As Barry Soetoro, AKA Barack Obama prepares to exit the White House in a few months, it’s appropriate to summarize what he has done that can conceivably be said to to reduce authoritarian force and aid in furthering the success of peace and freedom. IT IS AN EXTREMELY SHORT LIST, compared to the much longer tally of awful firsts he has piled up, but I will try to remain entirely positive about his presidency for this one commentary.
I. Criminal Justice Reform
By late into his tenure, it was not clear if Obama would ever get to concrete actions on this front, but he delivered in his second term by commuting the sentences of hundreds of people harshly dealt with by the so-called “justice system.” This action shows more compassion than displayed by the last seven Presidents combined (Republican or Democrat, see related graphic below), thus rebounds greatly to his credit. By putting the unprecedented weight of the presidency behind the issue, Obama has joined a bi-partisan movement to undo the injustices of that system, that includes figures ranging from civil libertarians, to right wing sites, to Supreme Court Justices. Among the onerous issues needing reform is the incarceration-happy structure of American law and its courts, which has applied robotically punitive sentences (like mandatory minimums) to the point where over 2 million citizens are behind bars, while 7 million total are in prison, under parole or probation at any given time. While the US has 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison population. Even on the initial “engagement of suspects” end of the justice spectrum, abusive treatment and excessive force dominates the institution—stats show there is one police brutality incident every eight hours in the US, and more people have been killed by police in the US since 9/11 than soldiers have been killed in war. This brilliant summary video of the issue by Abby Martin lays out the incredible extent of the problem:
The documentary touches on vastly more territory than Obama has acted on, but he has started the process of turning this around. While Congress is still thrashing out major details holding up a reform bill in this area, Obama’s commuting of sentences has provided some immediate relief for the most egregious cases of punitive sentencing. It’s a bandaid, but an act of decency well within the powers of any President to perform, to show good faith in addressing the issue. As he has stated: “The power to grant pardons and commutations… embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”
One of the two core aspects of the damage wrought by the injustice system has been the disproportionate representation of the black or minority population engulfed by the corrections industry, as stated in this overview: “Our nation’s laws should be focused on imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society. Instead, our criminal justice system too frequently traps non-violent offenders, who are disproportionately African American men, in a cycle of poverty, unemployment and incarceration. The unfortunate consequence of this type of system is an entire group of people facing almost insurmountable odds of ever rejoining society. The injustices within our system are potentially sentencing an entire generation of those who committed youthful mistakes to a future without the opportunity for rehabilitation.”
The other heart of the matter, of course, concerns the drug laws, which have needlessly driven more non-violent offenders into the cages of the incarceration industrial complex than any other factor. The zeal by which the War on Drugs has been waged can be measured by everything from the decades old classification of a mild substance like marijuana as a Schedule I drug, to more recently, the insistence of the DEA that it can pillage all private medical records without probable cause, in its never ending hunt to find more drug law violators it can turn into inmates. Obama has not indicated he will move on either point in his time remaining, given the current drug warrior political climate (mostly fomented by Republican hacks in the pocket of the prison industry), but he has at least lightened up on medical marijuana, in line with the now 25 states that have formally legalized its use. To the extent this is cautiously moving the subject in the general direction of decriminalizing pot (which comprises 80% of recreational drug use), it will lead to less incarceration, thereby fewer non-violent offenders languishing in cages, and more personal liberty—so let’s call it an accomplishment.
II. The Iran Deal
In foreign policy, Obama was saddled in his first term by the war happy, blood soaked battle axe Hillary, with whom he apparently had to appoint as Secretary of State (with a lot of autonomy, judging by her email and private server set-up) as part of a deal to settle their 2008 primary battle. This sent his policy off in a likely far more relentlessly interventionist, hyper-belligerent, more-militarism tangent than he ever intended. In the second term much of this continued, having been set in motion and pushed forward by the neo-con war maniacs in Congress, but Obama managed a swerve in the case of handling the matter of Iran. Instead of manipulating “concerns” over the country’s nuclear “program” (i.e., its reactor technology, that the US hawks and Israel kept conflating with it developing nuclear weapons) into another pretext for bombing another Muslim country, Obama collaborated with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in taking the negotiation track. This resulted in the brilliant de-fanging of the war party via the device of the P5+1 multi-national agreement, AKA the Iran deal.
