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Applause for the obvious and empty

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I found it just a little strange, when President Bush was giving his State Of The Union Address a while back, that he got such a rousing round of applause for what struck me as a fairly obvious statement. The President announced that he was "against the genocide in Darfur!" and Congress, as a body, leapt to its feet and congratulated him. Definitely strange. As he reveled in his applause it seemed as though he was accepting thanks for the long hard work of deliberating and deciding ...that he was against genocide. At first, I assumed that the cheering section had simply jumped the line, that the President was to follow with the announcement of some new initiative to relieve the suffering in that troubled region, perhaps refugee aid or stiffer sanctions against the Sudanese government, or a promise of much needed material support to the joint U.N./ African Union peace keeping efforts. But, no, it was on to other things from there. That was it. Genocide ...we're against it. On one level, I was almost pleased (although at the same time just a bit confused). Here was one thing I could say I agreed with my president on. I'm against genocide, too. Really. But I have to admit I was a bit suspicious as well. It wasn't what he said, so much as what he didn't say to follow it. And the applause ...definitely strange. I am sorry to say that my suspicious side has won out once again. It now seems that the applause in Congress wasn't at all that thankful or appreciative kind you might expect for some bold new initiative. It really was a congratulation of the obvious. The enthusiasm behind that applause might actually have come with some sense of relief. For we now know that, as the president gave us his feelings about genocide in Darfur, he had already signed the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act. And he had already attached one of his notorious signing statements. President Bush has raised these signing statements to the level of a new form of constitutional, or rather counter-constitutional, ritual. As he signs laws, he issues these statements, wherein he explains how he will interpret and/or ignore the law -the one he just signed. He has signed laws barring the use of torture, laws constraining him from spying on Americans, he even very recently signed funding legislation that ruled out the construction of permanent bases in Iraq. With signing statements, none of these laws have been a problem. The Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act has a fairly simple premise. The law is intended to protect investment entities, such as state or municipal pension funds or private portfolio managers, that might choose to divest from the Sudanese economy or from companies doing business with the genocidal regime. The idea is to allow both private and public investment to have a conscience. This might seem like something, again, fairly obvious, maybe not even requiring a new law, but as it happens there is actually precedent for legal action against investors who fail their "fiduciary duty" by compromising profit for the sake of secondary concerns -like genocide or repression. In 1996 Massachusetts tried to bar the use of its pension money to invest in Burma while its military regime was busy abusing its people. Investment businesses sued (with support from the Clinton administration) and ultimately prevailed in the Supreme Court. The Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act was designed to protect against such costly litigation. Ah, but then there is this troubling aspect of the law: (This is from a February 9 article in the Boston Globe)"The act authorizes state and local efforts to divest from companies with certain business ties to Sudan, such as in power production, mining, oil drilling, and the production of military equipment." Did you say "power production, mining, oil drilling, and the production of military equipment"? No. We can't have that kind of conscience now -can we? Not when it impacts the investment resources of industries like these. (What was that company the vice president used to head up?) The Bush administration opposed the law as it was drafted, arguing that it infringed upon the president's powers to make foreign policy and that "such [legislation] would set a dangerous precedent, making it easier to pass similar legislation in other cases." Despite this compelling argument (that the precedent would be dangerous because it might establish a precedent) the legislation received unanimous support in both houses of Congress. (That's right -unanimous, both houses) The White House realized that there was no point in trying to veto the law. Thus the president signed it and, as he did, he attached a statement opining that the bill was unconstitutional. And how does the law impact the president's "constitutional prerogative" on foreign policy exactly? White House spokesman Tony Frato explains that once the president has done whatever it was he was going to do "against genocide in Darfur" (remember he didn't say exactly what that was, but anyway...) he didn't want to have to go back to states and municipalities and other such investor entities to get them to comply, or agree. That could lead to "constitutional friction." With the president's signing statement, whatever the future particulars may be, things will run ...smoother, smoother for the president, smoother for the Sudanese regime, oh yes, and smoother for those invested in "power production, mining, oil drilling, and the production of military equipment." (What was the name of that company? ...It started with an 'H') Lawmakers and witnesses testifying before a meeting of the House Financial Services Committee agree that Bush's actions essentially enacted and negated the law in a single stroke. The signing statement actually serves to invite court challenge against efforts to organize divestment. The administration has "put its interest in enhanced executive power and diminished ability for others in this country to speak up ahead of commitment to ending the genocide in Darfur," observed the committee chairman, Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank. So, there you have it, as the president professed his antipathy for genocide in Darfur during his address to Congress and the nation, as I sat there giving him my own nervous agreement, as he stood there reveling in the applause, he had already signed and -at the same time- undermined law intended to enable meaningful action to oppose the killing. I can't quite bring myself to say the joke's on me, or on all of us, certainly not on the afflicted in Darfur. No, this is sad and strange, but there's nothing the least bit funny.
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Tom driscoll is an opinion columnist, poet, performiing songwriter (let's just say he writes).
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