Bradley Manning

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I haven’t written a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. I have, however, been strongly reminded of why I originally staked out my spot as a self-proclaimed spokesperson for the moderate left, and that is because I have been reminded repeatedly that we on the left are easily organized into circular firing squads, ignoring a real enemy while fighting imagined ones. And nowhere have I been reminded that more than by the case of Bradley Manning.

Bradley Manning is not being treated well in his military jail; on that, we can all agree. He’s being subjected to degrading conditions that are not acceptable. Some on the left – mainly Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, and their posse – have decided that this is evidence that Barack Obama is exactly the same as George W. Bush – a torturer and an enemy of liberty. I have not made that leap. Not because I believe Obama to be infallible – I have made clear that I find Obama’s education policy, for example, to be completely wrong. But because I have not seen evidence presented that Manning’s treatment is uniquely bad.

Has Manning been put in solitary confinement? Had his clothes taken from him at times? Been put into Prevention of Injury status without a good reason? Yes, he has. But these are not evidence of “torture.” No, these just mean that Manning is in a jail in America, where our jail and prison system routinely treats inmates in degrading and dehumanizing ways.

That doesn’t mean I approve of Manning’s treatment. Quite the contrary: I am generally opposed to the way America treats its prisoners, and believe that we should support efforts to reform and humanize our prisons and jails. But it does mean that I don’t view Manning’s treatment in and of itself as a cause célèbre. It is a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself.

Unfortunately, anti-Obama lefties have seized on the case of Manning to argue that Obama is a gleeful torturer, one who is happily directing the degradation of Manning in order to get to the real target, Julian Assange, because…well, because, okay? Hamsher and Greenwald have amplified this message to the point where it’s become accepted fact on the left. And other data points – like Manning’s father saying Manning has been telling him that “things are just fine” – are ignored.1

The fact is that nothing so far revealed about Manning’s treatment is unusual in American prisons. It should be. And I believe we should work for the day where it is. But we haven’t seen actual evidence of torture yet. That does not mean such evidence does not exist. I am absolutely open to the idea that Manning has been tortured and punished more severely than we’ve heard. And I do – repeat – I do believe that prison guards have pushed his treatments to the boundaries of acceptable for a variety of reasons that have little to do with his risk for suicide. But I have yet to see evidence that this is being done at the behest of Barack Obama in order to break Manning. Rather, what evidence I’ve seen suggests that it’s a case of military jailers punishing a guy accused of espionage with the tools they have available.

All that said, the case of Bradley Manning is a sideline. While Hamsher and Greenwald take potshots at Barack Obama, Scott Walker and John Kasich and Rick Snyder are busily peeling away protections for working Americans. While those on the left decry the firing of P.J. Crowley, congressional Republicans are working assiduously to defund Planned Parenthood. And while FireDog Lake launches broadside after broadside against this administration, the right is trying to work its way back to power, so they can reinstate the torture policies that were de rigueur under Bush.

Even if Hamsher and Greenwald are right, Obama is a lesser evil than a President McCain would have been, or a President Huckabee or Romney or Pawlenty or Palin would be. Manning’s treatment would have been far worse under an administration that did not swear off waterboarding. If you doubt this, compare the worst abuses claimed for Manning with those visited on José Padilla. The two are not in the same universe.

Barack Obama is not the enemy. He is not perfect – God knows, I hate his education policy as much as Greenwald hates his record on civil liberties. But he is approaching America from a realistic position, and if he’s not doing enough on issues like income inequality, gay rights, and abortion rights, at the very least he isn’t actively working to make things worse.

Every Republican candidate for president wants to take the problems we face and make them worse. Every. Single. One. And if given power, they will. Look at Wisconsin. Look at Florida. Look at the bills across the country that seek to restrict the rights of women, of Latinos, of GLBTs, of unions. And remember that those restrictions are being pushed precisely because Democrats sat out last November, because Obama wasn’t perfect enough.

Well, he isn’t. And he’s not gonna be. But he’s what we’ve got. We can either accept that, or we can work against him. But make no mistake – if we devote our energy to attacking Obama between now and next November, rather than attacking Republicans, we play straight into the hands of those who would make our country a worse place. And I care too much for my country to go down that path.

1I will concede Manning’s father has his own credibility issues. But the refusal to even weigh his statements is reprehensible.