the outside criticize those on the inside.

    If Manning is exonerated, maybe Klein’s post will seem less obnoxious. Maybe.

    But I am certain that somewhere in Quantico, you might encounter a “confused, passionate, contradictory young man, who wanted to be part of something larger than himself.” And it may be a young Lance Corporal or Corporal working as a guard. being thrown under the bus so the Juicebox Mafia don can make a few political points.

    And half of Andrew Sullivan’s blog posts are needless sadism.

  5. Speaking of thuggish abuse of power, I hope that anyone who is critical of the Obama government’s handling of Manning is also critical of the shakedown of Wisconsin businesses being conducted by public employee unions. If not, I would question how serious he is. (I am also assuming that James Taranto’s description of what is happening is accurate.)

  6. I think it’s because everyone recognizes his administration’s treatment of Manning is despicable.

  7. Everyone but our military and ex-military. Support The Troops, everyone – torture’s just what they do, man.

    (And, John, your post doesn’t make any sense to me. Are you really equating the physical torture of a human person with a contest of political wills?)

  8. Perhaps you may be somewhat rash in characterizing the prison’s procedures as ‘torture’. It is my understanding that Manning is held on a cell block with other prisoners, and not in solitary. His civilian counsel has described the situation as ‘amounting’ to solitary confinement because the two cells immediately on either side of his are vacant, and Manning, if he wishes to speak to other prisoners, must speak to those across the walkway or one cell removed on either side. Private conversations are thereby inhibited. Non-private conversation, however, is apparently still possible. As to the strip procedures, it seems that Manning is required to remove his regular clothes each evening and don a gown (perhaps of paper) which cannot be crafted into an article for self-stangulation. This is not an unusual procedure for a prisoner who has given signs of being despondent. I wonder how many of those who rush to a facile judgement that the present procedures amount to ‘torture’ would be in the forefront of those condemning the Army for failing to take such precautions to prevent a suicide attempt if one were to occur. Basing one’s evaluation of the confinement conditions on the statements of a private counsel – whose purpose in giving those statements may have been to solicit favorable public opinion for his client – is questionable at best.

  9. Re: I hope that anyone who is critical of the Obama government’s handling of Manning is also critical of the shakedown of Wisconsin businesses being conducted by public employee unions.

    I have a hard time parsing this one out. On the one hand we have a fairly flagrant abuse of power and an outright violation of the Constitution. On the other, a raucous and perhaps somewhat over-the-top public protest against a high-handed and unpopular governmental action. Whatever you think of the Wisconsin protestors’ cause they are well within their rights to protest what they do not like. I hope at least we have not come to the point where the public must meekly accept without comment anything and everything the ruling class decrees.

  10. “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.”

    Everybody has a reason ––– even if nothing more than flimflam. Once my eyes took in this opening sentence the author’s seduction by intellectual dishonesty was complete. Critical thought evaporated and the worst kind of tripe wafted across the ether. One would hope the author would explain how President Obama is better than his predecessor, instead of assuming such a proposition. Numerous statistical and economic data point one toward a different approach. It has been assumed by many that Bush was a disaster, but I don’t see any reason why this should be assumed. The economy has grown worse under Obama and the classical liberal formula of free markets, the sovereignty of the individual, free ideas, and freedom of consciousness have all taken a harsh of drumming under the Obama Administration. The very principals in which Front Porch Republic espouses seems to beg the question how such an opening sentence even belongs on this website ––– not because Bush is a beautiful expression of liberty, place, and freedom ––– but because of how far Obama’s policies threaten such virtues. There seems to be a stagnant bog of want from folks to admit how bad Bush was ––– instead of a proper explication of our classical liberal foundations and what polity decisions expand or restrict those bedrock pillars.

  11. The very principals in which Front Porch Republic espouses seems to beg the question how such an opening sentence even belongs on this website

    Unless, David, there happens to be reason to doubt–as I doubt, and as more than a few other writers and commeters here at FPR also doubt–that your conflation of “our classical liberal foundations” with FPR’s defense of local equality and sovereignty is accurate. Defending “place, limits, and liberty” can involve a wide range of arguments; stipulating that there’s no possible way anyone who thinks positively about our current president, who clearly isn’t a classical liberal, can contribute to any of those arguments is, I think, simply close-minded.

    Not that such would prevent from appreciating or engaging with the post, should you ever read the rest of it, since my point is to criticize the president for licensing the sort of arrogant actions that good localists despised when Bush’s administration was responsible for them, and should similarly despise now.

