Thursday, May 21, 2009

At the Crossroads: White House Meeting with Human Rights Groups Yesterday

A number of news reports today link to what I wrote yesterday about the divide between progressive idealist and pragmatist wings of the Obama administration and its supporters. I ended my posting with a prediction:

The energy and passion feeding the election of Barack Obama to the presidency have been extraordinary. The energy level behind the new president remains high.

I predict, however, that it will gradually diminish and slowly wane—and not only among gay citizens—if the president continues to listen to his progressive pragmatist advisors to the exclusion of his progressive idealist supporters. In coming months, we may see an increasing selectivity among the president’s supporters about offering support to his platform—particularly as he continues to back-step on his promises to address injustice to gay and lesbian Americans.

Waning energy when it comes to any aspect of Mr. Obama’s yes-we-can platform for progressive change, as the president chooses the pragmatist path over the idealist one: so it seems to be happening. As I blogged yesterday, I did not know that the White House had set an off-the-record meeting with human rights and civil libertarian groups to address precisely the problem I was outlining: the growing split between the president’s pragmatist and idealist supporters, and increasing loss of energy to support the president’s progressive agenda, as he appears to back-step on his promises to uphold human rights.

Rachel Maddow offered exclusive coverage of the White House meeting last evening. (Sam Stein also has a report today at Huffington Post.)

According to Maddow, the White House invited representatives of human rights and civil liberties groups to discuss disappointing backsteps by the administration as it addresses human rights issues. These include, Maddow notes, the decision to maintain a system of essentially lawless detention in the legal no-man’s land of Bagram Air Force Base, the refusal to appoint an independent commission to investigate the Bush administration’s violation of laws against torture, reneging on the promise to release additional photos of prisoner abuse, and the continuation of the previous administration’s cobbled together system of military tribunals at Guantanamo.

Maddow notes that these steps backwards on human rights issues have been an “escalating series of disappointments” for human rights supporters and civil libertarians. Her sources also tell her that the administration is concerned about the disaffection of many of the president’s staunchest progressive supporters, and called the meeting because it feels the need to reach out and bring these supporters back into the fold.

Maddow reports that yesterday’s meeting was at times tense. One of those present told the president that he is now making Mr. Bush’s policies on human rights his own, and is accepting some of the premises of that administration.

According to Maddow, the president was “demonstrably not pleased with that characterization,” and gave no ground. In Maddow’s view, the president’s relationship with his supporters on the left has never been more strained than it is at present, because of his perceived reversals on human rights issues and his refusal to move forward on his campaign promises.

Newsweek journalist Michael Isikoff joined Maddow to discuss yesterday’s meeting. He noted that the meeting included Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Attorney General Eric Holder, advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, foreign policy hand Dennis McDonough, and counter-terrorism chief John Brennan. Among the human rights and civil libertarian groups represented at the meeting were the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Isikoff notes that the choice of the White House to call this meeting, and to invite to it these White House staff, is an indication of how seriously the administration takes the “rebellion from the left” it is experiencing at the same time it’s being pummeled by the right.

I’m fascinated in particular by some of Maddow’s and Isikoff’s analysis, because it so strongly reflects the analysis I offered in yesterday’s posting on the practical consequences facing the administration (and the country), as the new administration appears to choose a pragmatist rather than an idealist path for its policies.

For instance, Maddow and Isikoff report that when the human rights representatives pressed Mr. Obama on his refusal to establish a truth commission to investigate torture under the Bush administration, the president characterized this pressure as a “distraction.” He noted that congressional deliberations are taking place regarding these matters.

And when the progressive spokespersons invited to the meeting urged the president to consider criminal prosecution of those who broke the law under the previous administration, as a symbolic gesture that our nation will not tolerate this kind of activity in future, the president “curtly dismissed” the proposal.

Several of those present were struck by the fact that Mr. Obama looked at Mr. Holder, the attorney general, at this point, but did not solicit a statement from him. According to Mr. Isikoff, this gave some of those present the impression that the steps the president is taking about issues like prosecution of lawbreakers in the previous administration are his own steps, and not those advised by his staff. As Mr. Isikoff notes, Mr. Obama has stated publicly that questions about prosecution of lawbreakers in the Bush administration should be referred to Mr. Holder. What he seemed to say in private in yesterday’s meeting stood in contrast to these public statements.

Mr. Isikoff sketches some of the pragmatic considerations that appear to be underlying Mr. Obama’s waffling on these human rights issues. As he notes, there seems to be a strong determination not to alienate the Republicans and the right. In Mr. Isikoff’s view, however, these are not helpful considerations, when law-breaking is at stake.

I’m struck by several points here, because of their parallels to what is happening with the administration in that other arena of human rights, the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. First, there’s the insistence that the president should defer to Congress before moving forward on these human rights issues. In the area of gay rights, this insistence is striking many observers as a punt, one that tries to kick hot issues to Congress, rather than asserting presidential leadership in these areas.

Underlying this appears to be some political theory that consensus is necessary, if we expect to move forward productively in any area, and that such consensus needs to be demonstrated by legislative vote before the president stamps that consensus with his approval. As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, that theory overlooks the important role that the presidency has played throughout the history of our nation—particularly in the area of human rights—when it comes to charting the course and pointing the way. A leadership role, which pulls resistant groups forward into a consensus that they will otherwise continue to resist, and which they will express by legislative votes: matters of human rights ought not to depend on votes.

I’m also struck by the president’s statement (assuming the veracity of these reports) that it would be a “distraction” to move forward on some of these human rights questions now. In my view, that statement starkly reflects a pragmatist approach to human rights issues, which evacuates those issues of their moral force.

As I have noted previously on this blog, this is also an insistence that seems strong in the new administration’s justification for its dilly-dallying and backsteps on human rights for gay citizens. There is the suggestion that, in addressing gay rights issues, the administration is attending to an insignificant distraction as the country faces “real” challenges like the economic downturn. There is also the intimation that, in addressing issues like gay rights, the administration is furthering, rather than eclipsing, the culture wars, with their tendency to distract us from what is important.

In all these areas, I detect a sidestepping on issues of human rights that is deeply worrisome to me as a progressive supporter of Mr. Obama who sees strong connections between all human rights issues, and who happens to believe that those issues (all of them) have a moral centrality that cannot be overlooked, if we expect to maintain any moral center at all for a progressive agenda.

And lacking a moral center, we will lack the energy to do what is clearly right, when the choice confronts us. In my view, the new administration finds itself already at a significant crossroads, and everything depends—for its future and that of the nation—on the path it chooses to take. That's what moral crossroads are all about: everything, absolutely everything, depends on the choice we make, when we arrive at them. Including (and above all), the future . . . .