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Ignored Issues Won't Go Away

By Dan Froomkin
2:40 PM ET, 05/26/2009

North Korea's nuclear test Monday is fresh evidence that President Obama's problem is not that he's taking on too many big issues at the same time -- it's that he can't leave even one on the back burner.

Administration officials thought they could afford not to focus too intently on North Korea, in favor of other even hotter spots around the globe. No such luck.

Indeed, there are several other significant issues Obama has tried to avoid dealing with, quite possibly only making things worse for himself in the long run. Two that come to mind are gay rights and torture. This is a consequential president, coming to power at a consequential time, and ducking things is ultimately going to get him in more trouble than addressing them head on.

As Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration, which said the North's action invited stronger, unspecified international pressure, has consistently called for Korean denuclearization but seemed not to have anticipated a deepening nuclear crisis.

"Just two weeks ago, the administration's special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said during a visit to Asian capitals that 'everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process.' If so, they are no longer."

Yesterday morning, Obama was out in the Rose Garden declaring that "North Korea's actions endanger the people of Northeast Asia, they are a blatant violation of international law, and they contradict North Korea's own prior commitments."

Non-proliferation expert Joe Cirincione writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "Obama followed the advice of staff who recommended ignoring North Korea. The argument was that North Korea had no place to go and would eventually come back to negotiations. This was a strategy endorsed by many former Bush officials. There was nothing like the diplomatic approaches that Obama has started with Iran--and North Korea noticed.


"Obama officials even put preconditions on renewing negotiations, reportedly blocking Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth from going to North Korea until that country promised not to conduct another missile test. Officials also backed the tough line taken by South Korea, including curtailing fuel shipments to the north. Worse, some officials seem to have concluded that North Korea's program cannot be stopped, that the best we can do is 'manage' the problem.

"But North Korea will not be ignored. Or managed. Or coerced into compliance or collapse. These approaches were tried in the Bush administration. They failed. They only gave Pyongyang time to increase the threat of its nuclear and missile programs and export of sensitive technologies.

"It is time to shift gears. We need a coordinated effort with China that combines pressure with incentives. Not just promises to talk, but a clear description of what North Korea could gain from stopping and then rolling back its program, coupled with sustained engagement that carries through on the commitments we make and gives the North Korean government the attention it thinks it deserves--however repugnant that may be."

Despite the facts, some critics and their enablers will inevitably try to cast the North Korean nuclear test as a negative verdict on Obama's policy of engagement.

But the real problem is that Obama is once again inheriting a dire situation made worse by the Bush administration. And at this point, few experts share even Cirincione's small glimmer of optimism.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Setting the right tone will be critical now, analysts said, because the Bush administration frequently veered between tough talk and concessions, largely because top officials were split on the right response. Bush initially labeled North Korea part of an 'axis of evil' and let lapse a deal that had kept North Korea's nuclear reactor shuttered.

"During the Bush years, North Korea built a stockpile of plutonium that could fuel at least a six weapons until it finally conducted its first test in 2006. The U.N. Security Council backed Bush's demands for a tough response, but then the president abruptly dropped efforts to impose a new sanctions regime after other nations resisted. He instead shifted to intense diplomacy, including offering concessions such as dropping North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, if it began to disable its nuclear program."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Obama's aides are "[a]cutely aware that their response to the explosion in the mountains of Kilju, not far from the Chinese border, [will] be seen as an early test of a new administration....

"But as they had meetings every few hours — including a lengthy session in the Situation Room on Monday evening — some of Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledged that the administration’s options were limited."

Joe Klein blogs for Time: "[L]et's not kid ourselves: the military option is off the table, unless North Korea starts firing those missiles at someone. The sanctions option is also of limited utility because the Chinese are afraid that if North Korea is squeezed too hard, hundreds of thousands of refugees will stream across the border into their country. That leaves diplomacy--and seduction. There is a chance that if we make the North Koreans dependent on our food, fuel and consumer goods, we will have more leverage over them. But that is only a chance and the Kim family has shown a remarkable willing to allow its people to suffer and starve. There are no good options here--some are vaguely plausible and others are disastrous."

