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The Real Meaning of Accountability: Reflections on Obama's UN Speech

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Don Smith       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   4 comments

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President Obama spoke Wednesday to the UN General Assembly. As always, he gave a powerful speech and said many promising, inspiring things.

For example, the President said: "The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced."

Agreed. So how about enforcing treaties by investigating and prosecuting Bush-era officials responsible for torture and other crimes?

Earlier this year General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, said that the US had violated the Geneva Conventions with respect to "enhanced interrogation techniques." As Glenn Greenwald reports here, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, "announced that Obama's policy of immunizing CIA torturers violates international law and, specifically, the clear obligations of theU.S. under the Convention Against Torture(signed by RonaldReagan in 1988). " The Christian Science Monitor editorialized against Bush Administration efforts to change "the War Crimes Act, the 1996 US law that prosecutes 'grave breaches' of the laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions." See this page for extensive documentation of Bush-era crimes.

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Attorney General Eric Holder is beginning limited investigations, of low-level CIA officials. If Obama's inspiring words are to be more than "empty promises", such investigations must be extended to include higher level officials.

President Obama wants to look forwards, not backwards. He fears that dwelling on the past will distract America from more important matters, such as health care reform and the economy.

But as argued here, the opposite may very well be true: Obama's reluctance to hold Bush-era wrongdoers accountable is a main reason why Congressional conservatives still have enough clout to thwart Democratic efforts at reform. Indeed, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney were able to get away with so much only because of the support of numerous people in Congress and the media. A full accounting of the mistakes of the Bush era requires wholesale repudiation of huge swaths of conservative ideology and policy, including torture, neo-con imperialism, corruption as standard operating procedure, privatization, deregulation, corporate socialism, and destructive libertarian dogma about the supposed inefficiency and undesirability of government.

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The health care mess and the economic troubles facing the nation are largely due to years of conservative mismanagement, supported by sophisticated propaganda efforts aimed at marketing conservative ideology. (Some Democrats share responsibility.)

Accountability is not just a matter of throwing a few Bush Administration officials in jail. Not at all. The real meaning of accountability is this: will America face the past and repudiate the ideologies, policies, and individuals who brought the nation to the brink of disaster? Torture and lying about war are just the tip of the iceberg. To face the future, Obama must acknowledge and reject the failed policies and officeholders of the past. Nay, many of the people responsible for crimes and mismanagement remain in office today.

Numerous Bush-appointed lawyers, judges, advisers, prosecutors, and military leaders remain in office. And too many of the policies of the Bush years have been continued by Obama, including overseas rendition, the use of signing statements, corporate bailouts, militarism, coddling corporate lobbyists, and secret backroom deals (for example, with Big Pharma). The President failed to lead decisively on health care reform, with the result that most of the bills being considered by Congress fail to address the fundamental problems.

In his UN speech, President Obama said, "On my first day in office, I prohibited -- without exception or equivocation -- the use of torture by the United States of America. (Applause.) I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law."

However, Guantanamo Bay has not yet been closed. See this article. And the New York Times reported a few weeks ago that "the Obama administration will continue the Bush administration's practice of sending terrorism suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation." The Administration pledges to monitor their treatment to make sure prisoners are not tortured but there are questions whether such monitoring will be sufficient.

Obama also said, "In Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war." However, he is ending it more slowly than is ideal, and with an intention of leaving advisers and a residual force in Iraq for years to come. Besides, he expanded the war in Afghanistan, and the US has close to a 1000 overseas military bases and still spends on "defense" about as much as the rest of the world combined. See here.

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Granted, President Obama needs to be given time to change policies. You can't turn an ocean liner on a dime. But the President can begin right away to hold wrongdoers accountable and set the record straight about failed policies. He can fire Bush-era prosecutors today. See Don Siegelman: Fire Rove's Prosecutors. The President, Attorney General Eric Holder and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers can work for the removal of Federal Judge Jay Bybee, appointed by George W. Bush as a reward for writing memos authorizing torture. See The Conyers-Bybee Love Story.

Looking back with eyes wide open, one sees that the Bush Administration, with considerable help from Congress, bungled two wars, deceived the nation about the reasons for going to war, killed over 4000 US troops and perhaps a million Iraqi civilians, promoted and permitted torture (including numerous incidents of prisoners dying while in custody), strengthened our enemies, depleted the military, exhausted our troops, transferred hundreds of billions of dollars to the super-rich, bankrupted the nation, wrecked the economy, corrupted federal agencies, recklessly deregulated industries, mistreated veterans, suppressed evidence about climate change, stacked the Supreme Court with right wing ideologues intent on reversing decades of progressive precedent, politicized the Justice Department, abandoned New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina, stole elections, exacerbated economic inequalities, held prisoners without trial, and exploited racism, patriotism, fear, and faith for nefarious purposes.

Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders languish in America's prisons. ACORN was condemned for the actions of a few employees. MoveOn was condemned in 2007 for its "General Betray-Us" ad. Yet Bush, Cheney, Rove, Gonzales, Yoo, and others remain free. Jay Bybee remains a federal judge. And Bush-era officials, including prosecutors, remain in office under Obama.

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DFA organizer, Democratic Precinct Committee Officer, writer, and programmer. My op-ed pieces have appeared in the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and elsewhere. See and for my writing, my (more...)

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