In his most recent comedy, Sasha Baron Cohen plays an especially vile dictator — the murderous Gen. Aladeen, who lords it over the mythical Republic of Wadiya. At one point in the film, one of Aladeen’s toadies encourages the dictator to stay the course, arguing that “Gaddafi, Saddam, Kim Jong-il, Dick Cheney [are all gone]. You’re the last of the great dictators.”
It’s one of many lines in the comedy that are really funny but are no joke. When historians write about the George W. Bush years, they’ll describe them as the dictatorship of Dick Cheney, not of George W. Bush.
Whatever else one might say about W., there was at least one thing he did well. He was good at delegating authority. As a result, he made Dick Cheney dictator of foreign policy, just as he made Paul Bremer dictator of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld dictator of defense and Gen. Colin Powell office gofer and whipping boy.
For all the talk of a bad heart, Cheney worked at dictatorship with a passion, extending the range of foreign policy so that it included everything from cursing U.S. senators on the Senate floor to shooting a man in the face — and then making him apologize for being where the dictator’s gun was pointing.
About the most repulsive thing W. did was make pronouncements in public. He was the one who confirmed that the U.S. would not, in fact, follow the Geneva or the Hague treaties, or the ABM treaties it signed; that, yes, the U.S. would invade Iraq, regardless of everything. And, yes, of course, he made the greatest pronouncement of all; the one for which he’ll forever be remembered: “Mission Accomplished.”
Early on, that all seemed like pretty serious stuff. Maybe it was. When all those photos came out of Abu Grahib, we were reminded of why it is that signees follow the Geneva Convention.
But when it became clear that those horrible photographs weren’t going to change one thing in the White House, that’s when stuff got really serious. It turned out that the vice president — the dictator — was really, seriously, arguing that water torture, which has been considered one of the most horrific tortures for millennia, wasn’t torture at all and that it would be official U.S. policy to use it.
It became clear that in Guantanamo Bay, the United States really would hold prisoners, including U.S. citizens, indefinitely, without ever bringing them to trial, charging them or letting them consult with an attorney. It became clear that any member of the FBI or the U.S. Justice Dept. could come into your — yes, your — home at any time, without a warrant of any kind, and remove your computer.
Then finally, it became clear that the administration — the dictatorship — was wiretapping its own citizens’ phones without warrants. Now this was a violation of a law of Congress. Surely this wouldn’t be allowed to stand.
It stood. Congress didn’t care one little bit. The U.S. Justice Dept. actually supported the activity. And most important, the American people didn’t give a damn about it. All down the line, every institution was lined up in support of the government spying on its citizens.
If I haven’t just described a dictatorship, then shame on me. I’m either woefully undereducated or I’m misleading the reader. If I’m guilty of either of those things, I have no business writing and I certainly shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a writing classroom.
Now, when Barack Obama got the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency, a big part of the tremendous energy that developed behind that candidacy was the sense that the Cheney dictatorship was winding down. Things would be different now.
After all, Obama was an old school Democrat. Not just a liberal, but a real liberal. After all, everybody said so. He was a Chicago senator from Illinois, for heaven’s sake. The candidate must have sensed the hunger for change as much as anyone. He used the words “new” and “change” so often one might have thought he was reciting the lyrics of boy band songs.
The first signals of the new administration were good. One of Obama’s first acts in office was to say he was going to close Guantanamo Bay. Of course, as any politician knows, anybody can say anything at any time in any situation. This year, 2013, Obama said again Guantanamo Bay should be closed. As I write this, business is as brisk as ever in the country’s official institution of torture.
As Obama settled into office, European newspapers reported the torture prisons the U.S. ran or supported in Eastern Europe were still going about their gruesome business. That situation, at any rate, hadn’t gone through any sort of change whatsoever.
And Obama’s aggressive statements about Pakistan — statements he’d made often during his campaign — became aggressive, and deadly, actions. I don’t guess anybody was really upset when Obama took out bin Laden. But the drones that continue to fly into Pakistan — both our allies and Pakistan are pretty upset about those. And Pakistan itself is nothing to mess with. That’s the conventional view, at least.
Obama doesn’t use a lot of Bush’s delegation of authority style. Obama’s is a one-size-fits-all dictatorship. When he’s asked about the drones, he always says one thing: I’ll stop terrorism no matter what it takes.