Neoconservatives Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post op-ed page, grudgingly admit that direct military action isn't an option -- only because we aren't prepared "to protect our allies against possible North Korean retaliation." In the meantime, they advocated missile defense.

The Washington Post editorial board recommends... ignoring things. "What Kim Jong Il's latest provocation should not cause, however, is the response he is seeking: a rush by the Obama administration to lavish attention on his regime and offer it economic and political favors....

"Mr. Obama should simply decline to treat North Korea as a crisis, or even as a matter of urgency."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
2:30 PM ET, 05/26/2009

Jim Rutenberg and Motoko Rich write in the New York Times: "With his sustained blitz of television appearances and speeches, former Vice President Dick Cheney has established himself as perhaps the leading Republican voice against President Obama." One possible reason: "Mr. Cheney is actively shopping a memoir about his life in politics and service in four presidential administrations, a work that would add to what is already an unusually dense collection of post-Bush-presidency memoirs that will offer a collective rebuttal to the many harshly critical works released while the writers were in office and beyond."

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama is expected to announce late this week that he will create a 'cyber czar,' a senior White House official who will have broad authority to develop strategy to protect the nation's government-run and private computer networks, according to people who have been briefed on the plan." Still unresolved, however, is the "politically charged issue of what role the National Security Agency, the premier electronic surveillance agency, will have in protecting private-sector networks. The issue is a key concern in policy circles, and experts say it requires a full and open debate over legal authorities and the protection of citizens' e-mails and phone calls. The Bush administration's secrecy in handling its Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, most of which was classified, hindered such a debate, privacy advocates have said."

The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock takes a look at Spain's National Court, where judges, "acting on complaints filed by human rights groups, are pursuing 16 international investigations into suspected cases of torture, genocide and crimes against humanity, according to prosecutors. Among them are two probes of Bush administration officials for allegedly approving the use of torture on terrorism suspects, including prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

David D. Kirkpatrick and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "If there was one thing both presidential candidates agreed on last fall, it was the need to close the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But almost as soon as President Obama took office and ordered the camp shuttered within a year, Congressional Republicans... saw a singular political opportunity... Armed with polling data that show a narrow majority of support for keeping the prison open and deep fear about the detainees, Republicans in Congress started laying plans even before the inauguration to make the debate over Guantánamo Bay a question of local community safety instead of one about national character and principles."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Obama observed Memorial Day on Monday just as his predecessors had, by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns here. But Mr. Obama added a twist: he sent a second wreath to a memorial honoring blacks who fought in the Civil War." Said Obama: "My grandfather served in Patton's Army in World War II. But I cannot know what it is like to walk into battle. I'm the father of two young girls -- but I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. These are things I cannot know. But I do know this: I am humbled to be the Commander-in-Chief of the finest fighting force in the history of the world."

Blogger Hilzoy takes apart New York Times reporter Helene Cooper's attempt to liken Obama to Bush when it comes to the use of straw-man arguments: "The difference between Bush and Obama's arguments is fairly simple -- Bush just made stuff up, while Obama's critics are actually making the critiques that Obama attributes to them. Somewhat hilariously, Cooper herself concedes this on several of the supposed examples of Obama's 'strawman' arguments."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Obama "is out to build a new and enduring political establishment, located slightly to the left of center but including everyone except the far right... The disturbing aspect of Obama's effort to create his new political alignment is that building it requires him to send rather different messages to its component parts. Playing to several audiences at once can lead to awkward moments."

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson compares Obama World and Cheney World: "In Obama World, choices are artifacts of reasoning and thus are only as valid as the logic underlying them. Security and freedom, for example, do not have to be seen as an either-or proposition. The nation never came to a fork in the road with one path labeled 'torture' and the other labeled 'disaster.' In Cheney World, choices are binary and absolute. There's no wiggle room, no gray area, no time for second thoughts and no debate about how our options are framed. It's my way or the highway, citizen..... Obama World is an exciting place to live right now -- not perfect, to be sure, but full of energy and hope. If Dick Cheney wants to stay in his bunker, that's his business. Others might want to come up for some fresh air."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Despite Barack Obama’s pledges as a candidate and president, there is no discernible movement on repealing the military’s 'don’t ask, don’t tell' policy or the Defense of Marriage Act. Both seem more cruelly discriminatory by the day."

