Sunday, September 07, 2008

Prepare to dare or prepare to despair

Email conversation with Thomas Nephew about the Million Doors for Peace effort got me to pull together some thoughts I've only let myself reflect on briefly over the last few months.

There's been a divide among antiwar activists -- between those who are serious about ending the occupation of Iraq and those who’d like to do that but only if it doesn’t cost Democrats politically. Depending on the size of the Democratic majorities in Congress, and assuming an Obama administration, that divide might be less important in 2009 than it's been for the last two years.

Given that Voters for Peace (the coalition organizing Million Doors) includes both tendencies, it's an encouraging sign that their petition calls for a faster and firmer wrapup in Iraq than even the Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, not to mention the probably-never "conditional engagement" plan of Colin Kahl and company, who have Obama's ear. If the Responsible Plan were the strongest demand on the Obama administration, then we'd end up with something closer to permanent bases and endless occupation. With Voters for Peace mobilizing a million petition signers this winter for something stronger, the Responsible Plan backers in Congress should be able to position their policy (accurately) as the centrist choice.

There’s a whole constellation of issues just ahead of us in which this dynamic plays out, where an insufficiently vigorous presence on the "radical" end of the spectrum could result in blown opportunities that haunt us for the next decade or more.

Health care: Health Care for America Now has more than a little in common with Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (see 'divide' above). I accept that there's an imperative for Dems to pass something that concretely provides access to affordable health insurance for everyone. I also accept the political impossibility of legislating the private insurers out of the medical market in the next Congress. So I grasp the incrementalist strategy, whose goal is to get a public insurance pool into whatever's passed as the thin end of the wedge that could lead eventually to an all-public plan.

What I don’t buy is that single-payer advocates should just fold into the HCAN campaign rather than mobilizing to create the serious threat of a stronger plan from which the HCAN public-pool proposal can be urged as the compromise retreat. If HCAN’s is the starting position, then we’ll end up with less than that. In this case, anything less would mean foreclosing the chance for public health care for another generation.

Impeachment right away: Only a small minority of the American public -- even of informed, activist liberals -- understands that the Constitution provides for impeachment of officials after they've left office, not just for sitting presidents. Yet post-power impeachment hearings are the single best way to uncover just what lawbreaking was done. Not only do impeachment investigations have much stronger testimony-extracting powers than regular Congressional hearings, but post-term impeachment is much less easily characterized as a "partisan witch hunt" because it's removed from an electoral landscape.

Other excuses will be will be thrown up by compromised, fearful, lazy, and/or power-loving Democrats. The two most common are "we don't want to be seen as vindictive" and "impeachment would be a distraction from the vital work we have to get done".

The best answer to ‘vindictive’ is that this is about restoring the Constitution, pruning back these dangerously expanded executive powers that no one -- including "our" people -- should have. That’s the opposite of vindictive.

We’re going to get the ‘distraction’ line not only from politicians but from our allies, every organized progressive constituency desperate to get issues addressed by Congress after eight (or 28) years in the desert. Yet if the impeachment investigations are put off for even a year, we’ll run right up against the midterms, and by 2011 the presidential campaign will have begun. So if hearings don't begin in 2009, it’s hard to see how they could get going before 2013 -– by which time the "ancient history" charge will have more effect. So it could be 2009 or never.

We cannot wait. If there’s no serious domestic move toward accountability for torture, for which impeachment hearings are among the most practical and plausibly effective forum, then within a year there will be international legal interventions. The politics and optics of that are terrible, for anyone who cares about achieving a systemic rooting-out and reversal of this country's policy of torture. Legal threats from outside the country risk creating an effect of rallying around the old regime (however incredible such a thing seems now), and not only among Republicans. The most secure footing for international law will be created by Americans ourselves restoring the rule of law in the United States.

Likewise, only actual exposure of what went on with domestic spying under Bush-Cheney can light a big enough fire under Congress to get them to roll back the legislation that enables it, and only impeachment hearings seem to me to have the testimony-inducing force to get that exposure.