We should remember that 1) controlling Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon is a phony issue, since US intelligence (all its agencies) has confirmed it’s not trying to do so, and 2) the P5+1 Iran deal is a multilateral positioning tool, that deflates Israel’s and the US fomenting of the phony issue. To the US Empire, the actual issue is, Iran is a significant regional power that is independent of US control, so it must be reeled back in, by pushing it as being a ‘threat.’ The neocons want to undo the Iranian revolution of 1979 (when it toppled the US puppet ruler the Shah) and “re-acquire” the country as a client state of the West. The war hawk’s real goal has been to (as usual) perform regime change and co-opt another country by unilaterally fostering a pretext to justify military action (invasion, occupation, bombing) or isolation of the nation (sanctions, propaganda or belligerent “diplomacy”). To the war party, when it comes to the 23,000 bombs the US drops on Muslim countries each year, or the millions of Muslim civilians killed abroad since 9/11, too much is never enough.
This tactic has previously allowed the US to unilaterally define the issues being negotiated, and then unilaterally define if the target country is ‘breaking’ the agreements. Surprise, surprise, the targeted nation is always painted as violating a deal, so the process merely serves as a vehicle to justify furthering a military or ‘isolative’ response. The P5+1 has monkey-wrenched the neocon march to war, as it involves 5 other nations plus the UN monitoring Iran’s compliance. This takes away the war hawk argument that “Iran couldn’t negotiate,” and the US/Israeli propaganda ability to unilaterally determine that Iran was violating the deal. Well, Iran did negotiate, did agree to a deal, and is abiding by it, as per clear criteria verified by multiple monitors. This cuts off the disingenuous or weaponized use of the diplomacy to create a pretext for militarism.
So devising and supporting the Iran agreement has been a defacto method of neutralizing the war machine. It’s not a perfect liberty or non-interventionist approach, as our government should not even be in the business of interfering with Iran’s (or other nation’s) sovereign right to make technological advances, especially a nation who (as per being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty) the US is supposed to be helping, not impeding in its development. But through setting one form of intervention against another (agreements, versus bombs) it has cleverly disabled the hawks from fomenting war. The monitoring process, which Iran is demonstrating compliance with in severely limiting its uranium enrichment, while intrusive, robs neocons of the key propaganda meme “they’re building the bomb!” needed to get the public behind escalating the conflict. Call it “meddling as a form of harm reduction,” to head off yet another round of military adventurism. This hardly makes Obama an anti-war President, but it does qualify as an anti-war, pro-peace accomplishment in this instance.
Small wonder that the war party has intensified their rhetoric against Putin since the Iran deal, such that as a political matter Obama could not be seen to collaborate with him again, be it on Syria or other fronts, so as to reach similar agreements to resolve or stabilize those conflicts. After a year in place, it appears that Iran is substantially complying with all aspects of the deal, as monitored by the P5+1 and IAEA. Bottom line substance: The agreement prevents or greatly dampens the prospect of war, Iran remains independent and maintains its sovereignty, and Obama can be credited with formulating a defacto anti-war outcome in at least one major Mideast conflict.
III. Opening Cuba, Closing Gitmo
Somebody had to do it, after nearly sixty years and nine Presidents perpetuating a failed policy of embargo and isolation of the Castro regime. Somebody had to say “enough, already” and try a new approach. As noted by the Daily Caller, “Since December 2014 Obama has chipped away at the restrictions on U.S.-Cuba relations with executive orders that get around the Trade Embargo enacted by Congress, which only it can repeal. Meanwhile a bipartisan effort has set out to repeal the embargo itself.”
While the FOX/neocon camp has complained the liberalization of relations comes without a movement by Cuba towards removing its tyrannical practices, or cooperating in turning over criminal exiles to the US, that can be equally said about the six decades of embargo policy, that also failed to produce those changes. The only thing the “isolation” accomplished was make sure the Castros forged trade and diplomatic relations with nations that were independent of US influence. A change to a more open or collaborative business model will probably create economic and logistical links that will foster incentives for Cuba to reform itself that the embargo could not. Already, the change in policy, or at least atmosphere, has already led to excitement among journalists who want to explore the forbidden country, agents of the travel industry, and investors who ponder the potential of supporting businesses and property purchases on the island. In other words, trade and commerce encourages peace, as the money factor creates leverage for each country to work with each other.
