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When a Country Gets Lost -- And Finds Its Way Back

When a Country Gets Lost -- And Finds Its Way Back


By Bernard Weiner,
The Crisis Papers

Let's face it. Countries, like individuals, get lost sometimes -- really lost, ignoring the maps of morality and civil behavior, bringing shame and disrepute on themselves.

In terms of individuals, good people do weird stuff on occasion: run off, or inexplicably go on a bender, or visit purveyors of easy virtue, or get addicted, or use hate-speech in extremis and so on. Stuff happens.

Nations, too, often take leave of their senses. Crises occur. Citizens get frightened by something and don't know how to respond. A strong leader comes along and channels that fright, usually aiming it at perceived enemies, real or invented, or at least highly exaggerated.

The powers-that-be love crises and catastrophes; at such nodal points, the public is more malleable, more easily rolled. (See Naomi Klein's brilliant book "The Shock Doctrine.").

And when these power-hungry rulers or elites grossly abuse their granted authority, the result often is social chaos, police-state laws, warped or broken economies, and often hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dead and maimed in ill-advised wars of choice.

AUTHORITARIAN RULERS

History is replete with examples of nations, even democratic ones, that go crazy like this for awhile, head off into authoritarian rule, and sometimes even totalitarian control. And it isn't easy to turn that ship around. Sometimes that reversal can be accomplished by the populace, who wake up to what atrocities are being carried out in their name and throw the bums out at the next election, or by a coup. Sometimes natural death intervenes, making intervention moot. Other times, it takes a village, so to speak: The regional or world community has to act in concert to force a change in behavior by removing the ruling elite from the country in question.

You know what I'm talking about. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe, Amin, George W. Bush.

You may think it's unfair to throw Dubya into that line-up of political monsters, and I agree that not all miscreants are equal. George W. is no Hitler or Stalin or Idi Amin.

But it's fair to acknowledge that Bush does deserve to be in that continuum of grossly awful leaders who used and then abused their power and, by so doing, brought their countries to wrack and ruin and to worldwide condemnation and shame. Because Bush was in charge of the world's most powerful nation on earth, his crimes were magnified in their consequences and in their regional and global social impact, so his place in the pantheon of shame is correct.

WHY BUSH IS STILL A DANGER

So why am I bringing up Bush now, after a democratic election has, as it were, thrown out the bums? Am I being mean-spirited, just beating a dead horse?

Two reasons:

1. Bush will still be president for the next two months. Out of failed ideology and thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence, he has left his successor with an ungodly mess to deal with. But he ain't through yet. He has concocted, so to speak, a scorched-earth welcome-to-the-White-House for Barack Obama, along with burrowing key political-appointed Bushies into civil-service positions of power in order to gum up the works even more for the incoming administration.

By executive order in the past several months, Bush, for example, has bent all sorts of environmental rules and regulations to give the exploiters and polluters even more leeway to take what they want, including permitting cutting some of the last old-growth forests in Oregon and oil/gas drilling in public lands and immediately adjacent to key National Parks, in particular in Utah. The idea is to get these projects started, with money in the federal pipeline, before Bush leaves office, making it more difficult for the Obama Administration to execute an immediate U-turn.

In addition, Bush has taken many of his mid-level political appointees and placed them under the civil-service umbrella in jobs overseeing energy and science experiments for which they are not trained or have no experience. Being civil service employees makes it virtually impossible for the new president to get rid of them. In effect, they would be moles inside the new government in key positions to harm or hamstring Obama's environmental policies. Among many others complaining about this last-minute tactic by Bush are scientists angry that political ideologues with no scientific training will have important input on scientific policy.

AUTHORITARIAN-TYPE RULES

2. Many of the authoritarian rules and precedents established during the CheneyBush years are still in place, and could be abused by Obama or presidents who follow him. True, Obama's transition team has listed 200 of Bush's executive orders that they will rescind quickly with the stroke of a pen. But some of the larger issues are still hanging out there:

  • The overuse of presidential "signing statements" to nullify aspects of laws passed by the Congress, as part of the "unitary executive" theory of government, which theory basically turns the president into a near-dictator;
  • The policy of "pre-emptive war," attacking a country that is not an actual imminent threat to the U.S.;
  • The use of torture as official state policy;
  • The nullification of the legal concept of habeas corpus from American law, whereby a judge has to certify the legitimacy of an arrest;
  • The employment of massive domestic spying on and data mining of American citizens, including eavesdropping without a court warrant on phone conversations, snooping into mail, examining personal computer files without the knowledge of the citizen, etc;
  • The throwing of citizens into jail as suspected "terrorists" or "enemy combatants," with no access to lawyers; etc. etc.
  • All of these violations of the Constitution's Bill of Rights, in the Patriot Act and elsewhere, have been enacted on a regular basis during the past eight years of CheneyBush. How much of this will be quickly and aggressively reversed by Obama and how much will he keep some of these police-state tactics still in place, just in case he wants to use them?

    TRUST OBAMA TO DO RIGHT THING?

    Which brings us to a key dilemma facing the progressive base of the Democratic Party: After eight years under CheneyBush, during which the U.S. was lost in a dark ideological/corrupt shadow world, President-Elect Obama promises us, finally, the return of light in our politics so that we can find our way back to some higher level of moral/spiritual/social health. He probably won't take the country as far in that regard as many of us might wish, but his landslide victory did break the back of the CheneyBush HardRight as an all-powerful movement and offers us, yes, hope for significant change and progress in righting many of the wrongs of the past eight years.

    As many of us have been saying for months now, if you believe Obama will do, or even can do, all of the many things he's promised, you're in for a rude surprise. Obama is not a radical or progressive in how he operates; he's a pragmatic centrist, with liberal leanings, but beholden to many of the same economic and political forces that have great influence in contemporary politics. But he's an unusually intelligent politician, open to argument and persuasion. That's why we on the progressive left must speak out forcefully when we see him straying from positions that we think can be most useful in repairing the damage of the past eight years.

    Which brings us to our current dilemma, much talked about in liberal/progressive circles: How much should we trust Obama to do the right thing and thus hold back our criticisms of his actions and policies during this interregnum before he actually is inaugurated as President and during the first few-months "honeymoon" period? And how much should we start criticizing him now for his sins of omission and commission, especially with regard to his somewhat more hawkish foreign/military policies? (See Jeremy Scahill's "This Is Change? 20 Hawks, Clintonites and Neocons to Watch for in Obama's White House.")

    SLACK VS. PRESSURE

    My inclination is to cut Obama some slack, at least until he takes office and starts messing up. On the other hand, he's making key decisions now, especially as he fills out his Cabinet and operational staff, and unless progressives take a stand now, it may be too late later.

    (For instance, as far as we can tell, most of his national-security appointments seem to come from the middle to the middle-right; there is not one true progressive who can balance out the arguments that will be made inside the Cabinet. Not a good sign.)

    I'll be interested to hear where you come down on this dilemma. How we act in the next few months may have much to do with how President Obama begins his Administration post-January 20. Join the debate and help "change the world."

    *************

    Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net .

    First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 11/25/08.

    Copyright 2008 by Bernard Weiner.

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