John Kampfner: How did Obama end up appeasing the neocons?

The President will continue to mind his conservative flank, particularly on security and law and order

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Last Saturday, as normal people were doing their Christmas shopping, I was hidden away in a Sky television studio in debate with a neocon. I was discussing the treatment of Bradley Manning, the American serviceman accused of leaking secrets to WikiLeaks, with John Bolton, one of the leading lights of the American right.

The point I was trying to make was fairly simple. As the self-professed leader of the free world, the United States should abide by the highest practices of international law. These arguments have been rehearsed incessantly over the past decade with reference to Guantanamo, renditions, Abu Ghraib and the Patriot Act. Yet the manner of Manning's incarceration has been truly horrific.

For the first 10 months after his arrest in Iraq in May 2010, Private Manning was held in solitary confinement in the Marine Corps Brig at Quantico, Virginia. There he was cooped up in his tiny cell for 23 hours a day. He was required to respond to the shouts of his guards every five minutes. At night, he was woken regularly. His detention included periods of forced nudity, which the military justified by labelling him a suicide risk.

Although conditions have improved since he was transferred to a different jail, Manning's treatment has been criticised by groups ranging from US lawyers to members of the European parliament.

It has taken place not on the watch of a Republican president, but that of Barack Obama's Democrat administration. Obama's record on a number of civil liberties areas, notably anti-terrorism and whistleblowers, is as draconian as any of his recent predecessors. The intent towards Manning has been clear: to try to "break" him so that he admits a direct link with WikiLeaks and to deter others from contemplating doing anything similar in future.

The administration's approach poses a conundrum for conservatives and liberals alike. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are vocal in criticising abuses wherever they find them; but their language towards Obama has been more restrained. The US left (or what approximates to it) fears losing what few crumbs come from the table.

The right is also torn in its reaction to Obama's hawkishness, but for different reasons. Should it praise him for refusing to challenge virtually any of the post-9/11 Bush doctrines, less still amending or repealing any of the legislation? Or should it denounce him for being lily-livered, even where he is not?

Bolton's approach fell into the latter. First, he insisted that I must be a "socialist" to air such concerns. He then betrayed his own confusion by suggesting that I had nothing to worry about as I had a "friend" in the White House by name of "O-ba-ma" – his syllable by syllable pronunciation of the president's name was disturbing.

Manning, he insisted, had committed "heinous" crimes. I suggested that, as the pre-trial hearings had only just begun, perhaps Bolton might want to endorse that basic judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty. He moved swiftly on; he reminded me that army prosecutors had indicated they would not seek the death penalty on the charge of "aiding the enemy". We should, therefore, all be grateful for such mercy.

I insisted throughout this exchange that I was not addressing the substantive charges against Manning. I was talking merely about standards in criminal justice, and would be happy to do so again on US networks such as Fox. The calmer I was, the more incensed Bolton became.

Pundits come and pundits go; on one level, this was merely a small piece of Saturday afternoon entertainment for anyone who happened to be watching. But Bolton is more than that. He was, under Bush, the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Now Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican candidates, has dangled him the post of Secretary of State, in the unlikely event of victory.

For all the troubles of the American economy and for all the disappointments and doubts about Obama, it is still his election to lose next November. The Republicans have so far failed to produce a candidate who appeals both to the party's hard core vote and the less ideological mainstream. But they still have time.

The bigger threat to those who hope to see a more enlightened US administration – one that abides by international conventions and seeks to practise what it preaches – is that Obama will continue to mind his conservative flank, particularly on security and law-and-order issues, in order to secure his second term.

The US government's response initially to the WikiLeaks publications a year ago was shrill. It subsequently tightened procedures for internal emails and documents – an important, if belated, correction – and toned down the rhetoric. The treatment of Bradley Manning in jail contravened accepted norms. His trial hardly inspires confidence.

The irony is that if, in behaving as it has done, the administration had hoped to reassure the likes of Bolton, that message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

John Kampfner is the author of 'Freedom For Sale', published by Simon & Schuster

twitter@johnkampfner; www.jkampfner.net

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