Iraq, Iran, Russian, Pakistan, Afghanistan: It was an impressive foreign policy list in Friday's Presidential debate, and by all sensible accounts Barack Obama did a decent job convincing Americans that his opponent may not be the expert that he claims to be.
Missing from the debate, however, as it has been since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination in August, was any discussion of certain specific locations that have played a key role in America's foreign policy in the last seven years: Guantánamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and a set of far-flung torture chambers in places as diverse as Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Diego Garcia, to name but a few.
This is, to put it mildly, a disappointment, as it is in these places that much of America's pride and dignity has been lost, through the use of torture, degrading and inhuman treatment, and the detention of prisoners in a legal black hole between the Geneva Conventions and the US courts. It is only by addressing the horrors that have occurred there, holding those responsible to account, and ensuring that the unfettered executive power that allowed these abuses to occur is repudiated, that America can embrace the change that Senator Obama and so many Americans want to see.
Unlike his flip-flopping opponent, who has even shed his lifelong opposition to torture in an effort to appeal to the Republican Right, Barack Obama has a proven track record in standing up to the abuses of power that have taken place in the last seven years. When the Supreme Court ruled, in June 2006, that the Military Commissions trial system designed to prosecute "terror suspects" at Guantánamo was illegal, Senator Obama refused to vote for the ill-conceived legislation (the Military Commissions Act) that not only brought Dick Cheney and David Addington's monster back to life, but also endorsed the President's right to detain "enemy combatants" indefinitely, and stripped the prisoners of their habeas corpus rights (that great barrier to arbitrary detention, which the fledgling US appreciated as one of the great legal achievements of its formal colonial masters), which the US Supreme Court had granted them in June 2004.
In a resounding defense of habeas corpus, Obama told his fellow Senators in September 2006:
Instead of detainees arriving at Guantánamo and facing a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that allows them no real chance to prove their innocence with evidence or a lawyer, we could have developed a real military system of justice that would sort out the suspected terrorists from the accidentally accused.
And instead of not just suspending, but eliminating, the right of habeas corpus -- the seven century-old right of individuals to challenge the terms of their own detention -- we could have given the accused one chance -- one single chance -- to ask the government why they are being held and what they are being charged with.
But politics won today. Politics won. The Administration got its vote, and now it will have its victory lap, and now they will be able to go out on the campaign trail and tell the American people that they were the ones who were tough on the terrorists.
And yet, we have a bill that gives the terrorist mastermind of 9/11 his day in court, but not the innocent people we may have accidentally rounded up and mistaken for terrorists -- people who may stay in prison for the rest of their lives.
In June this year, after the Supreme Court overturned the habeas-stripping provisions of the Military Commissions Act, and ruled that the prisoners' habeas corpus rights were constitutional, Senator Obama spoke up again to defend the law, explaining that the ruling was "an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus," even as John McCain cranked up the hyperbole and declared it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."
Since then, however, Obama the Presidential candidate has been almost silent on the crimes of the current administration. This is understandable, of course, as his team has ascertained that the rights of foreign "terror suspects" are not high on the list of priorities of the average American voter, and are even less appealing as the United States suffers an economic meltdown.
Obama knows, however, that one of the key planks of his foreign policy -- his opposition to the war in Iraq -- addresses the supreme example of the administration's hubris, which grew inexorably out of the realization, by certain high-ranking members of the government, that the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed by Congress just days after 9/11, granted them the unfettered executive power that they had been seeking for decades: in the case of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, since their time in the waning empire of Richard Nixon, and in the case of David Addington, Cheney's legal counsel and now chief of staff, since he and Cheney teamed up to protect another President -- Ronald Reagan -- from scrutiny during the Iran-Contra scandal.
The AUMF, which authorized the President "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons," was then used by the administration to justify all its other abuses of executive power: warrantless wiretapping, the Military Order of November 2001 which established the Military Commissions and empowered the President to seize and indefinitely detain anyone he suspected of being an "enemy combatant," the creation of Guantánamo, the shredding of the Geneva Conventions, and the sequence of memoranda approving the use of torture by US forces.
Senator Obama clearly believes in the law, in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which have been so viciously undermined by the present administration, and in the separation of powers that was designed to prevent a recurrence of the tyranny that was overthrown when the United States declared its Independence.
But compare the fine words quoted above to his response, on Friday, to John McCain's pledge "to make sure that we have people who are trained interrogators so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again":
It is important for us to understand that the way we are perceived in the world is going to make a difference, in terms of our capacity to get cooperation and root out terrorism.
And one of the things that I intend to do as president is to restore America's standing in the world. We are less respected now than we were eight years ago or even four years ago.
And this is the greatest country on Earth. But because of some of the mistakes that have been made -- and I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security -- because of those things, we, I think, are going to have a lot of work to do in the next administration to restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill.
That was a generous nod to Senator McCain (who, to be honest, did not deserve it), but I couldn't help imagining how powerful Obama's speech would have been if, instead of leaving the "mistakes" undefined, he had included some of the comments that he made last August in Washington D.C.:
In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.
When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again ... As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists ... The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example to the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.
So, yes, I know why Senator Obama stays quiet, but I also know that, in the Vice President's Office, the quest for unfettered executive power that has been pursued to such ruinous effect by Dick Cheney and David Addington remains unchallenged.