I? I? What does “I” have to do with it? Is it what Congress wants? Is it what the U.S. people want? When someone says he’s doing something just because he wants to do it, what do we call that? If we’re talking about an ordinary guy, we call it bullying. If we’re talking about a world leader, we call it fascism, dictatorship, autocracy, strong-arming — something like that. What do we call it when a leader in Syria or Egypt does something just because he wants to?
Obama’s supported the repressive search and seizure measures of the so-called Patriot Act. During the Obama years, the U.S. Justice Dept. has gone to court to support the imprisonment of U.S. citizens under War on Terror measures — even when the Justice Dept. knows the citizens were wrongly imprisoned in the first place and are innocent. These bizarre federal trials in defense of unconstitutional detentions of U.S. citizens have cost taxpayers many millions of dollars in cases the government always loses.
But of course, what’s made Obama an honest-to-goodness dictator in the eyes of many is the revelation of the extent of the NSA spying program.
I remember when I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle decades ago. The book begins with the story of a Soviet informant who’s terrified to use a public phone because he’s sure his voice will be taped and identified and he’ll be arrested.
Although I liked the book very much, I was skeptical about this plot line. How could the Soviet Union — or any regime — run a spy operation of this scale? I wondered. How could they get the manpower? Was such a thing possible?
It wasn’t the Soviet Union that convinced me it was possible. It was the Obama dictatorship that convinced me it was possible. We now know that records of all U.S. calls made via U.S. cell phone plans are made available to the NSA. Information from U.S. data encryption companies is also made available, with the result that owners of some of these businesses have chosen to go out of business. According to a Sept. 5 New York Times report (“N.S.A. Able To Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web”), all encryption in the U.S. contains a “government back door called the Clipper Chip.” This, too, is a violation of U.S. law.
Now what would have been the reaction of a rational president — or any rational human being — to such a revelation? He would have said, “Of course this is absolutely unacceptable. Of course this can’t be allowed to stand. Of course this must be dismantled — yesterday. Of course. All this goes without saying.”
The response from Obama has been very different. The president has simply said, from time to time, that the spying program is accountable. And reporters have kept asking the obvious question: where is the accountability?
Like cold, confused school children in the midst of a fire drill that’s gone on too long, we’re all standing around waiting for the answer. The president says Congress keeps the program accountable. Congress? Is this the same Congress that rubber-stamped the Patriot Act; that did nothing when the federal government violated Congress’ wiretapping laws? Congress does nothing but warm its seats. It doesn’t always do that.
Obama says the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that overseas this whole spying nightmare will be made accountable. Great! What’s the evidence? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.
Finally, Obama says he’s creating a new committee to ensure the spying program is held accountable. But there are already several committees that are supposed to ensure accountability. I assume the people in these committees show up every day and put in their eight hours of work. If they can’t make the thing accountable, will a new committee be any different? Why?
Back in the day, the U.S. government could at least say that the people who spied on their own citizens and tortured their enemies were the bad guys. So much for that.
Obama may not care about all this. He may not be in the mood to do the difficult housekeeping before he leaves office. If he isn’t, the person who will suffer will be Hillary Clinton. Nagging reporters could be a much more formidable opponent for Clinton than whatever candidate emerges from the barroom brawl that is the present-day Republican Party. Liberals, leftists, democrats, armchair radicals — you name it; they’re going to want Clinton to be the one who stops the spying. Will she rise to the occasion?
Clinton is no doubt familiar with a few other well-known lines from the movie The Dictator. I’m talking about the speech the ruthless autocrat Gen. Alameen makes to the U.N.:
“Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1 percent of the people have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes and bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests.”
Would eight years of a Clinton administration mean that any of that speech would have to be amended?
All over the world, the United States is now known as the one Western country — the unique Western country — that makes spying on citizens, indefinite detention of prisoners and torture of prisoners official government policy. All Western countries may do these things to a limited degree. The U.S. is the only country that makes them all official policy — at the very highest level.
If that state of affairs goes on a whole lot longer, the U.S. may no longer be thought of as a Western country at all. The only thing that’s keeping it in the club is that great big pile of good ole American money that’s always sitting around over here. If that pile gets a lot smaller one day, we’d better hope our leaders are no longer spying on their citizens and torturing their enemies.