Impeachment is the key to reversing the damage of the last eight years, not simply papering it over. The time to organize for demanding it is not after the election, but now.

(The mechanics to accomplish this are for another post. Please don't wait for that; share thoughts and suggestions in comments.)

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At 12:51 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

Very interesting post and linked post ("The curse of self-appointed liberal "leadership""), via the "but only if it doesn't cost Democrats" link near the top.

Re the latter -- I don't have your background with USAction and Citizens Action; a second post of yours that that post links to refers to those organizations being dismissive of "issue-heads". I would simply say that in this case the arguable-counterproof-by-counterexample is in the pudding: rather than go electoral, or 100% electoral, these organizations (including even MoveOn) are supporting what "Obama-Onlys" would say is a diversion of resources. As you say, it's also encouraging that the petition calls for a faster withdrawal than Obama does.

PS: no big deal, but your link to my post is wrong, it should be to .

More on the impeachment argument next.

At 1:13 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

First, I'm just going to leave the HCAN part alone because I just don't know enough about it.

Re impeachment... wow. I agree with you, and yet... I need to leave myself some wiggle room not to despair if 2009+ impeachment hearings vs Bush, Cheney, and/or admin. officials don't happen. Our political class just doesn't seem up to that job *or* to foreswearing various tasks it considers more essential (oil reserves soft/hard empire, drug war, maintaining monopoly of discourse); changing that political class, or changing enough minds within it, seems the long term key. And that's change I don't think will happen between now and January 20, 2009, or even November 2010.

I think Obama et al may be up for a special prosecutor for some things -- esp. torture, if int'l pressures mount, and subpoena resistance/substance, if Obama wakes up on the right side of bed that day and goes for it (Biden was making some positive noises last week). But I'd be happy to be part of something effective that persuades Obama et al of the necessity for prosecution sooner than that. I just don't know where to sign up.

For that matter, I'd be even more happy to sign up for supporting 2009+ impeachment proceedings, of course, but again, I don't see a group on the horizon that is both pushing for it and seems likely to register on the DC radar screen.

If 2009+ impeachment were to get into the discourse at "Strange Bedfellows", Greenwald, firedoglake etc, maybe there's a shot after all. I just haven't seen much of it even there.

OTOH, your discussion here gives me a little hope it may filter up to groups and voices like that. For my part, I'm going to suggest over at GetFISARight that prosecution, hearings, and impeachment hearings vs. those involved be part of the long term goals. So forgive the "no we can't" talk at the top of this comment, which I'll leave for sake of honesty. I've worked on plenty of things I didn't think would bear fruit right away.

At 1:36 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

PS: "shmactivsim" ha :)

At 1:48 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Nell said...

Link fixed; thanks for the heads-up!

True enough about USAction et al.; perhaps the leopard has toned down his spots.

Re: impeachment. It almost certainly won't happen in 2009. At A Tiny Revolution, where this is crossposted, no one in comments seems to think it ever will.

Given the legislative advantages of impeachment (vs. a legal strategy), I'd thought maybe the demand for it could be a vehicle to building that different political class.

Biden threw cold water on the idea of criminal pursuit of Bush just yesterday, so no joy there. Not that I was expecting any.

At 1:56 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Nell said...

Yeah, I'd forgotten about the 'schmactivism' tag until I went to tag this post; it made me laugh, too.

My inspiration was a great Jon Stewart bit from way back in 2002 or 2003. He proposed a simpler alternative to the complex and hard-to-follow Patriot Act, but with the same effect: just add the word 'schmonstitution' after every occurrence of 'Constitution'.

Depressing U.S. public poll finding of the year (via Greenwald): This past June, 49% believed (and probably do today) that the president can suspend the constitution. Given that he functionally has, and there's no apparent price to be paid, those being polled can't really be accused of ignorance...

At 8:42 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Mick said...

I've said this so often lately that I can hear the echo in my head before I open my mouth but here goes anyway:

Yes, impeachment can be done after Bush leaves office. But it won't be. That's already been decided and it would take a monster movement to force the Dem leadership to back off. Obama's people have said they are considering a Truth & Reconciliation Commission but not until his second term, assuming he has one.