  12. “Place, Limits, and Liberty” .

    I would stridently argue place, limits, liberty, presuppose classical liberal formulas ––– or principals, Sir.

    These FPR values are derived from enlightment ideas thoroughly expressed in classical liberalism. Local sovereignty and equality demands classical liberal ideological views and explicitly rejects statist ideological positions. In fact, FPR’s principals require an even more faithful subscription to federalism ––– greater power of the states in light of the federal government. Obama has clearly governed against this. Obama is a unapologetic statist and has governed as such consistently. His policies have not opened up breathing room for place, limits, and liberty, nor have they assured a better ability of local sovereignty and equality. His policies have led to an atrophy of FPR values, socially, economically, and culturally. Obama is in opposition to FPR principals whether intended or not based on his politics. While there is certainly diverse room to debate between a Hamiltonian view and Jeffersonian view concerning how best to realise aspects of place, limits, and liberty ( and local sovereignty and equality ), I would propose statism is radically foreign to both perspectives. Unless one assumes I believe in a narrow view of classical liberalism which I do not, I do not understand your reply. I believe there is a large diversity within classical liberalism ––– and I believe FPR espouses that faithfully. But your comment regarding Obama is simply absurd when you’re highlighting and promoting local sovereignty and equality and place, limits, and liberty…

  13. On a further note, it should be understood, less we all be confused, that statism ( the natural outpouring of progressive leftism to which Obama is part ) is always opposed to individual liberty, local sovereignty, equality ––– and FPR’s motto ––– Place, Liberty, and Limits. Far from a conflation, that was the general thrust of my critical horn blast to the honorable Mr Fox. Classical liberalism is the fountain which all liberty, equality, and sovereignty spring from. Thus to take FPR’s dictum seriously is to take a consistent classical liberalism serious as well.

  14. @David:

    I think you are missing Fox’s qualification at the beginning of the piece–the distinction between advocacy and ontology. I think what Fox is saying is that he and Obama can promote the same principles, such as: individual rights, equality under the law, representative government, local sovereignty, distrust of fixed hierarchies (advocacy), but differ in their understanding of what is or what promotes liberty (ontology). I am not saying that this distinction is not without problems, but it is an important qualification in light of your comments.

    One could say the same thing about former President G.W. Bush. Bush may have advocated classical liberal principles, but Bush’s policies: NeoCon Foreign Policy, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Drug Plan, and The Patriot Act demonstrate a different understanding of place, limits, and liberty than that which is frequently espoused on this website, or even by some classical liberals.

    The main reason I come to this website is to read critiques of classic liberalism that simultaneously promote place, limits, and liberty, by mainly Christian contributors. This means sometimes confronting what Niebuhr and others have described as “Enlightenment heresies” or understanding liberal democracy’s flaws through the interpretive lens of Tocqueville. Fox’s fond expressions about President Obama aside, it’s really this ontology distinction that you miss, when you conflate the FPR principles–place, limits, and liberty–with classical liberalism.

  15. @vpfree

    Much respect for your salient response to my post. I guess again, where I am having a helluva hard time understanding is — it matters NOT what Obama says he stands for. As a pure and unapologetic statist, his policies will never arrive, nor create such liberties, locally or otherwise, Mr Fox champions. They will fundamentally atrophy such classical liberal ideals as place, liberty, limits, and local sovereignty. Look, I’m just a Negro contrarian — born in Washington, DC — stridently classically liberal, but FPR’s principals and Mr Obama’s are world’s apart. That’s the problem with statism, Vpfree. It collectively embraces all things ( part and parcel to the idea of social engineering ) and always faces the notion of limited freedoms and liberties for citizens. This was paramount in Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on America — the fear of a soft tyranny. Statism is soft tyranny. Inherently statism wars with the fundamentals of federalism, which is key to local sovereignty and individual sovereignty, which is of vast importance to anyone holding an opinion that local sovereignty is of any great importance. The abuse by progressive liberals ( statists ) of the interstate commerce clause is just one example where local sovereignty has been oppressed and withered by the very politics supported by Obama. Statism within itself is opposed to everything FPR stands for, organically — from within. While I can surely see vehement antagonism toward much of George W Bush’s big government “conservatism” from FPR’s standpoint, Obama is far worse! He has contributed far more to an unstable monetary policy which also threatens local sovereignty and liberty. You are not free when in debt. You can be against lung cancer all you want, vpfree, most smokers are. But smoking still causes lung cancer!

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