Obama has also upset the Cuba-baiters with his continued appeals (from the start of his Presidency, to present) for closing down the torture center on the Gulf Coast known as the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, or ‘Gitmo,’ and even turning over the base territory back to the Cuban government. HORRORS, cry the war party, which never believes the Empire should shut down bases anywhere, nor admit any of its actions were ever wrong, or ever disclose what it is doing in those clandestine facilities, or ever “give in to the terrorists” of 9/11 or after. All those dogmas are challenged by Obama’s initiative to take Gitmo out of the equation, and moving remaining inmates to non-military prisons and courts. What were they doing being tried in military courts in the first place, since the Constitution demands that such courts can only be used if civilian courts are not in session?
What The Powers That Be are hiding is that most all of the detainees at Gitmo were not guilty of terrorism, were and are being horribly tortured (going way beyond stray instances of waterboarding), and that the real architects of 9-11 are elements of the US government and cooperating foreign intelligence agencies. The whole point of keeping everything under military control or other cover-up was, and is, to keep the above truths secret from most of the public. Obama is not leading a charge to undo all of this, but these simple strides he has proposed for Cuba do amount to an accomplishment, towards more transparency, more constitutional procedure, and less belligerence.
The Bernie Moment
The departure of Obama leads one to wonder what Democratic Party majority will emerge to nominate candidates going forward. The 2016 primary season just ended has put Sen. Bernie Sanders, the emerged leader of the incoming ‘millenial’ generation of more full-left Democrats, in an awkward position: cede the nomination race to the horrid Hillary Clinton, or stay loyal to the millenials and progressives who were cheated out of defeating her, and who represent the increasingly dominant voice of the party. But why would the ‘Bernites’ feel that the system was rigged against them? Well, aside from the hack “superdelegates” who all declared for Hillary at the beginning of the year, or the myriad election “irregularities” that kept happening throughout the primaries (yet always to the benefit of Hillary), they point to outrages like this:
Notice that this Associated Press announcement about Hillary clinching the nomination, which was reported on June 6, the Monday evening before the California primary, was prepared by the campaign on June 4, two to three days prior—suggesting open collusion between the campaign and AP to optimally time the story to damage voter turnout for Sanders.
And they wonder why Bernie “refuses” to concede? If the GOP had conducted the same lowdown dirty tricks, or the same frontloaded, massive “superdelegates” scheme in place giving the elite chosen frontrunner a 20% head start, Jeb Bush would have been the Republican nominee. Those “day one,” Clinton-declared superdelegates colored primary voter behavior and media coverage throughout the race, giving Hillary an “inevitable” aura and edge she would never have maintained without it against Bernie.
Why should Sanders give up, given the above, and the reality that Hillary has offered him nothing of substance, that he doesn’t already have? His delegate totals already guarantee his name can be placed into nomination at the convention, thus giving him his prime time speech. His delegate strength also already gives him the ability to influence changing some party planks and rules, the main one of concern being ending the scheme where hundreds of superdelegates can announce their bias at the start of the primaries.
The fundraising and email/mailing list Sanders has developed gives him the ability to go anywhere—run as a socialist, run again in 2020, turn his resources over to, say, Elizabeth Warren or other selected younger progressive, etc. He has the ability to unilaterally tank the Hillary campaign via not vigorously endorsing it, or outright telling millennials to go elsewhere (stay home, vote Green).
Bernie should be demanding the same exact deal Hillary got in 2008—a major cabinet post, substantial autonomy in that position, and the inside track for a clear shot at the nomination in 2020 or 24 for a real progressive of his choosing. He should also demand a change in the party rules going forward so that there are far fewer superdelegates (say 5-10% of delegates), who cannot all declare their choice at the start of the primaries, thereby skewing the media coverage and voting behavior of the rank and file.
To guarantee the party leadership complies, he should hold out from suspending his campaign and get his name placed into nomination at the convention, thus guaranteeing him an independent nomination speech (i.e., not one cleared by Hillary Inc.). He should also not turn over his magic lists until his terms are substantially met—or maybe not even then. If they welsh on his demands, he can call them out on it in his prime time speech. Only by negotiating with backbone this way, will Sanders get anything meaningful out of the Hillary coronation. Either way, over the long term, Bernie’s holding most of the cards right now. This is a tipping point cycle for the Democratic Party, because if Hillary loses, it may be the last time a candidate positioned as a “centrist” can prevail against the increasingly dominant progressive wing of the party for its nomination.