Why is there so much reluctance? You named the 2 most often given excuses but there's one that needs to be added: I think the Dems want the same powers that Bush took. They give every indication that they see nothing wrong with them and would use them in a heartbeat if they had a "good reason".

The conservative core of the Dem leadership isn't so much fearful or lazy as power-grabbing, especially if they can grab power a Pub got for them and condemn him for doing it at the same time they use it. It is deeply hypocritical, even cynical. The Dems have the feel to them of a party about to head down a Nixonian/Bushian path, and there is no way the BD leadership will allow a change of destination unless they can figure a way to do it that "doesn't cost them politically".

I agree with all the reasons you state and more but it isn't going to happen. So where does that leave us?

At 11:16 AM, September 10, 2008, Blogger Nell said...

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Who the hell do they think they're kidding?

T&R is for societies coming out of an upheaval -- civil war, overt dictatorship. It's foreign, literally and metaphorically. It will not be seen as an adequate response to forestall international legal pressure for acountability for torture.

The Obama people are kidding themselves about the international environment if they think they'll have five years to begin dealing with this country's lawbreaking abroad. If Kerry had been elected in 2004, the U.S. government might have succeeded in papering over the torture with words and diplomacy. At this point, no words will do; we have to be seen to be cleaning up our own house.

On the Dem leadership's power rationale, I agree, and actually noted that in the post: compromised, fearful, lazy, and/or power-loving Democrats.

Fearful = 'vindictive' excuse.
Lazy = 'distraction'.
Power-loving and compromised have no corresponding cover excuses, so the Dems with those rationales use anything to hand. 'Not criminal' would seem to be a tell for the compromised, which I am convinced is the most serious obstacle for Pelosi, Daschle, and others wrt both torture and domestic spying. Efforts to paint the abuses as due to Bush and Cheney's personal flaws are the pointer to power-grabbers ("trust us") -- the cynical approach you note.

At 11:26 AM, September 10, 2008, Blogger Nell said...

Thanks for the links in your comment, Mick. I see that Obama has managed to jam in three major excuses at once in his 'fusion' response [italics and bold added]:

"If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated," he said. But he quickly added, "I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we've got too many problems to solve."

At 3:36 PM, September 13, 2008, Anonymous LadyVetinari said...

Hi Nell,

Why do you think international legal retribution is inevitable? In what way do you see this occurring?

I'm just pessimistic enough to think they'll all get away with it scot-free.

At 1:35 PM, September 15, 2008, Blogger Thomas Nephew said...

Don't know Nell's answer, but I recall this one, cited by Philippe Sands in his Vanity Fair article "The Green Light" earlier this year (emphasis added):

"In my efforts to get to the heart of this story, and its possible consequences, I visited a judge and a prosecutor in a major European city, and guided them through all the materials pertaining to the Guantánamo case. The judge and prosecutor were particularly struck by the immunity from prosecution provided by the Military Commissions Act. “That is very stupid,” said the prosecutor, explaining that it would make it much easier for investigators outside the United States to argue that possible war crimes would never be addressed by the justice system in the home country—one of the trip wires enabling foreign courts to intervene. For some of those involved in the Guantánamo decisions, prudence may well dictate a more cautious approach to international travel. And for some the future may hold a tap on the shoulder.

“It’s a matter of time,” the judge observed. “These things take time.” As I gathered my papers, he looked up and said, “And then something unexpected happens, when one of these lawyers travels to the wrong place.”

The more we make it impossible to prosecute these guys here, the more possible it becomes overseas.

At 11:35 PM, September 17, 2008, Blogger janinsanfran said...

I find myself being a stuck record during this election: Obama will be exactly as good a President as we make him -- but we have to elect the guy if we want to live to fight another day.

I agree with those who say we won't get impeachment or any significant legal remedies from the Dems in power -- but I refuse to completely give up hope of legal remedies. Yes, they will take time. And I don't mind at all if they start with other countries prosecuting some of our criminals. Might be a necessary prerequisite to open things up here. Worked that way in much of Latin America.


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