The Obama administration is learning fast the difference between campaigning and governing. Pre-emptory plans advanced in the campaign inevitably face undertows when the office is attained. A friend who chaired the FTC told me he was sadly surprised to find that once in power, he was tied by Lilliputians’ special interests and could accomplish only part of what he intended. Being there wasn’t as much fun as he imagined while getting there.

The issue about reforming or adopting Bush administration national defense tactics is a classic case in point. There was a debate within the administration about whether to disclose CIA interrogation tactics, according to The Wall Street Journal. Justice Department officials said yes, disavow those tactics or they become your own. Disclosure would provide meaning to the rhetoric of transparency and openness. CIA officials — no surprise — were against disclosure, arguing it would undermine the agency’s credibility. Wasn’t that done already? Detractors also feared that disclosure would provide our enemies with a propaganda tool. Haven’t they got that now; and wouldn’t disclosure eliminate that criticism (especially since the administration has already dropped torture as a way to get information from our enemies)? The Obama administration acted Solomon-like — it disclosed the past questionable tactics, but condemned them prospectively.

Justice’s position in the pending extreme rendition case at trial in a California federal court is another example. Even the judge there was surprised that the department did not change the government’s position on interposing the state secret defense in the case before it. That would have been wise, fair and consistent with the Obama administration’s preaching about transparency. Justice, so far, has not changed that policy. But it is considering doing so. Hopefully it will, and soon. Presumably some careerists may be defending the historic position while new reformers challenge them.

A third example — especially tricky — is the government’s position about taking action against prior officials. The administration wants to look forward, not backward, it says. That makes sense. But holding one’s hands over one’s eyes isn’t the height of candor. If the reason for condoning the now-embarrassed CIA interrogators is that they followed the orders of their lawyers and superiors, how come those lawyers and superiors are not held accountable? Congress has indicated it will hold hearings on these subjects, as part of its oversight function. The Spanish government is moving to bring criminal charges against prior high government officials for devising and ordering conduct that violates international human rights laws. Weren’t we joining the world with this new administration? If our government doesn’t have the stomach to do so, might the new administration acknowledge (without advocating) others’ rights to do so?

Ivan Illich once wrote to me saying that my views about prison reform were comparable to his about educational reform. Institutions operate in the interest of their administrators, not their clientele. The new administration now encounters a vast bureaucracy that it depends on for its work, one that did the work of the prior administration and asks condonation from this one, which came to office offering a change from the last. In addition, new administrations have empathy for prior opposition leaders. But that should only go so far. Former presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush work together on matters of mutual interest. It’s hard to imagine a Cheney-Biden joint effort.

How “change” truly takes place is difficult and is being tested early, and it won’t get easier.


Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.