“Hyperbole is the currency of presidential campaigns, but this year the nation’s future truly hangs in the balance,” warned the New York Times editorial board in October 2008 (10/23/08). In endorsing presidential candidate Barack Obama over John McCain, the Times stressed that the differences between the two candidates were “profound.”
On issues related to the Constitution and the rule of law, the Times editorial decried Bush-era transgressions, like “the power to imprison men without charges,” the executive branch’s “unfettered authority to spy on Americans” and the creation of “secret prisons” around the world where torture was outsourced. Although the newspaper expressed fear it would take “years of forensic research to discover how many basic rights have been violated” under Bush, Obama’s promise to “identify and correct Mr. Bush’s attacks on the democratic system” was a reassuring signal.
Once in office, however, Obama chose not to prosecute CIA officers responsible for war crimes such as water-boarding. The administration also worked assiduously to suppress Spanish legal action against high-level Bush officials who planned or directed the U.S. torture program (Mother Jones, 12/1/10). Torture remains a defining feature of the U.S. Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan (Washington Post, 11/28/09; BBC, 4/15/10), and in 2011, the CIA was shown to use a black site in Somalia to interrogate suspects held without charge (Nation, 8/12/11).
Bush’s warrantless wiretapping pro-gram, heavily criticized by the Times, is now vigorously supported by the Obama administration (Salon, 5/24/12), while the Obama Justice Department prosecutes more whistleblowers than all prior presidents combined (New York Times, 2/26/12). Although candidate Obama celebrated habeas corpus in 2008 (YouTube, 9/9/08), as president he’s launched a multipronged attack on due process: formalizing the ongoing incarceration of Guantanamo Bay inmates (Washington Post, 3/8/11), issuing secret orders to kill U.S. citizens (Reuters, 10/5/11; Guardian, 6/6/12) and fighting a federal injunction banning indefinite detention (MSNBC, 8/8/12).
Among his foreign policy accomplishments, Obama spearheaded an illegal war in Libya (New York Times, 6/21/11) and has presided over a drone bombing pro-gram that has targeted mourners and rescue workers (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2/4/12). In this hemisphere, the Obama administration strongly backed the Honduran coup regime in 2009 (NACLA, 7/30/12), and subverted democratic processes in Haiti in 2010 (Truthout, 2/9/11).
In the intervening years, it has therefore become impossible to stress the “pro-found” distinctions between the leader-ship of the two parties on such issues. The New York Times’ editorial board has had to adopt a strained posture that recognizes the similarities between Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s stances, but touts Obama’s superiority on those issues. This has the effect of legitimizing the bellicosity of both candidates.
The Times’ July 24 editorial, “The Candidates Talk Foreign Policy,” noted that Romney’s advisers “have been unable to explain exactly what he would do differently [from Obama] on many issues,” but the piece nevertheless concluded that what Romney “is offering voters on American security is neither impressive nor convincing.”
As the Times correctly pointed out, Romney’s attempt to blame Obama for minor, congressionally mandated Pentagon cuts is disingenuous (New York Times, 6/4/12). However, the editorial failed to acknowledge strong public support for military reductions (New York Times, 1/20/11).
The editorial also rejected Romney’s contention that Obama is too soft on Iran, noting with approval Obama’s “success at rallying international support behind tougher sanctions” and his clear statements that “the option of using force is on the table.” It is apparently irrelevant that top U.S. intelligence agencies have consistently found no hard evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon (New York Times, 2/25/12)—or that sanctions already cause suffering among ordinary Iranians (Guardian, 8/10/12).
While polls show 69 percent disapproval for the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan (New York Times, 3/27/12), the editorial passes over Obama’s continuation of the war to address Romney’s “serious failure” to provide further details on his Afghanistan strategy, aside from his adoption of the major contours of Obama’s policy.
And instead of highlighting Amnesty International’s demand that Obama suspend military aid to Israel due to that country’s human rights abuses (Haaretz, 2/23/09), the editorial defends Obama against Romney’s false charge that Obama has given Israel “shabby treatment.” The Times rebuts, “The administration has backed Israel in almost every way, and Israeli leaders have publicly acknowledged that.”
The Times editorial is a reflection of the constrained options the electorate now faces: Whichever leader wins, voters will ratify varying degrees of continued militarism and the curtailment of basic rights. The Times’ attempts to emphasize the candidates’ differences on these issues is, as the newspaper wrote of Romney’s platform, neither impressive nor convincing.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C., for social justice and community development. His blog for NACLA, Manufacturing Contempt, takes a critical look at corporate media’s portrayal of the hemisphere.