by Joshua H. Liberatore
POTUS jumped right into action after taking office last week and began spending what his predecessor liked to call “political capital,” which in the case of our sitting POTUS, actually means something. What was intriguing about the modest flood of executive orders, memoranda, and signing remarks that came through our office recently is that they hit directly at several campaign promises, though not without some controversy. In the span of just a few days, POTUS issued closure orders for the internationally-loathed Guantánamo Bay detention facility, reversed a Reagan-era restriction on development aid that funds “population planning,” beefed up emissions standards, froze salaries for White House senior staffers, put the kibosh on lobbyists’ entering government via the “revolving door,” and appointed new Special Envoys to South Asia and Israel-Palestine. A few highlights from POTUS’s first fortnight in office reveal a refreshing degree of honesty and courage.
To his senior staff, POTUS pledged to end “business as usual” regarding the spoils system by which lobbyists and lawmakers join forces to garner profits from government contracts and budgetary allocation. But he also invoked a new era of transparency and communication, which will solicit involvement and feedback from ordinary citizens, hopeful residue from his days as a community organizer:
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that Government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans – scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs – because the way to solve the problem of our time is – the way to solve the problems of our time, as one Nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives. (January 21, 2009)
A second theme was restoring the American image of fairness and rule of law around the world, the hallmarks of which will be closing the hated offshore detention center, confirming the absence of “torture” in interrogation practices, and restoration of habeas corpus for “enemy combatants”:
The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals. And all of the individuals who are standing behind me, as well as, I think, the American people, understand that we are not, as I said in the Inauguration, going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals. We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that you see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. (January 22, 2009)
Translation: Even the “world’s policeman” must behave himself. And who better to introduce such a novelty? Our new POTUS is a lawyer to the bone. In his remarks, he even began with a verbatim “readout” of the directives he was about to sign, then explained in plain, intelligible English his rationale behind them and what precisely each in turn would accomplish.
POTUS also seems to understand that patching the fractured economy and addressing our much-needed overhaul in energy procurement and infrastructure improvement can, and indeed must, go hand-in-hand:
It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil, while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs. We hold no illusion about the task that lies ahead. I cannot promise a quick fix; no single technology or set of regulations will get the job done. But we will commit ourselves to steady, focused, pragmatic pursuit of an America that is free from our energy dependence and empowered by a new energy economy that puts millions of our citizens to work. (January 26, 2009)
And unlike his two immediate predecessors, POTUS decided to begin tackling the thorny brambles of Israeli-Palestinian peace brokering in his first (as opposed to last) weeks of office, a most welcome change. And although POTUS obeyed convention by prefacing his remarks with reassertions of the U.S. commitment to supporting Israel’s “self-defense” (the recent pursuit of which has killed 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis), he also described a picture we haven’t countenanced since the days of Jimmy Carter:
Now, just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians. I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who have faced suffocating poverty for far too long. (January 22, 2009)
This is promising rhetoric indeed, especially since POTUS assures us that he expects “not just photo ops but progress that is concrete,” as he phrased it in his first exclusive, post-inaugural interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya (to the enduring jealousy of American networks). He also renewed his much-celebrated January 20-offer to engage the Muslim world on the condition that regimes in Iran and Syria “unclench” their fists.
It must be pointed out, however, that despite the unquestionable triumph evident in some of these early actions, POTUS is also taking some grave risks. Little reported in the first week of his administration was the resumption of cross-border airstrikes on Taliban hot-spots in Pakistan, a dubious carryover from the previous Commander in Chief that employs unpiloted, CIA-operated drones dropping bombs in the rugged Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border eastern Afghanistan. Such attacks, illegal by international law, killed 220 people in Pakistan in 2008, and at least 22 in Friday’s fresh strike (between 4 and 7 of whom were considered “militants”), and are understandably very unpopular with the Pakistani public, not to mention the fragile civilian government that took office just a few months ago.
There are some perfectly good reasons, in other words, that some fists appear clenched. We’d be fools to pretend otherwise. As a prominent historian has warned, POTUS would do well to remember the example of another popular President, who came into office with a huge electoral mandate and an ambitious domestic agenda, both of which got swallowed up by an ignoble, inherited war.