The announcement that military show trials are to recommence at Guantanamo Bay, combined with the brutal and vindictive treatment of Bradley Manning, make it clear that, as regards willing to suppress basic human and civil rights in the name of security, there is no fundamental difference between the Obama and Bush Administrations. The first obvious question is, why? The second is, how to respond?
A natural starting hypothesis would be that Americans, or the American ruling class, benefit from the abandonment of the rule of law. It’s certainly true that the suppression of basic rights has gone hand in hand with the development of a culture of impunity for the ruling class, particularly in relation to crimes committed in the name of security. But there’s very little evidence to suggest that Gitmo, military commissions and so on have done anything to promote security. Most obviously, after nearly a decade, they have yet to secure any genuine convictions, just a couple of squalid (on the government side) plea bargains, and one case where the defendant boycotted proceedings. Prosecutions of accused terrorists in criminal courts in the US and elsewhere have produced far more convictions and prison sentences, although of course they have also produced some acquittals and releases, outcomes that seem unthinkable in the US context.
A second hypothesis, which seems more plausible, is that Americans generally support these measures, and that Obama either shares their views or is acting out of political expediency. There’s plenty of opinion poll evidence to support this hypothesis. On the other hand, Obama easily beat Bush running on a platform based on the traditional rule of law. Moreover, you could probably get similar opinion poll responses in other countries, but restrictions on civil liberties have faced far more resistance nearly everywhere outside the US, even in countries that have historically been less interested in individual rights than the US.
A third possibility is that Obama has been captured by the national security apparatus within the US state, either through access to secret information (reliable or not) about the magnitude of the terrorist menace, or through the hidden exercise of political power. Certainly, the military-industrial complex seems only to have gained in power, despite its manifest incapacity to deliver on its promises in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc, and despite the absence of any apparent capacity on the part of the CIA and similar bodies to predict the course of international events.
As regards a response, this depends on where you stand. In the short run, and within US politics, there is little choice but to support Obama and the Dems as the lesser evil, at least as regards domestic policy. Presumably there must be a political path back towards the rule of law, but it’s hard to see it at present.
Internationally, the gap between Obama’s rhetoric and his actions has not yet attracted a lot of attention. For the moment, the public image of the US is still improving as a lagged response to Obama’s early actions. But it’s hard to see this being sustained indefinitely. In particular, the Wikileaks case has the potential for grave damage, especially given the recognition that Wikileaks (and, more generally, the capacity of the Internet to undermine censorship and secrecy) has done more to promote the cause of freedom than the rhetoric and actions of successive US Administrations.
Overall, though, it’s hard to avoid a feeling of fatalism when we contrast the hopes aroused by Obama’s inauguration with the reality of his administration.