In a New York Times op-ed, John Bolton expresses his great displeasure at Obama administration initiatives to end the nuclear arms race. He calls on the Senate to reject them -- and "keep us safe."

On Photographs

By Dan Froomkin
2:10 PM ET, 05/26/2009

Abu Ghraib chronicler Philip Gourevitch writes in a New York Times op-ed about photos of abuse.

In April 2004, when the Abu Ghraib photos were leaked, "they shocked the world’s conscience," Gourevitch writes. "They also performed a great public service. They told us something about ourselves that we might have suspected but did not fully know — that the Bush administration had decided to fight terror with terror, and torture with torture.

"We did not fully know this before the photographs came out, because our leaders hid it from us, and when it was revealed they denied it. 'We do not torture,' Mr. Bush kept saying, even as a stream of official documents leaked to the press contradicted him."

But Gourevitch says President Obama was correct not to release a new crop of photos: "Releasing additional photographs would not be telling us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to see a picture to know that American interrogators used waterboarding — a crime our military has prosecuted as torture for more than a century — when we can see former Vice President Dick Cheney taking credit for having people waterboarded."

Unfortunately, Gourevitch is wrong about what "we" know and what we don't. Gourevitch himself evidently gets the connection between the Bush administration's policies and Abu Ghraib, but my distinct sense is that the general public still doesn't. The "bad apples" argument -- which, as Gourevitch later notes, Obama is actually reviving -- still seems to hold a lot of currency.

And that's exactly why we need those pictures, which reportedly show abuse at other prisons, not just Abu Ghraib. They will viscerally demonstrate that the abuse at Abu Ghraib wasn't just a vile accident, but was a vile byproduct of a vile policy designed and advocated inside the White House.

"Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation," Gourevitch writes.

And that's exactly right. We need investigation and interpretation -- and the longer the public can deceive itself about the Bush White House's culpability, the longer such investigations and interpretations will be delayed.

Obama's Real-Life Justice

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 05/26/2009


Obama and Sotomayor this morning. (AP)

In nominating U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, President Obama is asserting his view that real justice is arrived at not through cold-hearted calculations made in a vacuum, but by applying the principles of the founding fathers to the real world.

Obama had already declared that the quality of empathy -- "of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles," as he put it on May 1 -- would be a key litmus test for the nomination. (See my extensive May 13 post, The Empathy War.)

The president took some steps today to inoculate himself against the conservative attack on his empathy requirement. In his announcement, he went out of his way to state that it came in third -- after a "a rigorous intellect, a mastery of the law, an ability to hone in on the key issues and provide clear answers to complex legal questions" and a "recognition of the limits of the judicial role, an understanding that a judge's job is to interpret, not make law, to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand."

Nevertheless, in his pick and his in his words, he made it clear that he is not backing away from his belief that justice is not an abstract concept, but is rooted in a full understanding of the American experience: "For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience; experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live."

Sotomayor is a moving example of the American dream in action. She would be the first Hispanic on the court, and the third woman. Her remarks today focused on her inspiring rise from a public housing project in the South Bronx to become a respected appeals court judge -- and now a Supreme Court nominee.

As Obama explained in a C-SPAN interview on Friday: "I want a judge not only to be applying the law in front of them, but also to understand that, as a practical matter, a lot of times people have weak bargaining power. Now, in some ways it might cut the other way. I want a judge who has a sense of how regulations might affect the businesses in a practical way...What I want is not just ivory tower learning. I want somebody who has the intellectual fire power, but also a little bit of a common touch and has a practical sense of how the world works."

I don't do sports metaphors very often, but in Sotomayor, Obama has picked a judge who, as he noted, "saved baseball" by decisively ruling against the owners in favor of the players in ending the 1995 baseball strike. She's not, as Chief Justice John Roberts styled himself in his confirmation hearings, just an umpire.

After all, what did Roberts really mean by "umpire"? As Jeffrey Toobin recently wrote in the New Yorker, Roberts's record is "that of a doctrinaire conservative...[Roberts] reflects a view that the Court should almost always defer to the existing power relationships in society. In every major case since he became the nation's seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff."

Barring some sort of vetting catastrophe, Sotomayor's confirmation is considered extremely likely on account of her background, the large Democratic majority in the Senate and the fact that she is ideologically not very different from the man she would replace, Justice David Souter. But that is not to say some people won't be picking fights.

As Charlie Savage recently wrote in the New York Times: "While conservatives say they know they have little chance of defeating Mr. Obama’s choice because Democrats control the Senate, they say they hope to mount a fight that could help refill depleted coffers and galvanize a movement demoralized by Republican electoral defeats."

Tom Goldstein writes in Scotusblog: "The attacks are inevitable and tremendously regrettable, just as they were for Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. A cottage industry – literally an industry, given the sums of money raised and spent – now exists in which the far left and right either brutalize or lionize the President’s nominees. Because the absence of controversy means bankruptcy, it has to be invented by both sides, whatever the cost to the nominee personally and to the integrity of the judiciary nationally."

Goldstein also takes apart the three major accusations made by Sotomayor's critics: The "first claim – likely stated obliquely and only on background – will be that Judge Sotomayor is not smart enough for the job. This is a critical ground for the White House to capture.... The objective evidence is that Sotomayor is in fact extremely intelligent.... Her opinions are thorough, well-reasoned, and clearly written. Nothing suggests she isn’t the match of the other Justices.

"The second claim – and this one will be front and center – will be the classic resort to ideology: that Judge Sotomayor is a liberal ideologue and 'judicial activist.' ... There is no question that Sonia Sotomayor would be on the left of this Supreme Court, just not the radical left. Our surveys of her opinions put her in essentially the same ideological position as Justice Souter....

"The third claim... will be that Judge Sotomayor is unprincipled or dismissive of positions with which she disagrees.... There just isn’t any remotely persuasive evidence that Judge Sotomayor acts lawlessly or anything of the sort."

Here are the fighting words from the right: Wendy E. Long, counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network called Sotomayor "a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important that the law as written. She thinks that judges should dictate policy, and that one's sex, race, and ethnicity ought to affect the decisions one renders from the bench."

In reference to a case in which Sotomayor supported the City of New Haven's decision to throw out the results of a firefighter promotion exam because almost no minorities qualified for promotions, Long wrote: "She reads racial preferences and quotas into the Constitution, even to the point of dishonoring those who preserve our public safety. On September 11, America saw firsthand the vital role of America's firefighters in protecting our citizens. They put their lives on the line for her and the other citizens of New York and the nation. But Judge Sotomayor would sacrifice their claims to fair treatment in employment promotions to racial preferences and quotas. The Supreme Court is now reviewing that decision."

Charlie Savage (again) wrote in the New York Times earlier this month about a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001: "In her speech, Judge Sotomayor questioned the famous notion — often invoked by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her retired Supreme Court colleague, Sandra Day O’Connor — that a wise old man and a wise old woman would reach the same conclusion when deciding cases.

"'I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,' said Judge Sotomayor."

Here is Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News this morning responding to her nomination: "She is a believer in identity politics to the extreme. As we heard in the quote...where she said that she would hope that a Latina woman would be more wise than a white male, it tells her [sic] what her attitude is to race and gender and these categories...Her job on the court is to be an impartial adjudicator. And if she is not, if her empathy and her concern for certain ethnicities overrides the idea of justice and equal justice, I think that is a troubling concern."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:47 AM ET, 05/26/2009

Jeff Danziger on Obama's court pick, Jim Morin, Mike Keefe and David Fitzsimmons on Obama's Guantanamo puzzle, Eric Allie on Obama's exceptions, Tom Toles on torture chambers, Jim Morin on what's on fire, Bruce Plante, John Trever and David Fitzsimmons on Obama and North Korea, Adam Zyglis on Obama's credit card deal, John Cole on Obama's fuel efficiency, Joe Heller on scary vice presidents, Ted Rall on the great healer, Garry Trudeau on Obama as cartoonist, and Ann Telnaes on Obama, Cheney and the Constitution.

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